Gustavo Arcos Fernández-Britto is a noted Cuban film critic as well as a film studies professor at the Arts University (formerly known as Instituto Superior de Arte or I.S.A.), in Havana. Working alongside the JHU Office of Study Abroad and Center for Advanced Media Studies, Arcos helped realize the idea of a Cuban Film Fest on campus this spring. The fest premiered two films which had no U.S. distribution and had previously only been shown in the States through festival selections. Arcos brought both El Techo (2016) and Conducta (2014) with him, working alongside filmaker and JHU professor Bernadette Wegenstein to host discussions following the public screenings.The films Arcos brought with him represent creative work emerging at the edge of 2014's detente, and the reintroduction of Cuban art into the U.S. conscience.
Arcos worked as a cameraman from 1983-1986, studying cinema in Russia from 1986-1989. Since 1994, he's worked with Havana radio and television stations, as well as traveled extensively to speak on Cuban cinema. He writes for On Cuba magazine, as well as serves as a programmer at the Havana Film Festival. WJHU sat down with the critic to draw from his breadth of knowledge on the Cuban industry and individual artistic voices which have been muffled since the 1960s embargo. The interview has been translated here:
WJHU: What a great experience to have you on campus. How has the visit been, and how did you feel the screenings went?
ARCOS: Everything went well – all according to what Bernadette and the department had planned. We presented two films, with questions and answers at the end of each screening. I visited two classes and I had the opportunity to spend time with both professors and students. The truth is that I am very pleased by the attentions and positive energy of everyone that made this event successful. Also, the films were shown in rooms with great technological conditions that allowed a better reception.
As the school community discussed your work and the two films, were there any particular moments or questions that stood out to you? Anything about your visit that surprised you?
Not particularly. I have been in similar debates in Cuba and I found the points of view equally interesting. In the case of Conducta, it was a film that was widely discussed in my country and that had a variety of interpretations. Of course, here there is an ignorance about many things that happen in Cuba and the information is incomplete. The educational system in my country has a universally recognized quality, and that is perhaps the reason why some people are surprised by what this film shows. I think that, like in any country, we can see issues about the way in which we have to educate or understand the students in my country. This conflict between the world of the school and the real world, between what should be and what actually is, is a very strong conflict, and the spectator reacts according to his or her experiences. Both films approached the world of adolescents and young people, and it was good for the audience to see how much anguish, doubts, and preoccupations about the future these young people are also present here. I could see that Conducta emotionally impacted many professors here.
Your professional work grapples with issues of exile and identity in film. The films you brought are said to capture the Cuban spirt, in a way that Americans may have not been exposed to or understood before. Do you have a personal connection with plot points, characters, or themes in these particular films?
For 17 years, I have worked directly with young artists who are between 18 and 30 years old. I have a son and nieces who are studying now, and I know what happens in my country in the educational environment. I believe that I know what many of the anguishes and obsessions of the young people are. The vacuum and the hopelessness that these two films represent are real. Unfortunately, in Cuba there has been widespread emigration for several reasons, and the majority of these emigrants are young people. In Cuba, officially through the state institute of cinema and in alternative ways, thanks to the possibilities that technology offers, many films and shorts are produced. These films deal with issues of emigration, solitude, familiar ruptures and quotidian difficulties. It is a shame that two countries that are so close and that have a similar cultural history have been opposed for so many decades. For this reason, there are ideas that manipulate reality on both sides. Cinema, art, dialogue and these kinds of exchanges help us to comprehend each other and, hopefully, to respect each other.
Cuba’s social and economic infrastructure is unstable, with technological struggles, class gap, and corruption – what role does art/film play in making positive change? What responsibility do artists or journalists have to interact with the rest of the world and spread knowledge about life in Cuba?
Yes, there is some of that and more. But…which country of this world does not have inequality, corruption, lies, insecurity or instability? Cuba is usually seen through a magnified. Everything that happens there is exaggerated, as if those things did not happen every day in other countries, including the U.S. I don’t think artists or journalists have this responsibility. They are not saviors or messiahs. But with their actions, texts, research, works and creations, if they are honest, they can make the audience aware of what is going on around them. If they construct their work on the basis of lies and aggressiveness, they won’t help. Art is not only directed to the spirit or to representations of beauty, but it also exposes us to the shadows of this world and, if possible, offers us some light.
What is the greatest difficulty that stands in the way of bringing Cuban cinema to U.S. audiences, or visa versa? Do you think this exchange will become easier in coming years?
It is the same difficulty that all foreign films have. It’s difficult to put a movie from another country into theatres in the U.S. that are controlled by the interests of the majority. It’s not about showing a movie in five theatres in the biggest cities, but really about giving Americans the possibility to appreciate a major offering of the world’s images and history, told through other voices. Films are, like other cultural products, goods that are offered, sold and bought. They need: markets, channels of distribution and exhibition spaces. The internet and its diverse platforms to download or watch films is changing this system, and now it could be easier to put a film or a short in front of particular audiences. Countries like Cuba have to utilize or explore all of the routes to take so that their culture is recognized. This way of inserting Cuban films into universities is a way of making them visible. And in the U.S. there are hundreds of universities, so this is something that could be taken advantage of to circulate our films. The improvement in diplomatic relations between our countries should mean a growth in the exchange of our artistic works.
How is the music, scoring, or sound in Cuban cinematography/film different from that in America, or elsewhere?
Well, cinema in the U.S. accounts for the best film technologies and studies in the world. It’s a very developed industry that generates a huge income and attracts the best experts on the planet. We don’t have the possibility of making material with many audio or visual digital effects. There is a group of softwares and platforms that need licenses to be used, and given the permanence of the embargo against Cuba, our designers and technicians cannot use them. The majority of postproduction work that must be done in our films - such as audio and light correction - is done outside of Cuba, and producers have to include this expense in their film budgets. I would also like to point out that while it is important to have a film with high technical quality, it is more important to have a good story. You can have the best camera in the world and nothing to put in front of it. Many works of art have emerged out of crises and deficiencies because they stimulate creativity.
Are there any particular, new directors who students should look out for? Do these directors come from established arts programs or the creative underground?
In Cuba there are two film schools. One, Facultad de Medios Audiovisuales de la Universidad de las Artes, is where I teach my courses. The other, Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV, is where Cubans also study, though it has a different conception with a larger presence of foreign students. We have many talented directors, men and women, who show their energy in shorts and documentary films. To mention a few, there is Carlos Lechuga, Carlos Machado, Damian Sainz, Armando Capo, Pavel Giroud, Miguel Coyula, Marcel Beltrán, Jorge Molina, Heidi Hassan, Esteban Insausti, Alejandro Brugues, Patricia Ramos and Marilyn Solaya. They all make up a generation that has driven Cuban cinema for the past 25 years and that have equally used institutional spaces and alternative ones.
What is your favorite Cuban film of all time? What is the #1 film you would recommend JHU students watch?
My favorite film is Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment). It was released in 1968 by our best director, Tomas Gutiérrez Alea. If I were to recommend a film, I would say one of Alea’s, La muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Beaurocrat) or Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate). Also, the documentary films of Santiago Álvarez and Nicolás G Landrián. In recent years, Video de familia (Family Video) directed by Humberto Padrón, Nada (Nothing) directed by Juan C Cremata, or La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle) and Madgascar, both from Fernando Perez. Last year we had Santa y Andrés directed by Carlos Lechuga, a work that was censured in Cuba but that was exhibited at festivals around the world.
Translated by Liliana Galindo Orrego and Sara Maria Jones
By Jessica Moog on June 1, 2017, 12:15 a.m.