A moving song for the barrio

Stories and lives after Silvio Rodríguez’ music through Havana barrios.

One of the qualities that distinguish good art is that of having double the capacity of moving us while making us think. To be more emphatic: touching our heart while activating our brain. And that is what happens at the end of the 80 minutes of the documentary Canción de barrio (Silvio Rodríguez en dos años de gira interminable) (Barrio Song [Silvio Rodríguez in Two Years of Never-Ending Tour]), by Alejandro Ramírez Anderson, a material that, while telling the story of those two first years of concerts by the renowned singer-songwriter through different Havana barrios, reveals what can be considered the hidden side of the existence of some persons living in the Cuban capital in material and spiritual conditions of painful poverty.

Moving in front of the musician, with him, or following his footsteps, this young filmmaker and photographer, also the author of the production of the documentary, approaches with an interested and open view the conflicts, frustrations, hopes, desperation and philosophy of the life of diverse inhabitants of some areas in which material scarcity prevails, so that, with that choral, sincere and heartrending voice, we can have a closer understanding of an entire existing, live universe but barely visible despite the fact that it forms part of the city, which at times is even in the heart of the city the singer-songwriter tours.

It was absolutely not by chance that in an interview by Leandro Estupiñán, when speaking about the experience lived during his tour of those “most affected,” “most humble” places of Havana, Silvio Rodríguez recognised that the tour had made it possible for him to learn that “the people are living in a bad way, very bad way, much worse than what I thought. And well, that’s a way of connecting with the reality of your country, of continuing to see for yourself how things are….” And the moving testimony and even anguishing of that reality of people “living in a bad way” has a profound impact on us from the images, stories and situations that this work of art unveils with an acute vision.

At the start of the documentary its protagonist – or he who unleashes it -, Silvio Rodríguez, explains the purpose of his task: to take a bit of art and culture to those who, frequently because of not very propitious material and spiritual conditions, cannot consume it through traditional channels. Thus the selection of the scenarios (the barrios) is not arbitrary, but rather the fruit of a meditated selection. This is why we see him moving and singing through emergent (makeshift) barrios of emigrants from the country’s eastern region, unhealthy barrios, traditional marginal barrios, settlements of sheltered people waiting for years for the solution to their housing problems, even for locations in the centre of the city or the worker district of Alamar where diverse degrees of material scarcity have become established.

The force of the images (at times of an impacting naturalism), the dynamism of the succession of opinions and life stories, have been produced in a narrative discourse of a very well handled dramatic crescendo for which the sound track, mainly sustained based on Silvio’s songs, offers a second and more impacting reading thanks to that other capacity of art, that of illustrating and reflecting life even through poetry.

There will surely be sectors of public opinion and even of cultural institutionalism that will consider as not very fortunate the making of a documentary (the Ojalá Studios and Canek Productions were responsible for its production) where the hard daily life of hundreds or thousands of Cubans in the very capital of the republic is revealed in a stark manner. Perhaps the fact that it is a cultural personality like Silvio Rodríguez who unleashes and highlights the vital situation of those Cubans prevents greater criticism from those sectors about the content of the cultural product of Alejandro Ramírez and even its exhibition being programmed – something that did not occur with a similar theme work, Buscándote Havana (Seeking You Havana), by young filmmaker Alina Rodríguez. But the truth is that until now the public presence of Canción de barrio has been limited to only three exhibitions: a premier in the Chaplin cinema, a presentation barely promoted during the New Latin American Film Festival (though the documentary competed in its category) and a last one in Casa de las Américas, for which Silvio was present as well as some of the protagonists of the audio-visual material, neighbours of those “most affected” barrios. (*)

But if one of art’s quality is, as I said, that of moving and making people think, its functions and possibilities also include that of reflecting a reality existing in a historic time and space and, to top it off, trying to make that reflection truthful and a call to sensibilities (and even responsibilities): and that is what Canción de barrio achieves (as this filmmaker previously achieved with his 2004 documentary deMOLER, winner of many prizes).

And the fact is that the reality filmed and highlighted by the artist exists apart from his own will as a creator and citizen. It is part of a social context, certainly more far-reaching and complex, but not because of this insisting on approaching a sector where painful human and material circumstances are revealed and unveiling with art that dark side of contemporary Cuban society must not be considered untimely or alarmist. Because the untimely and alarming in any case would be the very reality (so graphically defined by Silvio Rodríguez), and the option of turning one’s back or pretending to make it invisible will not make it disappear and, of course, will not contribute to its possible and necessary overcoming.

Because – I continue – while it is very difficult for art to change by itself a reality, its capacity to raise awareness about it and magnify it has an influence on the conscience of its consumers and sensitises them, summons them: to heal wounds from the past through the reflection made on what happened, to warn about a present that, as is the case of Canción de barrio, is shown as an open wound that demands attention and, in any case, to improve the future. In such a way, marginalising that art, making an effort so that it not fulfil its action in the name of conveniences or extra artistic considerations, not only contributes to leaving the reality unpunished, but to running it aground, in memory and in daily life: because the reality is there, stubborn and persistent, painful and insulting. And seeing it reflected not only can move us to tears, but rather must serve to help us to gain awareness that it is urgent to do something to change it. To change reality, of course, even with the help of art. (2015)

(*) When we were finishing the edition of this commentary we got the news, through an ICAIC publicity board, that the documentary Canción de barrio would have a national premier on January 15. Congratulations.

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