The Free and Poetic Gaze of a Rediscovered Master

in 36th Cinélatino – Rencontres de Toulouse

by Luisa Ceretto

Perhaps taking inspiration for its title from the famous Agnes Varda’s tribute to Cuba—Salut les Cubains (1963), the documentary she made during her stay there, invited by ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute), with her Leica, some cinematographic film, and a tripod—Salut les Cubains-es/Resister à l’effacement is a festival Focus dedicated to Cuban cinema. A delegation of directors attended this year’s Festival CinéLatino, accompanied by Agnès Jaoui, the President of the Toulouse Film Archive.

The Focus presented several films, among them Landrián, directed by Ernesto Darano Serrano. It is a documentary about Nicolas Guillén Landrián, an experimental Cuban director whose work was censored by Cuban Revolution. According to Serrano, “In 2019, I learned that the negatives of Landrián’s films were in poor condition and in danger of being lost forever. I spearheaded the restoration of these cursed films and made a documentary about their recovery. With my film, I hope to bring Landrián’s visionary works to the attention of contemporary viewers, and at the same time to stigmatize the injustices committed against him.”

Thanks to the collaboration of the director’s widow, Gretel Alfonso Fuente, and director of photography Livio Delgado, the documentary retraces the life and works of one of Cuba’s most and important filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Nephew of the poet, Nicolas Guillen, Nicolás Guillén Landrián was born in 1938 in Camagüey, Cuba. From 1962 to 1972, he worked at the ICAIC, as a production assistant and director of documentaries, most of which were censored and not shown until three decades later.

It is interesting to recall that at the end of the 1950s, but especially during the following decade, Cuban cinema was about to experience a period of great cultural vivacity.

The ICAIC, Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos was created on March 24, 1959; its director was Alfredo Guevara. An original and fruitful initiative by Guevara was to assign a sabbatical period to filmmakers and technicians, giving them a camera, a small team, and the necessary funding to shoot on the island. The initiative allowed the filmmakers and technicians to get to know their country better and experiment with the medium. Documentary activity was the real laboratory of Cuban directors and technicians. They started to realize and produce films and documentaries. Santiago Alvarez became the master of the original Cuban documentary school, with Cesare Zavattini and Italian Neorealism as the initial model. It was a great period not only for documentaries, but also for feature film. At ICAIC, there were Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who graduated at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome (Experimental Film Centre). In 1968, Gutierrez Alea directed Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo), based on a novel by  Edmundo Desnoes, that gained a place in world cinema and received many important prizes.

Nicolás Guillén Landrián was an inventive and free filmmaker, one of those excluded from the Revolution. The artist’s distinctive style and personality ended up clashing with the authorities of the Cuban Revolution—a style close to the American independent school, without any script work and a provocative use of intertitles in his documentaries. Guillén Landrián was accused of ideological deviation and was sent to work on a poultry farm on the Isle of Youth. On several occasions he was imprisoned and underwent electroshock treatment in psychiatric hospitals. In the late 1980s, he participated in an exhibition of dissident painters in Havana, which was broken up by Cuban State Security. He came as a political exile to the United States in 1989, with his wife, with whom he lived until his death, in Miami, in 2003.

Alongside the screening Landrián by Serrano, CinéLatino scheduled some of Guillén Landriàn’s films, a special occasion to discover them. Seven films, whose common thread is the human, in its apparently insignificant detail, but in fact infinitely poetic and free, covering the whole trajectory of this artist. We can mention some of them.

In an Old Neighborhood (En un barrio viejo, 1963) is one of his most important documentaries, which won an award at the Krakow Film Festival.  A few years after the Revolution, Old Havana seems to be a post-war city, a portrait of people who live in an old neighborhood. Without any audio commentary, Guillén Landrián decided to direct his gaze to the essential, to the human being and his habitat, or at least to his immediate reality. The film could remind us of Joris Ivens’ Rain (Regen, 1929).

Dancers (Los del baile) is a documentary about people who dance during a performance of Pello el Afrokán’s Orchestra. The film was censored at the beginning of the revolution, for showing an undesired image of Havana’s nightlife, when films were supposed to encourage revolutionary heroism.

Ociel of the Toa River (Ociel del Toa) follows Ociel, a teenager who lives near the Toa river, in the eastern part of Cuba. He goes to the school and works as boatman. It is a poetic film about dreams and death, without spoken commentary, just a few intertitles.

Coffea arabica  (Coffea Arábiga) was commissioned by ICAIC to spread the revolutionary spirit, a propaganda documentary. The director made a didactic film, but at the same time managed to betray the official proposal. The great irreverence came in the use on the soundtrack of a forbidden song by The Beatles, The Fool on the Hill, when Castro walks to a podium for a speech. The documentary was exhibited but banned as soon as the coffee plan collapsed.

Inside Downtown is the last film he made when he was in Florida, a 30-minute look at homelessness and artists which recreated life in this peculiar area of Miami. As he declared: “The film, made in Miami, is like my need to show myself that I could still make movies, even though it is a video, made totally in digital, and this was the first time I had worked this way. And it turned out… Look, this documentary took a prize. Inside Downtown won a prize in Uruguay, honorable mention. It was very hard for me at first, but then as the days went by, because the shooting process was very long, I started feeling better, more disposed. Jorge Egusquiza, the producer and photographer, told me to take up an idea that could be achieved immediately and that I should do it around my modus vivendi, with people I knew here in Miami.”

Luisa Ceretto
Edited by Robert Horton