“Considering myself an apprentice, I’m permanently invited to study and give back all I’ve learned to others”, admitted the prestigious Cuban filmmaker Rogelio Paris.
With the applause still ringing for his film Kangamba, Rogelio Paris has decided to go deeper into the conflicts of contemporary Cuba. Tesis de Grado, his most recent project, is not only focused on unveiling some of the contradictions of Antillean youth, but also seeks to introduce the art’s new promises into the film universe.
Rogelio Paris agreed to a dialogue with Cubanow about this film and other questions of Cuban filmmaking.
Paris’ career in cinema has flourished since 1964. Among others, he holds the Nicolás Guillén and National Union of Writers and Artists’ (UNEAC) Awards; the Council of State’s Order of Cuban Culture; the Replica of Generalísimo Máximo Gómez’s Machete granted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and the Superior Institute of Art’s (ISA) Special Category of Professor of Merit.
- What is Tesis de grado about?
- I discovered Senel Paz almost 40 years ago. He was already known, thanks to a very modest but very significant film called Una novia para David. It was directed by Orlando Rojas and its main theme was youth. Senel had written the script. Enrique Jardiel Poncela, a Spanish surrealist writer, who became famous in the 1920s, said: “Quixote is a book the entire world comments on, although hardly anyone has read.” I don’t want to exaggerate, but it seems to me that these years there’s a lot of talk and discussion about youth, however, not much has been done audiovisually, although there’s been an attempt at recovery. At my age and from my enormous respect and confidence in them, I invite youth to speak about themselves. And Tesis de Grado is an attempt at an invitation to reflect about the problems of youth, today, here and now. Therefore, why not have them make and star in this film in a form of co-production between ICAIC and ISA? I’ve been turning over this idea in my mind for a long time. ICAIC and ISA have thought about this co-production. ICAIC has a central role in organizing the Young Filmmakers’ Festival and supports the Faculty of Audiovisual Media where I teach.
And I’m not only referring to young people linked to artistic culture through institutions, but also to independent creators.
In essence, the film’s discourse could be summarized in a precise Martí text: “How difficult it is to find oneself, far beyond the winds, far beyond the tides.”
- When you came up with your film based on the events in Kangamba, were you also thinking of the families that lost a loved one in the war against apartheid in Africa?
-The film doesn’t deal with men of war, but men and women in the war; it’s a way of humanizing the discourse, the storyline, the theme, while making it credible. Art is not truth, rather it’s credibility. Cubans who’ve participated in international missions and their families appreciate the film very much because in it there’s a sort of homage to those lives that weren’t given in vain; I could feel that. An example would be the unhappy ending of the film which makes the characters more heroic, more human. That’s not usual for the end of a film.
That Kangamba, among all Cuban cinema, was shown January 2nd, 2009, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Revolution, appeared magnificent to me. Premiering it after two tropical storms was also an excellent idea. It’s homage to the culture of resistance. It was the first time a film was launched in 272 sites with almost 260 DVD copies.
This movie launched a new form of promotion. Kangamba – I’m quoting an important critic - is a curious and complex combination of emotion and reason based on the beautiful text of Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince: “The essential remains invisible to the eyes of reason.”
Kangamba’s double DVD will contain interviews, a documentary titled Nosotros, Kangamba, other documentary testimonies, a lot of information and photography.
- Did you imagine it would have the welcome accorded by the critics and public?
On December 24, 2010, in Japan - where the majority of films shown are Japanese - its version was presented across the archipelago. It’s called Zona Roja. An executive of the distributing agency characterized it as a film that typifies the Bushido code, which is a code of ethics having to do with honor, Samurai discipline, with culture of resistance. He also recognized that the film was very well made.
- You’ve said that when shooting, three films are being made at the same time: the one in the script, the one filmed and the one edited, but there’s still another, the one that’s wanted, sometimes totally in contradiction with the other three. When is Rogelio Paris satisfied?
- I’m never satisfied, so I’m always driven to a search for the perfection I’ll never reach, but I’m forced to. I’m a perfectionist in the best sense of the word, not from an orthodox or fundamentalist point of view. I can tell you I’m satisfied with Caravana, as I am with Kangamba. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my critical vision and that I wouldn’t have liked to change some things. And I don’t really think the dissatisfaction of repeating, “I would’ve done this here or there” will end someday. I say that without nostalgia, without any type of obsession, it’s a permanent exercise. It constitutes a stimulating element that I always try with my friends and myself too.
In Kangamba’s case, it did come out the film I wanted to make. I had the idea and the film turned out as I wanted. And this takes me back almost half a century, to my first film. I was completely immature when I made Nosotros la música. Julio García Espinosa and Odilio Urfé had invited me to do a film and so I did. Ten years later Alfredo Guevara said to me: You don’t know what you’ve done, you’ve made a film about Cuban popular culture in the 60s.” Perhaps, because of my lack of experience I simply did what I felt like doing, with the valuable support of cinema’s grand masters like Nelson Rodríguez, a great editor who trusted Rogelio Paris. If something is awesome in that film, it’s the edition, perhaps that helped me, and let’s say as well, a certain layer of intuition that has flowed throughout my work, a certain humanism.
