Curator: Erika Sprey
Film: Las Cosas Lindas
Director: Miguel Coyula
Year: 2017

 

This is one chapter of the longer film 'Nadie'. Read the interview with the curator Erika Sprey down here:

Name: Erika Sprey


Function: curator and researcher

What is your main interest: Political acts of transformative conversation. What is candid speech, what does it do and in what way is it different from free speech? I curate and facilitate intercultural dialogues in polarized, repressive, often highly atrophied contexts. Places where the official and unofficial discourse are out of sync, creating mutually exclusive, almost ‘schizophrenic’ parallel realities of their own. The combination of art with politics discloses dimensions that would remain imperceptible otherwise; it can create openings and even breakthroughs in often intractable, toxic situations. It is my belief that, in principle, any medium can open up these dialogic spaces, as long as it’s respectful to the different strands of the knot that tie people and issues together. Any encounter can potentially become a transformative conversation piece, if the conditions are right. 

Where do you come from/ where do you live: I'm based in Amsterdam and Brussels. I am daughter of a Dutch lawyer and a Mexican architect, who in her turn was a daughter of political refugees that fled from the Spanish Civil War to Mexico City. 

Why did you chose this film?

I’ve chosen Miguel Coyula’s webseries on Cuba poet Rafael Alcides because he has a keen sense of the political power of poetry on the hand, and the poetics of revolutionary language on the other. To my mind, he sees through the full paradox of Cuba’s system, and despite all societal and political pressures, nonetheless decides to speak candidly – and only becomes more lovable for it. Cubans are generally virtuosos in measuring, altering and embellishing their words depending on who they have in front of them. I’ve seen people turn silent or transform into different persons as soon as some member of the communist party entered the room. It’s easy to get mired by Cuba enchanting groove and ‘carpe diem’ attitude, but underneath that thin veneer, there are controlling, paternalistic eyes and ears everywhere, following every potentially critical movement of Cubans and foreigners alike. That’s the paradox of Cuba: since everyone is supposed to hold more or less the same ideological position (only recently a slightly wider range of opinions is tolerated), it’s very hard to find out where people really stand, often opting to dwell in that safe “inner refuge” with one’s innermost thoughts and opinions. Fidel Castro was very well aware of the limits of his mind control , and in a somewhat powerless move he dubbed his ultimate enemy “ideological diversionism”: the appropriation of communist and revolutionary rhetoric without the so-called true revolutionary commitment.

Alcides does not play this discursive masquarade, and he is not an enfant terrible, out to provoke or shake up the system with brash statements. He just speaks nakedly and sovereignly to Miguel Coyula’s camera, as if nobody is listening and everybody is listening – for all he cares, because he has nothing to win and nothing to lose. Candid speech doesn’t have any ideological qualms. His inner dialogue with patriarch Castro reminds me of Kafka’s “Letter to Father” in which the son settles old scores with to the person he owns his ‘life’ too. After the admiration comes the disenchantment, as he derides Father Fidel’s notorious rigidity and smothering ideological embrace, infantilizing a whole nation in the gesture. 

Despite Youtube’s low resolution, I wholeheartedly recommend watching the whole web series’ seven chapters from beginning till end. These vignettes have been integrated in a larger documentary “Nadie”, that is currently touring around all kinds of international festivals and places, winning praise and prizes along the way. Despite the great interest of foreign festivals and institutions, this film has been barred from the Havana film festival and other official Cuban institutions –  it’s deemed too dangerous and independent of a project to be even fully acknowledged by the system. Hence, another reason to go and check out this gem!

About the film and the filmmaker:
“Nadie” offers a glimpse of the poet Rafael Alcides (Bayamo 1933), who already in 1993 decided to leave important revolutionary institutions behind such as the Cuban Artist and Writers Union UNEAC and go his own way. All his novels and poetry, like La pata de palo, Agradecido como un perro and El anillo de Ciro Capote,  have been censored on the island. Nevertheless, he received in 2011 the Café Bretón & Bodegas Olarra prize for Spanish Prose and in 2015 he obtained the National Prize for independent literature Gastón Baquero. He works and lives in Cuba.

