Thursday, August 9, 2007

Nicolasito and Coffea Arábiga

Following documentary film maker Michael Moore's challenge to a debate about the American healthcare system, conservative presidential candidate Fred Thompson replied with an online video where he is seen sucking on a Cuban cigar. In this video, Thompson says, among others: "You know, the next time you're down in Cuba visiting your buddy Castro, you might ask them about another documentary filmmaker. His name was Nicolás Guillén [Landrián]. He did something Castro didn't like, and they put him in a mental institution for several years, giving him devastating electroshock treatments. A mental institution, Michael, might be something you ought to think about." [1] Of course, Landrián is a little known film-maker that only recently got re-discovered and Thompson is merely using his name in an obvious attempt to draw a parallel between the two as documentary filmmakers for his own political needs. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is what exactly was it that Landrián did that Castro 'didn't like'. Considering the fact that the majority of Cuban films were produced by the government-controlled Cuban film institute (ICAIC) it is curious to learn of a filmmaker that made a film that would upset the authorities within the very confines of this governmental institution. It would be then useful to observe the evolution of Nicolás Guillén Landrián's work across time within the framework of the ICAIC production system. In this text, I intend to show that Nicolás Guillén Landrián's work at ICAIC is characterized by an aesthetic-driven approach that gradually evolves into a frenetic and quasi-paranoid style as the themes of his films become more politicized.

Looking at both the formal and thematic aspects of select works from his filmography, I will examine Landrián's filmic evolution across time that would lead to his expulsion from ICAIC and his eventual exile to Miami. While there is continuity in Landrián's work, it can be roughly divided into the work that he has produced prior to Coffea Arábiga (1968) and work that was done following, with Coffea Arábiga serving as a catalyst for Landrián's foray into dangerous territory, territory which the authorities 'didn't like'. At first I will examine the films that he produced up to Coffea Arábiga, starting with En un barrio viejo (1963). Following this, I will look at Coffea Arábiga itself, and the circumstances surrounding its production. Finally, I will regard the implications that it had upon release, both to the filmmaker and to the state of Cuba at the time.

To begin, one can look at Landrián's work that was done prior to Coffea Arábiga from En un barrio Viejo and onward. His first documentary defines Landrián's style immediately. It is a style that is very concerned with visual aesthetic and has much in common with still-photography. His camera is often steady exhibiting very little movement other than the occasional tracking shots. One can observe very composed tableaus of an environment, with people posing for the camera and looking straight at the lens. A lot of the shots can work on their own as production stills or as veritable stand-alone photographs. Examples of this are shots of shopkeepers in front of their shops (0'04'58",0'05'02", 0'05'11", 0'05'21", 0'05'31") kids posing against a wall (0'02'02", 0'02'04", 0'02'09",0'02'16") or just random people on the street standing still and looking at the camera (0'01'00", 0'03'27", 0'04'31",0'04'34",0'05'30"). When he does choose to employ camera movement, he favors tracking shots and pans with very little handheld work. When he does employ a handheld camera, the movements are very calculated and smooth, not as smooth as a steadicam (which was only invented in the 70's anyway) but avoiding the rough handheld aesthetic that other direct cinema documentary filmmakers might employ.

This brings up an important point about Landrián's work as it compares to other documentary filmmakers in Cuba at the time. With documentary filmmaking being of such great importance in Cuba [2] one would be 'in the spotlight' as it may when making documentaries, and the implications of being seen in an 'unfavorable light' from said spotlight would be of far greater gravity than one would be in if the same were to be happening in Hollywood. It is not surprising to learn then that En un barrio Viejo was almost to be a victim of censorship, saved only by an energetic protest from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea[3]. The reason for saving it? Its similarity to another much debated Cuban documentary at the time called P.M. (1962) which was itself censured the year before. One reason for this almost-censorship is offered by the brother of one of P.M’s directors, one Guillermo Cabrera Infante (filmmaker Saba Cabrera Infante's brother) claiming that the reasons Alfredo Guevara (the then head of ICAIC) was against P.M. and Landrián were purely demagogic and opportunistic and that Guevara was the most intimate of Castro's informants and an integral member of the oppressive apparatus. He further claims that Guevara's idea of cinema was based solely on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa's (the pillars of ICAIC) notion that neorealist aesthetic is the 'last word' in cinema and Landrián's work isn't of merit because it doesn't conform[4]. Of course, these claims are to be taken with a certain grain of salt, seeing how Cabrera Infante is know for being a writer that is the 'epitome of bad taste' and described as a 'kind of literary Ken Russel'[5].