Nosotros la música consists of many small documentaries that tries to find the essence of a being named Bola de Nieve or of a tenement, or La Tropical with Chapotín. Nosotros.... is many small documentaries trying to find the essence. People used to tell me it was like a fine wine, the older it gets the better. That film has aged and has lost nothing. It’s in dozens of film archives around the world, it’s 48 years old. Time either makes you stronger or disappears you. The non-nostalgic, optimistic and positive dissatisfaction is the youth to search for that perfection, which in a more modern language calls itself excellence.
Tesis de grado, my next movie, will tackle the topic of youth linked to artistic culture and will be supported by the five faculties of the Higher Institute of the Arts, who will not only feature in but produce the film. My co-scriptwriter, Milena Almira, who furthermore is 24, recently won several important awards in the 10th Young Filmmakers Festival.
The film will take some time to be completed, and I don’t know if it will turn out to be the film I want or not. This version comes after quite a long time of researching. To do the film with the youngsters constitutes a sort of student-professor feedback. I’m constantly learning from them, the dialogue is bi-directional.
- Following extensive debates between Cuban intellectuals, artistic creation is apparently welcoming new ideas. Does it seem to you that Cuban art is getting rid of old ballast?
- The Cuban project has always been in the vanguard in all art manifestations. Plastic art has continued advancing, likewise literature and music. The showing of young filmmakers, which by the way has good things by independent youth, is the path for Cuban cinema. I’m not advocating the disappearance of ICAIC, it would always remain as rector, guide, but undoubtedly, the future as so many other things in Cuba, is in the hands of the youth. I never separate this dialogue from what is taking place on the Island or from what is trying to take place. The showing of young filmmakers was an attempt to revitalize our work, our industry, and to be able to do other things.
“The economy of a nation begins with its stomach.” This phrase dating back 200 years, is from the German philosopher Feuerbach. Cuban cinema also has a stomach. On occasion concessions have been made in order to co-produce. A terrible experience was when Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, in my opinion the most Cuban of all directors and therefore the most universal, couldn’t use Joseíto Fernández’s music in his film Guantanamera, because the Spanish co-producer held majority financing and forced him to use a Spanish composer.
Part of Cuban cinema has a breath of fresh air, a new attitude. There are the latest films, for example, Casa vieja, a homage to playwright Abelardo Estorino, in a cinematographic version by Lester Hamlet.
- Your beginnings were on the small screen. Would you like to comment on today’s Cuban television?
- I absolutely recognize – I’m referring to the year 1959, ‘60 - that the first opportunity I received in the world of culture was to do two live television programs. One, of course, El Show de Aral, the most experimental program in this country, by a great artist, Alfonso Arau, that allowed the introduction of many young people: Alberto Korda, Raúl Martínez, Fremez...It was done weekly, with only one camera. The other program, Escenario Cuatro was adaptations of live theatre works, with Humberto Arenal. It was the launching for some hardly-known or unknown creators.
I don’t believe our television is good or bad, it’s old from an esthetic point of view. Young creators are trying to modernize it. Our television is pervaded by an exaggerated political intention that tends to neutralize its poetic side. I think, like Aristotle, that we’re political people, but I think television and we ourselves sometimes confound art with politics, which I consider a serious political error; art is one thing and politics is another. We filter everything... newspapers, magazines, interviews, through that political lens and this hurts, just to say it some way, communication. The 8 o’clock evening news – which calls itself primetime - abides by parameters, norms, that in my opinion, are still highly orthodox, very conservative. Although since some time back, I believe the second Secretary of the Party, Raúl Castro, has urged being each day more critical and self-critical.
Our television is neither good nor bad, it’s old, and I think the young deserve more modern television.
- In several interviews, you’ve defined yourself as an apprentice, but with your years of experience, you must consider yourself an expert in some way...
- Socrates said: “I only know I know nothing.” Considering myself an apprentice, I’m permanently invited to study and give back all I’ve learned to others. It’s like an antidote, like a warning so your navel doesn’t grow bigger than you and you fall into the trap as many people have.
My slogan is to live intensely. It’s my answer to Sophocles, who puts it in the words of the protagonist of Oedipus Rex, his great Greek tragedy, that life is merely shade and shadow. My answer to that reflection is to live with intensity.
- And your family....
- In the first place, I have my loved ones, who by the way, are very good critics. But I also have my students, my colleagues, they too are family. For me Homeland is family.
- You’ve said: “Giving is a way of receiving…” How much do you give, how much do you receive?
- I don’t give much, but I receive a lot.
*Translated by: Gilda Gil
*Revised by: CF Ray