Dossiers: Ernest Hemingway in 1960s Cuban cinema

Fausto Canel made in 1962 the first Cuban documentary on Ernest Hemingway. Preceded only by television reports, Hemingway is the first short film that started to bring Cuban cinema and the American writer closer together.

Miryorly García Prieto
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2012-02-21

Fausto Canel made in 1962 the first Cuban documentary on Ernest Hemingway. Preceded only by television reports, Hemingway is the first short film that started to bring Cuban cinema and the American writer closer together.

Awarded First Prize(1)at the Fourth Latin American Cinema Review of Sestri Levante, Italy, in 1963, this audiovisual material became the exponent of 1960s documentary making, the golden age of the genre in Cuba.

The 1960s represented a turn of page for Cuban art, both for the institutional changes imposed by the new historical moment and for the oxygenation of the aesthetic and artistic languages that took place in the face of new influences of Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, and Soviet and free cinemas. It was a decade marked by the construction of a new collective imaginary representing the emerging mythology of the Cuban Revolution as well as by constant formal experimentation to achieve contemporary cinema, which addressed emerging issues in a new way. In the words of Alfredo Guevara, the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) outlined guidelines that defined revolutionary Cuban cinema as: artistic, national, nonconformist, cheap, commercial (not to the detriment of art), aimed at an educated public and to the masses, and technically finished (2).

Momentous in the creation of a different way of seeing and representing reality, the documentary industry was filled with names like Santiago Álvarez, Fausto Canel, Jorge Fraga, Manuel Octavio Gómez, Alberto Roldán, José Massip, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Nicolás Guillén Landrián, Julio García Espinosa, Humberto Solás, Octavio Cortázar, Rogelio París, Pastor Vega and Sara Gómez, among others. The influence of Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens, Román Karmen and Chris Marker encouraged the talent of Cuban producers. Each audiovisual proposal became a complex product, in which the poetic art of its author with the mark of the period, and the pursuit of the national with the assimilation of the foreign, interacted.

The work Hemingway, by Fausto Canel, displays the creative freedom and the aesthetic premises that enriched Cuban documentaries of those years. The wise concatenation of images and sounds coming from various sources (pictures, movies, television reports ... which acquire new meaning within texts, all of them full of complex sound and visual figures, of a high degree of connotation) is the most outstanding element, which makes them become a vital rhizome of inter-texts. Added to this are: the depth of messages, which makes the cognitive function of the proposal prevail; the meticulous aesthetic treatment of images; the effective use of the soundtrack to create atmospheres; the compelling focus that overlaps the subjective to accentuate the author’s point of view; and the omniscient, to impose that viewpoint as objective truth and endorse the testimonial power of images; the relationship between the audiovisual and the literary (3) that turns the proposal into an audiovisual essay, the axis of which is the voice of the narrator; the daring and carefree composition of shots; and the use of dynamic, contemporary montage. In short, there is a tremendous display of complex signifiers demanding active viewers with vast cultural knowledge.

Canel\'s documentary describes Hemingway, on the one hand, as an existentialist hero at times (in fact existentialism was practically a fashion in those years and influenced art and literature), and on the other, as a man of action who carries in himself the seed of immortality, who overcomes his existential crisis and manages to beat the lightness of life by way of his work, commitment to his time and, above all, a relentless pursuit of danger, and with it the courage to face it. Now, isn’t there an unconscious and feverish suicidal instinct in that search that makes him cyclically return to the first state?

While looking back at how his life began and how he lived, the documentary promptly depicts the period and, with it, war, the definite expression of that violent stage he lived. In this context, the existential concepts in the text written by Lisandro Otero, unleash: \"Man is always fighting against adverse circumstances. Man is invincible in this struggle. In order to better combat it’s necessary that everyone has a code of values. Death always destroys man without being able to beat him.” Circumstance, code, death. \"I am myself and my circumstance,\" said Ortega y Gasset.

It is known that Hemingway was not always the same, in fact nobody is, but the times in which he showed marked individualism were many, and his personal code (his ethics) was the weapon he used to challenge social, political, religious and moral norms. He shared with existentialism the thesis of the free man, a man responsible for his actions, harbored in the ethics of individual responsibility. Confrontation with death and the dilemma of war are theses found throughout this documentary as problems inherent in the human condition during the first half of the 20th century, which becomes recurrent, going beyond different times by way of a mythical and circular Cronus god.

