El Mégano: Cuban Film’s Political Blueprint

Para la versión en español, clickea aquí

Synopsis

El Mégano (1955) is a short docudrama that portrays a coal mining town south of Havana prior to the revolution. The first half focuses on the routines of these workers while the second half portrays a dramatic confrontation between the men and the landowners.

In most countries across Latin America, European influence in the political sphere, as well as the cinematic world, was taking over. Italian Neorealism was very popular in every cinematic society in Latin America, but there is no clearer throughline than in Cuba, especially when we look at the careers of the country’s most prolific collaborators, Julio García Espinosa and Tomas Gutiérrez Alea.  Gutiérrez Alea directed the first feature-length narrative film for the ICAIC with Historias de la Revolucion and went on to direct classics like Memories of Underdevelopment and the Oscar-nominated Strawberries and Chocolate

Meanwhile, García Espinosa directed the Felliniesque classic Las Aventuras de Juan Quin Quin which parodied past cinematic styles and was at the time the most successful Cuban film ever made. A symbol of New Cuban cinema, he even served as director of the Havana International Latin American Film Festival. These two pioneers of Cuban cinema got their start in Italy. In the 1950s, they traveled to Rome and enrolled in a course at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia which, at the time, was a hotbed for Neorealist filmmaking as well as theory. There, they had access to an impressive library of films, a new genre to study, and they even met Vittorio De Sica himself.

Fulgencio Batista

El Mégano was made shortly after their return when Cuba was ready for a neorealist portrayal. Prerevolutionary Cuba was a society marred by deep inequalities. In the countryside, seasonal sugarcane cutters were virtually unemployed 8 months out of the year. American businessmen and gangsters opened private clubs, beaches, and hotels which were closed off to the black population of the island. The country’s social problems were compounded by the fact that since achieving independence in 1902, they had not had a stable government. The 1933 protests and rebellions which were motivated by a need for a free and fair democracy, only resulted in General Fulgencio Batista’s rise to power. The government was corrupt throughout his reign but reached new heights in 1952 when Batista led a coup after his electoral loss. He destroyed any hint of democracy on the island and as writer Carlos Alberto Montaner puts it, “opened a Pandora’s box… Institutions no longer mattered.”

With this mix of everyday misery as well as the dramatic political shifts taking place in the country, El Mégano’s structure had to reflect this. The first half of the film plays like a straightforward documentary. The directors depict the removal of the wood from the river, its transport to the charcoal ovens, the burning of the wood, as well as the shacks that the workers live in. It presents itself as an unbiased, observational piece about the daily lives of these workers. They are not there to promote an agenda, but simply to document these people’s routines. It bore the hallmark of Neorealism in its depiction of everyday reality, of poverty among the disadvantaged classes, and its use of non-professional actors as well as sparse dialogue.

El Mégano

The second part of the film is where we see these men’s ideologies seep in. What starts as a mere documentation becomes a dramatic struggle. The hard routine of these workers is interrupted by powerful figures paddling by on boats. The first of these unwanted visitors is the landowner. Immediately when he arrives, the filmmakers ditch their naturalistic tone and dramatic and suspenseful music begins to play. Their entrance is similar to that of an alligator or any unwanted creature. They only exist as dangerous beings with a lust for blood. 

The other unwanted visitor that appears in the swamp seems more benign but is actually just as harmful: the bourgeois tourist. As they paddle past the swamp, they seem nice and well-dressed. They smile, take pictures of the peasants, and then leave. The camera lingers on the peasant woman they waved at. She seems happy to wave back at them, but when they leave, she slowly begins to frown. She feels exploited by the short interaction and the flash of their camera felt invasive. We see these bourgeois tourists one last time, after the workers have rebelled against the landowners. In the midst of all this turmoil, the bourgeois tourists come back, smile, and take yet another photo. These interactions are probably the most important and radical of the film. They may mean well, but these tourists are extremely exploitative. And they may think they’re smart, but they’re entirely oblivious to the downfall of their own society. 

Considering this as well as the fact that the landowners subsequently buy off the workers, you would think that the directors feel that all is lost for Cuba. However, there is still a hopeful air in the film, specifically in how they view the future generation. Throughout the film, a young girl appears and reminds the workers what they are living for. In the middle of their routine, she comes in to dance and sing, connecting them to their traditional guajiro culture. Even when the workers get bribed, she appears again, almost like their conscience. The future is compelling these workers to do the right thing. The next shot after seeing this little girl shows the leader of the rebellion gripping the worthless credit slip bribe and closing in on his defiant face. The fight is far from over.

El Mégano

This was a powerful and dangerous message for Cuba. Soon after being screened at the University of Havana, the film came to the attention of the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar of Batista’s government. It was impounded by the military and García Espinosa was held in custody and was told to hand in the film within 24 hours. El Mégano may not be as well known as post-revolutionary Cuban films, but it is certainly just as important. Through its mix of genres and cutting propaganda, Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa created Cuban film’s political blueprint.

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