Cuban Classics, Part 1

by Peter Rist Volume 9, Issue 4 / April 2005 9 minutes (2045 words)

El Megano

Origin: Cuba (1955)
Production: Moises Ades
Direction: Julio Garcia Espinosa; assisted by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Jose Massip
Screenplay: Espinosa, with the collaboration of Alea, Massip and Alfredo Guevara
Cinematography: Jorge Haydu
Editing: Espinosa
Sound: Luis Newhall
Music: Juan Blanco under the direction of Manuel Duchesne Cuzan
Running Time: 20 minutes

Cast: The inhabitants of El Megano in la Cienaga de Zapata: Pastor Alvarez, Cheo Lazo, Arencibia San Judas, Sibila Lazo, Maria Leila Lazo, Berto and Nelson Alvarez, Sixto Cruz, Eusebio Lazo and Maria Martinez in the role of the tourist.

El Megano is the most important precursor to the films of revolutionary Cuba. A number of the key personnel involved in the making of El Megano became pre eminent figures of Cuban cinema in the 1960’s, notably Julio Garcia Espinosa, the film’s director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Jose Massip and Alfredo Guevara, the first head of ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). And, the print of El Megano that was screened for the very first time at the University of Havana was seized by Batista’s police, who also arrested Espinosa for interrogation.

Julio Garcia Espinosa worked in theatre and radio before travelling to Italy, where he gained a clearer understanding of Marxism. In an interview with Michael Chanan, he revealed that his meeting with the leading (non) actor in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) Lamberto Maggiorani encouraged him to think about the relationship between politics and art. While Espinosa was inspired by the form of Italian Neorealism he was struck by how miserable Maggiorani’s life had become after the film’s success. Indeed, though El Megano has been praised as Cuba’s first work of neorealism, its filmmakers clearly tried to present a more politicized approach than their Italian predecessors.

Actual charcoal burners and their families from the Zapata swamps were employed to act out their own lives on screen. Although El Megano has a narrative structure, this use of authentic non-actors allied with other neorealist elements: location shooting, inclusion of de dramatized episodes of diversion such as children playinq, non synch sound, and grainy 16mm film stock. These elements contribute a documentary flavour to the work. At the beginning of the film, while a group of tourists form a water borne hunting party, the local peasants are shown to be dredging the rivulets for roots and placing them on a triangular pile, awaiting the charcoal burning process. On the one hand this material functions as a kind of instructional film, but, on the other hand, we come to appreciate how unpleasant and grueling the work is, especially where children are involved. Early on, the landowner is shown to be associated with money and when the workers’ dark skinned leader defiantly confronts him, discarding a worthless credit slip, we understand that a consciousness raising has occurred amongst the peasantry. When, at the end of El Megano, this action is repeated in close up, accompanied by the shot of the same man’s defiant face, we interpret that he will lead the burners against the plantocracy.

Inspired perhaps by earlier documents of the under classes such as Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread (1932) and Joris Ivens’ Borinage (1933) as well as Italian neorealism, El Megano is the prototype both for Latin American political documentaries which show the real miserabilia of peasant life, such as Fernando Birri’s Tire Die (Argentina, 1958) and Marta Rodriguez/Jorge Silva’s The Brickmakers (Colombia, 1972) and for the fusion of documentary and fiction in ICAIC productions of the 60’s and 70’s. Made and shown clandestinely under the brutal Batista regime, El Meqano is a remarkable film in its own right. But it also stands as a model not just for Cuban revolutionary filmmaking but also for all the new waves of leftist production on the South American continent.

La primena oaroa al machete (The First Charge of the Machete)

Origin: CUBA, 1969
Production: Miguel Mendoza, for ICAIC
Direction: Manuel Octavio Gomez
Screenplay: Alfredo del Cueto, Jorge Herrera, Julio Garcia Espinosa, and Gomez; from story by Gomez
Cinematography: Jorge Herrera
Art Direction: Luis Lacosta
Editing: Nelson Rodriguez
Sound:Raul Garcia
Music: Leo Brouwer; songs by Pablito Milanes
Distribution, USA: The Cinema Guild
Running Time: 80 minutes, also listed at 84 mins.