Despite all this Landrián continues to makes films. He makes several more films in which he slowly develops the elements that he will eventually use in Coffea Arábiga. In Los del baile (1965) he mixes lively scenes of dancers to upbeat music with shots of black women straightening their hair in preparation to go out, their reflection displayed in a broken dirty mirror (0'02'54") with just ambient sound in the background (as contrast to the lively music). He further goes and displays the people dancing but with slow, sad piano music as background, or interchangeably, people not dancing, sitting and looking depressed, but with fast upbeat music as the background. In Ociel del Toa (1965) he continues with the dance motif, this time displaying people dancing in a rather robotic manner, displaying serious, tired faces (0'06'41"). In Ociel del Toa he also introduces intertitles, previously unused in his films other than for the opening/closing credits. He prefers them to dialogue it seems, and while he uses them to give background on what we see in the film ("Ociel: 16 years old third grade elementary education; militiaman; from the age of 10, he has worked in the river.") he also uses them to communicate with the audience ("Have you seen Death?") and assign meaning to the images ("Death can’t be touched, nor heard nor felt.").

He further continues in combining his accumulated elements in Reportaje (1966) where the eerie, grave music starts with the opening credits and continues to accompany the opening images of a procession of farmers, a supposed burial, but details such as a crude wooden casket, the false silence of the mourners and a hidden smile at the sight of the camera (0'02'11") indicate otherwise and reveal the theatrical nature of the procession. Images of Castro alongside ones of Lenin (0'04'44") at a political rally as bored, tired faces of participants look on only serve to politicize the subject matter further. And the end, displaying a teenage girl dancing with a serious expression on her face as the critical music from the opening credits plays on, then cut to an intertitle, the only one in the film, describing the 'purpose' of this documentary in a very self-reflexive manner.

Retornar a Baracoa (1996), the film right before Coffea Arábiga, really pushes the limits both aesthetically and thematically compared to Landrián's work so far. All the elements employed so far are here, and emphasized even further. The static tableaus of En un barrio Viejo are now veritable freeze-frames or even actual stills of the subjects in the film. The editing is faster, Landrián choosing to cut several freeze frames or static tableaus of his subjects in various positions/expressions from the same angle, creating a sort of static-jumpcut that gives the film a certain frenetic-anxiety. Native rituals are mixed with religious ones yet again, creating that feeling of sacrilege present in En un barrio Viejo when the same element was used. Images of a black woman listening to a tellenovella on the radio while straightening her hair (0'07'08") are reminiscent of the same motif in Los del baile. An intertitle stating 'Baracoa is a prison with a park' is a much more direct and alarming version of the intertitles from Ociel del Toa. Then ending on a montage of working people, serious/grave faces, stills of the black woman straightening her hair all to a mix of industrial drilling/machinery sounds alongside the grave/eerie music reminiscent of Reportaje. And as finale, a black screen and only Castro's speech echoing as he encourages the people to work and 'do their duty' since they are part of a new and revolutionary mode of production (0'13'50"). This is already very politicized and visually very complex, but the highpoint of this aesthetic is achieved in Landrián's following film: Coffea Arábiga.

It might be useful to know that despite all this development in Landrián's style, all his prior films were not made to order. What that means is, he had freedom to choose his subject, he did them 'freely'. As a consensus on the part of ICAIC to accept him back after his expulsion was to place him in the 'scientific documentary' section of ICAIC.[6] What this meant for Landrián was that from now on he will be making films 'to order' meaning his subjects were chosen for him. He would be 'commissioned' to do a film about a certain subject, if he liked it or not. On top of this, the 'scientific documentary' section of ICAIC was one charged with creating what Chanan classifies as 'didactic films' which are classified as films having a 'range of topics from artificial respiration to the domestic flea, the origins of the human species, surgical operations, genetics, agricultural methods, hygene, machine maintenance, and so on'[7]. In short, he was put in the place where he could (one would think) cause the least amount of 'trouble'. It is ironic then to see that his first film in this new position was the most problematic of them all so far[8]. Furthermore, in describing the state of Cuban cinema at the time, Landrián speaks of a cinema that was filled with a certain euphoria, a euphoria that he did not have as compared to the other film makers[9]. Rather, Landrián was someone who neither listened to the revolution nor was interested in it - Leaders and Martyrs bored him[10]. When the revolution was imposed upon him however, Landrián stroke back. He was commissioned to do a film about growing coffee and it just so happens that the big coffee campaign was going on around Havana in '68. Seeing how Landrián's work was, in an almost obsessive manner, linked to the era in which it was produced[11] the coffee campaign of '68 was a perfect opportunity for him.

