A return to the Rex Cinema?

For Cubans the ritual of going to the movies is increasingly more remote.

Cinemas are agonising. Many have closed their doors. Others, for economic reasons, reduce their showings to the minimum. Cinema lovers, that invincible species, have to seek refuge in small clubs or in the privacy of their homes. The majority of the persons are not worried about such things, it’s better to take home in your pocket the hard drive with the “weekly package” that at the same time frees them from the television’s greyness, from the whims of urban transportation and from the nuisance of some movie halls with out of order ACs, falling apart seats and uncertain schedules.Thus, going to the movies is becoming increasingly more remote, but at the same time is affecting a particular genre: the Cuban documentary, which is thus losing the privileged space to be shown for captive viewers. Though national television has some programmes which exhibit shorts made on the island: Arte 7, De cierta manera, Pantalla documental, those persons who do not attend specialised events like the Exhibit of Young Filmmakers or the Almacen de la imagen (Image Warehouse), are beginning to divorce themselves from the evolution of a genre that has had particular relevance in Cuban cinema, be it the complete series of the ICAIC Newsreels directed by Santiago Alvarez as well as very diverse independent pieces: El arte del tabaco, Vaqueros del Cauto, La herrería de Sirique.


Among my most distant memories, around 1964 – I was in kindergarten – is the arrival of the mobile cinema to my school for a special projection. I can remember the heat and darkness in that room in which all the centre’s students were crowded, with their eyes glued to the screen that seemed enormous to me and where a Newsreel started being shown that I don’t know why I insist in remembering that it was “in colour.” It featured Fidel and Nikita Khrushchev greeting enthusiastic masses. Was it really Khrushchev? Who knows? I don’t know if the film was the main course of that session. The rest of the day has dissolved in my memory.


In those days a cinema showing was much longer than nowadays. In addition to the principal feature length there was the Newsreel, a documentary and some animated cartoons. I remember that sometimes whoever took me to the cinema tried to find out the exact time the film would start to do without the other projections, but I didn’t accept missing the cartoons – those already damaged copies of Porky Pig or Woody Woodpecker, which almost always had lost the end – for which like it or not my eventual companion had to attend the entire session.


Perhaps the good Cuban documentaries are not so remembered due to the singular characteristics of their showing: they were always subordinated to a feature length that was absolutely alien to them. On the other hand, the public did not choose them: the people decided to go to the movies to see The Black Tulip, Cartouche, The Man from Rio or Dios y el Diablo en la tierra del sol. That was what was announced on the billboards, the photos and even the yellowish slips distributed free of charge with the week’s programming. The rest was stuffing, so it was not strange for some to go out to the lobby to smoke until the film started, or looked at the screen in a distracted way, since they had paid to see “the rest”. At times veritable scandals emerged in the dark hall and they demanded that the projectionist cut “that” and start putting on the film, though those things rarely occurred, since it was obligatory to put on the entire programming.


Only a few, among them myself, who because I was child was not prejudiced, could abandon ourselves to the darkness of the offer of shorts. Many of them have dissolved in my memory, of others I keep pieces. I have been able to identify several of them years later, thanks to critic and researcher Juan Antonio García Borrero, who published on his blog a list of cinematographic productions in Cuba during the 1960s.


For example, I remember the impression a piece by Octavio Cortázar which I have never seen again had on me: Acerca de un personaje que algunos llaman San Lázaro y otros llaman Babalú, made to explain in a more or less didactic way that syncretised Christian devotion. The fragment it takes from an old film in which the resurrection of the evangelic Lazarus appears, as well as the interview with Father Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, at the time rector of the San Carlos Seminary, in years in which the members of the clergy were practically invisible in the public space, marked my sensitivity as a Catholic child and made me ask myself questions about that mysterious thing I couldn’t define, the so-called “popular religiosity,” something that still interests me.


I confess that some pieces influenced me because of their brevity and eloquence, as happened with two works by Santiago Alvarez: Ciclón from 1963 and the paradigmatic Now from 1965. In certain cases, the subject interested me because it completed my readings and information obtained in another way, as happened with María Cervantes by Roberto Fandiño, a work about which I can’t remember if it was good or bad but that helped me get to know a figure whose interpretations I had been able to enjoy thanks to the TV program Album de Cuba.


I reserve a special space for that small jewel that is Cuentos del Alhambra, created in 1963 by Manuel Octavio Gómez – which I saw a while later – because not only did it give me a lesson about that legendary temple of the vernacular theatre but also helped me to form an entire image, more or less mythical, of the Cuba of the 1920s. I bit further on in time, when I was already a university student, after revisiting that documentary I wrote the poem “Una antigua vedette que lloraba” derived from the pathetic image of Luz Gil, interviewed in the documentary, which I included in Carta de relación, my first published book.


In other cases, my memories are more diffuse. I confess that it took me decades to find out who Nicolás Guillén Landrián was and appreciate – only in an academic projection – his always young Coffea Arábiga, but I have a faraway and pleasant memory of another of his productions: Retornar a Baracoa from 1966, while a strange animated cartoon by Tulio Raggi: El poeta y la muñeca, produced in me a singular sensation in which the strange and something like the discovery of the poetic on the screen were mixed.


The 1960s were the most generous and audacious for Cuban documentaries and only the subordinated position of the genre made them be seen as inferior to the fiction feature lengths of the time. In fact, little by little the classics are being rediscovered or are seen with new eyes, whether it is Historia de un ballet by José Massip or that very singular Giselle by Enrique Pineda Barnet. It’s not strange that in the foreign archives themselves a rabbit from those years sometimes jumps out, as happens with the documentary Cosmorama, also by Pineda, whose character as a precursor no one can discover in the faraway 1964 and that a few years ago was a complete revelation in the New York Museum of Modern Art.


There are still pieces waiting to see the light again, perhaps, to surprise us, it is the case of Minerva traduce el mar – a short by Humberto Solás and Oscar Valdés made in 1962, for which José Lezama Lima especially wrote a poem and about which no one is sure if it was presented publicly, but whose localisation is expected so it can be shown sometime.


Why did that stage of curiosity, experimentation and free art have to degenerate later into the visual coarseness and a didacticism lacking intellectual interest? Perhaps it is something else the “grey quinquennium” is to blame for. Just in recent years, thanks to young filmmakers, the documentary is again current, innovative and even provocative.


Perhaps because I am already over 50 years of age the new distribution channels seem insufficient to me and I continue nurturing an old dream, even though everyone tells me that it is as impossible as reopening the bookstore of the Habana Libre Hotel or reviving the Carmelo Restaurant on Calzada Street. Will we ever return to the Rex Cinema or to some similar space where shorts are exclusively shown for that public, perhaps an elite but faithful, who again enjoys a Cuban or foreign classic or is surprised with the discovery of new names? I confess I would like to again enter that hall, whose smell I still remember and let myself fall into one of those comfortable chains to see again Color cubano, Alicia or Mujer ante el espejo. Each person has their dreams. (2016)


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