Cast: Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Adolfo Llaurado, Idalia Anreus, Carlos Bermudez, Julian Martinez, Omar Valdes, Eduardo Moure, Raul Pomares, Ana Vinas, Felipe Santos, Alfredo Perojo, Eslinda Nunez, Eugenio Hernandez, Miguel Benavides, Pabl(it)o Milanes, Rigoberto Aguila, Aramis Delgado; and with the participation of (in alphabetical order), Luis Carreras, Jose M. Castineira, Aide Conde, Rene de la Cruz, Raul Equeren, Roger Ferrer, Daniel Jordan, Gabriel Lopez, Miguel Lucero, Luis M. Martinez Casado, Miguel Navarro, Frank Negro, Juan Troya, Julio Vega.

Manuel Octavio Gomez was one of the most prolific Cuban film directors during the first years of the revolution, having already made nine documentary shorts and two fiction features (as well as an episode in another) before directing La primera carga al machete in 1969. It is one of the most experimental films made in the generally experimental aura of late 60’s ICAIC, combining documentary form with an extreme stylization similar to that of the first part of Solas’ Lucia which preceded it. Also like this same film, Machete was made in celebration of 100 years of revolutionary struggle in Cuba, being set in Oriente province during 1868.

Gomez was born in 1934. He studied journalism, advertising, theatre and sociology. He followed the first of these disciplines as a vocation by writing film criticism for the Cuban daily newspapers, La Tarde and Diario Libre. He also became one of the founding members of the “Cine Club Vision” and after the revolution he was involved in ICAIC from its very beginning. In 1959 he directed his first short documentary film there, El tejedor de varey and in 1962 he made the important, medium length Historia de una batalla, linking the victory over invasionary forces at la playa de Giron with the great Cuban literacy campaign. In 1965, Gomez directed his first feature, La salacion about a young couple affected by the Cuban revolution, and two years later he directed the somewhat feminist work, Tulipa starring Idalia Anreus and Daisy Granados. Michael Chanan situates Tulipa half way between Tomas Guiterrez Alea’s La muerte de un burocata (1966) and Garcia Espinosa’s Las aventuras de Juan Quin Quin (1967), in being fairly experimental. But with Machete, Gomez became a truly experimental filmmaker, a position he would maintain until the end of his career.

La primera carga al machete is made as if movie cameras existed in 1868. In this it follows the British filmmaker, Peter Watkins who with Culloden (1962) provided a radical view of British history enhanced by a cinema verite approach. Gomez, though, took the notion a step further by reworking the filmstock on the optical printer to both artificially age the image and render the viewing process difficult. For much of Machete, the camera is hand held, often blurring the semi wide screen, high contrast image, so that a highly original, and strange visual style, combined with interviews and voice over narration on the soundtrack, creates a highly disturbing effect. The film documents an episode of the battle between Cuban rebels and the Spanish army, when, on the morning of October 25, 1868, the captured town of Bayamo was defended by the Dominican Maximo Gomez and his machete wielding troops. Rather than strictly record the battle in linear narrative sequence, Manuel Octavio Gomez chose to present the incident through a series of documentary style film essays. The film begins after the battle with an off screen interviewer asking defeated Spanish troops about their assailants. This material is immediately contrasted with the opinions of a group of Cuban sympathisers and a flashback then occurs, together with a shift in locale to Havana. Here a man seems to function as a kind of infiltrator/catalyst, challenging the inhabitants to reveal their allegiances. The complex structure is continued with an “instructional” section on the machete followed by a series of interviews with rebel soldiers constituting a search for the character of the leader from a foreign land, Maximo Gomez. After a segment where Spanish officers are interviewed, the action culminates with a long observational sequence of the battle, where the viewer is left to figure out strategy and development for itself (without the aid of a voice over).

