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Guantanamera (1995) tells the story of a former teacher and wife of a bureaucrat, Georgina, whose great aunt dies suddenly in Guantanamo. Her husband devises a scheme to have different cars move the body so each province pays equally. Along the way, Georgina keeps running into her former student Mariano and by the end decides to leave her controlling husband and start anew with Mariano.
The Special Period
The 1990s were a very important and traumatic decade for the Cuban people and government. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they were left with practically no allies and no economic partners. This meant that their system would have to change to survive and many people would be hurt by these decisions. Ration cards were implemented and the American dollar was legalized. Suddenly, dollar stores sprouted up where luxury items and other basics were available, but only to those who had access to dollars. This was limited to people who had family in the United States which usually was white middle-class Cubans. Pretty soon private businesses began sprouting up everywhere with paladars (restaurants) and other tourism sector jobs. By 1996, the percentage of farms under state control went from 82% to 24% and by 2000, 22% of Cubans were employed in the non-state sector.
Because of the lack of security of skilled positions like engineers and doctors, the rate of young people seeking higher education fell and many went to the tourism sector. Tourism grew not only in Havana but ecotourism became big as well as Santeria tourism in historically Afro Cuban cities like Matanzas. Overall, the government did try to limit the amount of foreign capital entering the country as foreign companies could only enter into joint ventures wherein the Cuban government was the majority shareholder. Cuba also remained the country that spent the most on social services in Latin America. Unfortunately, even with the capitalist concessions Cuba made, the US tightened its embargo on the country with measures like the Helms-Burton Act which the UN has deemed inhumane.
El Titón: Tomas Gutierrez Alea
It would have been impossible for me to focus on Cuban cinema without talking about Tomas Gutierrez Alea. He is without a doubt the most important director in Cuban history and definitely the most prolific. Through each stage of Cuba’s revolutionary development, Gutierrez Alea made films that defined the country and intrigued the world. Initially, Gutierrez Alea studied film at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome in 1950. After the success of the 1959 revolution, Gutierrez Alea and his colleagues formed the ICAIC, a film institute dedicated to making revolutionary art for the masses. Gutierrez Alea directed the first feature-length narrative film for the ICAIC with Historias de la Revolucion which features three vignettes about the revolution including one based on a story told to him by Che Guevara.
Though his most important film from that era is Memories of Underdevelopment which told the story of a bourgeois womanizer experiencing the first years of the revolution. It received worldwide acclaim especially for its interesting protagonist and because it did not fawn over the accomplishments of the country or damn it. Gutierrez Alea continued to complicate and deepen Cuba’s image with the only Cuban Oscar nominee, Strawberries and Chocolate, about the friendship between a militant revolutionary student and a freethinking gay man. Guantanamera is, unfortunately, El Titón’s last film as he died a year later but he continues to leave a mark on Cuban film and society to this day.
Previously, African religions were not given the spotlight in Cuban cinema. Though the Catholic church faced more prosecution, the government viewed all religions as harmful superstitions so their representation was repressed. With the growth of santeria tourism, Cuba was more willing to talk about African religions as foundational to Cuban identity. This film starts with the song of the same name which is based on a poem by Jose Marti, the father of Cuban independence. By infusing the story with a Yoruba myth as well as Marti’s spirit, it asserts that African religions are just as foundational as the poems of Marti. AfroCuban faith is an integral part of Cuban history, but the film also asserts that it will be an integral part of Cuba’s future.
Throughout the film, Candido, Georgina’s great aunt’s lover, constantly sees visions of Iku, a mythical Yoruba figure. Later in the film, Candido tells the story of Iku’s role in the creation of death through a voice-over. He tells how at the beginning of the world, the gods made life, but not death and so the world became full of old people. The young ones were forced to obey their archaic laws and were very unhappy so the gods called on Iku. Iku then made it rain for thirty days and nights. When it stopped raining, the young people saw the earth was cleaner and better. Maybe this Special Period is the rain and after it is over, the young will abandon the system of old Cuba and come up with something new. It is very important that this voice-over is done after Candido, himself an old man, dies. Though he is a benevolent figure, he knows to leave the work of the future to the young, not the inept bureaucrats.
Criticisms of Bureaucracy
Georgina’s husband, Adolfo, who is aptly named, remains a figure of bureaucratic failure throughout the film. He is constantly controlling his wife. The first we hear about him is when Georgina’s great aunt remarks in a store that she should buy the dress that she has been eyeing but Georgina tells her that she won’t because her husband wouldn’t like it. When she finally buys it in an act of defiance, he calls her a slut. Mariano, her former student, serves as a great foil to him. He does not judge her past and only wants her to be happy. That is why Georgina decides to be with him by the end. Adolfo only finds adoration from his other coworkers who believe he should get a medal for his new scheme. Unfortunately, Adolfo is controlling and ineffective. His plan to move the body takes more time and after moving the body from car to car, they end up with the wrong corpse. At the funeral with the wrong body, Georgina leaves. This may not be the final stamp on Adolfo’s career but it is on his marriage.