The character’s worldliness is emphasized. \"The man of action has given way to the hedonist: I was not made to think, I was made to eat, I swear to God. Eating and drinking and sleeping with Katherine,” he says. He is the man who takes refuge in the mundane to escape the chaos and violence of his world.

Canel delves into the essence emanating from the writer\'s personality, his inner self, his feelings, and reflects the writer and his crises, submerged in the concept of existential angst. It is the anxiety of going through life alone, to face adversity and become, in every moment, in this confrontation, a man that exercises the freedom to live for himself, until finally the stone of Sisyphus falls again from the top of the mountain, or the sharks snatch the big fish from Santiago, and the next day everything starts again. It is the anguish that emerges from the enormous emptiness of Finca Vigía and its moldy roofs, or the Gulf Stream, in its constant and eternal transit, but without the presence of he who formerly contemplated it.

However, the man of action manages to escape existential emptiness, to save the writer from the crisis weighing him down, to throw him in the search for new sources of inspiration in the epic nature of its time. \"Finally the times exerted influence on him, ‘a single man is useless,’ and he went to fight in the Spanish war.\" And then World War II, \"at war again, he found the basic truth of his time: ‘The world is a nice place and it’s worth fighting for.’\"

Thus, we have analyzed the existence of a man in crazy dichotomy. The fragile and bohemian writer, and the war hero or the brave hunter of the wild buffalo; the man who lived in Cuba like a bourgeois, and the revolutionary being born with the new myth; the alienated, uncommitted intellectual, and the one assuming commitment to his time. And although this documentary boosts the second option to a larger extent, the first one lies dormant, as a symptom, showing the complexity of human nature and, mainly, the dilemma of the intellectual’s position and his commitment to the moment he lives. This is one of its greatest assets: delving into one of the central conflicts for the Cuban director (and the intellectual, in general) in the 1960s. This is the profound, symptomatic discourse.

Finally, death, and also legend, immortality. The film text bases its isotopy in death: the initial motivation for the documentary is the news of Ernest Hemingway’s death; death as the thread of a biography; death as literary theme; death governing hobbies; death as physical absence and contrast of his immortal nature; death as the beginning and end, the one that builds the circle of mythic discourse.

The thesis is based on this topic, with that sociological and Marxist breath reflected in any type of discourse in Cuba in those years: \"Hemingway is a man of his time; he is a violent man because he is immersed in a violent context.\"

Finally, under the theme, under the thesis, a third level, another profound meaning: the pristine construction of the hero and his constant confrontation with death as one of the factors governing the Hemingway myth. This hero is the fighter with ideals, the hunter who has the courage and grace of a matador, the victim of a world marked by violence and injustice. He’s the antifascist. He’s the one who said that had he been younger he would have climbed the Sierra Maestra Mountains with Fidel. A new icon for Cuban revolutionary cinema is born here.

Another focus of this documentary is the space of Finca Vigia. It’s the empty house, the abandoned residence, the exact symbol to reflect the presence and absence of the writer, the footprints he left in Cuban territory. It\'s still his house, not the Museum:

As soon as I learned about his suicide, I requested authorization at the ICAIC to begin preparing the short. The days spent at his house, looking for materials for the film, many years before that beautiful mansion lost its soul to become a museum, are so far a happy memory -and I’ve never said it better.

A defining secret of the author of the documentary is found in this confession of Fausto Canel. The space shot in this film still has the aura of the private, intimate place that has not yet been transformed into a promiscuous building of curious tourists and icy heritage architecture. This confession also defines the direction his look would take in 1965 when pointing back to this place -already a Museum- from the structure of a love story: Desarraigo (Uprooting, 1965), his first feature film.
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(1) This prize was shared with another Cuban documentary, Primer carnaval socialista, by Alberto Roldán.
(2)Alfredo Guevara, “Realidades y perspectivas de un nuevo cine”, in Cine Cubano, no. 140, 1998, pp. 11-12.
(3)The script was made by three persons. Two writers participated, Cuban Lisandro Otero and American Marc Schleifer, along with Canel –who, in addition to directing documentaries, was developing as flm critic in the Cine Cubano magazine, in the Revolución newspaper and in his cultural supplement Lunes de Revolución.

Translated by Brenda Sheehan

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