Clearly, the ultimate effect of the disparate materials included in Machete is to present a positive portrait of the revolutionary struggle. But, along the way, the audience is invited to reflect on the events from a number of different positions, and a real distance is built between the audience and film’s characters. Indeed, the approach is both Brechtian and ambiguous. For example, at the very beginning of the film, it is almost impossible to decipher whether or not one is looking at positive or negative stock. The image is almost literally black and white, and pure grain. Gradually one can detect the figure of a man playing a guitar. It is Pablo Milanes and he is singing the song of the machete (which becomes a musical motif). Then in the film’s first sequence, it isn’t clear initially that the interviewees are Spanish loyalists. They are extremely critical of their antagonists, likening them to animals, so that a very negative impression of the Cuban rebels could easily be installed in the audience.

Throughout Machete it is extremely difficult to identify the protagonists. In fact, the characters who are viewed the clearest are the Spanish officers, when they pose “classically” for the camera. This is the only time in the entire film that a normal range of grey tones can be observed and it is also the sequence where the camera is steadiest. When it moves, it appears to be mounted on tracks rather than hand held. Apparently, the filmmakers are associating a rigid, traditional and, thus ironically, an accessible style with the colonial forces, whereas, a dynamic yet chaotic style is equated with the revolution. Identification with key characters on the Cuban side is also denied the spectator. The sequence on the “search” for the character of Maximo Gomez is emblematic of the film’s Brechtian distanciation. An off motion shot of a riderless white horse is used as punctuation between interviews and to represent the military leader, who is only shown once, right at the end of the sequence, from the back. Thus, the “portrait” of Maximo Gomez can only be constructed from verbal testimony, and glimpsed as an unclear image.

At the end of La primera carga al machete, during the charge of the title, the stylization is so extreme that it is almost impossible to see any action clearly, echoing the film’s opening. This is just as well, since the battle is depicted as being particularly brutal. Though Manuel Octavio Gomez chose to celebrate the concept of revolution through the depiction of a conflict won against the odds, employing a truly indigenous (3rd World) technology –the machete– he refused any easy identification on the part of the viewer with the warriors and any enjoyment of the bloodshed. Brilliantly he found a way to follow Julio Garcia Espinosa’s guidelines for an “imperfect cinema” while simultaneously championing the documentary and forging an energetic, passionate personal style.

Manuel Octavio Gomez (1934–1988)


El tejedor de yarey, short; Bibliotecha Nacional, short

El agua, short; Cooperativas agricolas, short

Una escuela en el campo, short; Guacanayabo, short

Historia de una batalla (Story of a Battle), 33 minutes

Cuentos de Alhambra, medium length

“El Encuentro,” sketch of Un poco mas de azul, fict. feat.

La Salacion (The saltings), fiction, 77 minutes (released: June 27, 1966)

Tulipa, fiction, 93 minutes (rel.: October 19)

Nuevitas, short
La Primera Carga al Machete (The First Charge of the Machete) fiction, 80 minutes (rel.: April 14)

Los Dias del Agua??(??Days of Water), fiction, colour, 110 minutes (rel.: July 12)

Ustedes Tienen la Palabra, fiction, 103 minutes (rel.: March 21, 1974)

La Tierra y el Cielo, fiction, 87 minutes, colour (rel.: March 1, 1979)

Una Mujer, un Hombre, una Ciudad (A Woman, A Man, A City), fiction, colour, 99 minutes released: March 23)

iPatakin! (Quiere Decir iFabula!), fiction, colour, 108 min. (rel.: December 22, 1983)

El Senor Presidente, fiction, colour, 100 minutes (rel.: November 22, 1984)

Gallego, fict., col., 128 min. (rel.: February 25, 1988)

(note: all films are documentary, unless otherwise noted)

Cuban Classics, Part 1

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 9, Issue 4 / April 2005 Film Reviews   cuban cinema   cuban revolution   cuban shorts   documentary   el megano   julio garcia espinosa   la primena oaroa al machete   manuel octavio gomez   political   reviews_several_films