Most of the elements previously observed in his work return with even greater force. The intertitles now are growing on the screen, they are cut rapidly and mixed with fast editing to create an almost subliminal-message or Kuleshov effect by which we associate the words in the intertitles with the images that they precede/follow. An example is when early on in the film images of shackles and chains precede an intertitle saying 'blacks' while native/tribal music is heard in the background which make us think of the black slaves that (as a previous intertitle suggests) were used when coffee cultivation first started in Cuba. This is in direct relation to Landrián interest in race issues and the state of the black people in Cuba. In fact he comes back to the subject that he touched on before, using a sequence that he used before in his prior documentary, Retornar a Baracoa, that of the black woman straightening her hair while listening to a tellenovella on the radio. The difference here is that he follows that scene with fast-cut zoom-ins on propaganda posters encouraging the cultivation of coffee and of close-ups of other women, also with their hair done, in the process of helping with the coffee project. All the while military-style music featuring choruses and drum rolls is playing in the background. So while the sequence with the woman listening to the radio worked on one level in Retornar a Baracoa, here it works on yet another one, implying that even women are involved with the coffee plan, women much like the one listening to the tellenovella in the prior sequence, making this an almost military effort, an effort that involves (and affects) everybody.

More frantic and paranoid-like effects are the typewriter-style letters rapidly 'flying' towards the screen as an echoing and authoritative voice reads technical details about the cultivation of coffee. It is as if we get the impression of being brainwashed with the information presented to us, the letters being literally 'engraved' in our minds (and our retinas) by the sheer rhythm at which they are presented.

One could write a whole essay (if not a book) about this 17 minute film, but if there is one more point that needs to be touched upon, is the ending with the Beatles’ 'fool on a hill'. One might say that it was an almost direct attack on Castro, on his part, Landrián simply states that 'some of the officials didn't like the song, but I thought it worked very well' [12]. Again one can read into this statement as well, theorizing about it 'working well' aesthetically within the film or thematically as a critique on Castro (or both).

Regardless, the film stands as something very unique and special within Cuban cinema and world cinema as a whole. The fact that following its release and subsequent censorship, Landrián was subjected to electroshock therapy without anesthesia only serves to paint him as a martyr, thus making his film even more effective as a rare piece of government-sponsored anti-government covert propaganda. The fact that the film also works perfectly (although in a very unorthodox manner) as a didactic film about the cultivation of coffee makes it an even more unusual piece of work. Ultimately, what the film states is that if you have a message you are intent enough on delivering, any medium you chose (or that is chosen for you) can work to deliver it. While in a lot of totalitarian regimes, this kind of message is usually delivered in much subtler ways (as metaphors found in historical period films for example), Coffea Arábiga just comes to show that it doesn't always have to be that way. As the saying goes 'if there's a will, there's a way' ('Si Quieres Puedes') and while (unfortunately) sometimes that way will lead you to a mental institution and electroshock therapy, it can also lead you out of it, and Nicolás Guillén Landrián is the perfect example for exactly this sort of uncompromising way of thought. In a way, he isn't all that different than the Cuban revolutionaries that led the '59 revolution, not different than their ideals at least, if not than their ultimate implementation of thereof.

[1] Rush, Molloy, 2007

[2] Rist, 1989, p62

[3] Guerra, 2004, p226

[4] Infante, 2002, 0'9'48"

[5] Chanan, 1985, p134

[6] Landrián, 2003, p3

[7] Chanan, 1985, p203

[8] Landrián, 2003, p3

[9] Landrián, 2003, p2

[10] Guerra, 2004, p225

[11] Guerra, 2004, p227

[12] Landrián, 2003, p3


George Rush and Joanna Rush Molloy. Cuban missive crisis: Moore, ex-Sen. at war. 2007. New York Daily News. 09 Aug. 2007.

Rist, Peter. "The documentary impulse and third cinema theory in Latin America: an introduction." Cineaction n18 Fall (1989): 60-63.

López y Guerra, Humberto. Guillén el Bueno. Revista Hispano Cubana HC n18 Winter (2004): 225-227

Chanan, Michael. Cuban Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén. Interview. El cine postergado. 2003. CubaEncuentro. 09 Aug. 2007.

Cabrera Infante, Guilermo. Interview. Collection Interdite: Censuré à Cuba. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2002.

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén (Director). (1963). En un barrio viejo [Motion Picture]. Cuba: ICAIC

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén (Director). (1965). Los del baile [Motion Picture]. Cuba: ICAIC

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén (Director). (1965). Ociel del Toa [Motion Picture]. Cuba: ICAIC

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén (Director). (1966). Reportaje [Motion Picture]. Cuba: ICAIC

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén (Director). (1966). Retornar a Baracoa [Motion Picture]. Cuba: ICAIC

Landrián, Nicolás Guillén (Director). (1968). Coffea Arábiga [Motion Picture]. Cuba: ICAIC

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