Miguel Coyula is in my opinion one of Cuba’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers to keep an eye on, especially since his next feature film, Blue Heart, must be well underway. In 2003 he made the low-tech “Red Cockroaches” (2003), that won many awards around the world and has reached a certain cult status. In 2009 Coyula was able to develop his second feature film thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship, resulting in the film Memories of Overdevelopment, a mirroring comment on the Cuban classic Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968). 

We showed "Las Cosas Lindas" in the film program of Connecting Cuba, a two day conference with two debate, interviews, art, theater and films on the future of the island in De Balie, Amsterdam. For a full program description, see: https://www.debalie.nl/uitgelicht/connecting-cuba/

The film program description in which "Las cosas lindas" featured:
https://www.debalie.nl/agenda/cinema/cuba%2c-whats-left%3f/uitgelicht/e_9782654/p_11767893

It is interesting to note that the forum of Connecting Cuba didn't create a breakthrough or opening in Cuba's highly polarized discourse as I had hoped. This event was supposed to open up a 'third space' for the emerging middle ground beyond the hardline revolutionaries on the one hand, and the anti-revolutionary dissidence on the other.  Unfortunately, the earlier mentioned present and telepresent  'eyes and ears' of the communist party lead to a lot of understandable self-censoring moves of our speakers, and many critical voices either stayed silent or just dodged the conversation altogether. As a result, the forum delivered a fascinating spectacle of revolutionary rhetorics, that with all its maneuvering, self-legitimizations and assertions could not offer a safe space to those new young critical voices. I had underestimated the fact that any space situated in an essentially other system than the Cuban would feel unsafe from the outset, especially at that very moment, only a few weeks after Fidel Castro's death. As one of the young artists said pointedly: "Cuba is not ready for a real debate. Life is happening elsewhere..." There is still a lot of work to be done for sure.

How does this film relate to the theme ‘politics and poetry’ in your opinion?
The Cuba Revolution is not only notorious user and abuser of its coveted poets, but also notions such as ‘poetic justice’ and ‘poetic glamour’ for its political self-legitimatization. Just imagine a better world is possible! While the world wide neoconservative and neoliberal forces reigned supreme - sending out the message that ‘there is no alternative’ - Cuba would stand strong and offer the living example that an other system was possible. Perhaps it was not a very successful system, but surely it was the success story that the global left needed to hear in the sixties and seventies. These poetics of revolutionary are wearing thin, and I’m highly skeptical if any poet could inspire a whole nation in these post-truth times. Cuba could be a different case though, given the regime’s unrelenting faith in and fear of its poets. It offers a partial explanation of why it is still needs to censor many of its living poets like Rafael Alcides.

Are politics and poetry (or politics and arts) two separate worlds according to you? Why / why not?
Ask a poet, and she or he will tell you that ‘every uttering is political.’ Ask a politician, and she or he will frown or laugh at you, as poetical language seems almost antithetical to the dry language of policy. However, a poet’s work should remain free and non-instrumental, just as the politics need to speak to the imagination if they don't want to close in upon themselves. Their relation reminds me often of some toxic co-dependent relationship, with some occasional and unintentional good results.

Interesting things do happen when these separate worlds become each other’s ‘uninvited guests’.  A case in point presented itself in the Connecting Cuba event: In the last debate I showed the video of artist Tania Bruguera, an interesting piece in which she announces that she will run for president when Raul Castro steps down in 2018. “Let’s use the 2018 elections to build a different Cuba,” she says, “to build a Cuba where we are all in charge and not just the few.” The video caused one panelist to deride her as a “clown” , while another panelist mockingly asked the audience something in the vein of: ‘Is she making art or making a serious proposal? If it’s art we should definitely not take this seriously.’ With that remark he only affirmed the political power of poetical acts, by default.

Besides the theme of ‘Politics and poetry’ are there any other comparisons between this artist and Ivens according to you?
In this same debate of this same event, Connecting Cuba, we showed a fragment of Joris Ivens' “Carnet de Viaje” because I thought it was essential to refer to those euphoric first years of the revolution if we wanted to establish a sensible and meaningful dialogue that evening. I often wonder what Ivens would have thought of Cuba's current situation. Perhaps I'm falling into the trap of "fallacy of authorship", but I wonder if he would have shared some of Rafael Alcides' feelings. Alcides' candid speech is a reminder that no person is unchangeable and monolithic, and that people do have the right to change their hearts and minds.

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