Film criticism in Cuba

by Jorge Silva, interviewing Enrique Colina
Translated by Julianne Burton
from Ojo al cine #5 (Cali, Colombia) 1976

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 32-33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

COLINA: My specific job is doing a prime-time program about film called Twenty-Four Times a Second, which appears on national television every Saturday night. This show, which we've been doing for seven years now, attempts to establish a dialectical relationship with the films currently being shown around the country.

SILVA: What is the theoretical or conceptual basis of film criticism in Cuba and particularly of your program?

COLINA: In order to discuss the theoretical assumptions behind our work, it would be useful initially to refer to the law which founded the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and which was the first cultural legislation of the Revolution, decreed seventeen years ago.

One of its fundamental clauses cites the need to create a national cinema capable of bringing together the best of our cultural and revolutionary traditions. The law also stresses the importance of decolonizing our country's movie screens, thus signaling the need for a kind of informational and cultural orientation, which would contribute, along with national film production, to the intellectual and cinematic development of our people. Cuban film criticism in general and our program in particular derive from this premise.

Before the triumph of the Revolution, more than 70% of the foreign films exhibited in our country were from the United States. Currently we exhibit between 120 and 130 North American files annually, [1] but in totally different proportion. Today 50% of our programming comes from the socialist sector and another 50% from the capitalist sector.

The process of revolutionary social transformation which has been going on now for seventeen years has brought about profound changes in the economic, social, and cultural structure. These changes have prompted us to totally reevaluate the concepts which govern our lives, be they moral, political, cultural or philosophic.

Obvious reasons of quantity, quality, and the need for information (because we do not exist in isolation from the rest of the world) compel us to program films from the capitalist sector; but in doing so, we must meet the need to question the values implicit in many of these films. "Filmic taste," which we are compelled to satisfy, exists in proportion to and in accordance with a country's level of cultural development. Our general level of cultural development has risen significantly in the past seventeen years, but this is a slow and complex process.

At one point, we were importing some films which bore no resemblance to the kind of movies we sought to make ourselves. For lack of a better term, we can call these "entertainment" films. The very conditions of our national cultural development mean that many sectors still equate recreation with these entertainment films.

By applying a set of standards (which is not always absolute), we can ensure that the films we import are free from fascist or pornographic tendencies. Since these films are cultural expressions particular to the society which produced them, however, the expression of that society's values is implicit in their content. What kind of response do we provide to this kind of cinema, since we choose to continue making it available in Cuba? We confront it head on, but without making the kind of "value judgment" that unintelligent film criticism makes.

SILVA: Could you discuss this in more detail? Traditional film criticism seems to orient itself toward a markedly elitist or auteurist cinema. It sets up its theoretical discourse in terms of individualistic self-affirmation, making a show of its own intellectual background in contrast to that of the uninitiated' reader. Rather peevishly, this kind of criticism often ignores the kind of films which the bulk of the population is compelled to view — alienating "pure entertainment" films from Hollywood, for example.

The film critic dismisses such movies using subjective value judgments — "It's alienating," "It's mediocre," "It's poor." But he or she rarely stops to question how these films alienate or contaminate the viewer, what devices are at work and how this kind of industrial cinema wields its ideology. What's more, traditional critics frequently subject films which are part of the New Latin American Cinema movement to critical models which are methodologically inappropriate, since they derive from European cinema made for an elite audience.

COLINA: Such criticism can be considered petty bourgeois in that it is primarily interested in addressing the critics' personal opinions, in keeping with whatever talents and conceptual tools they have at their disposal. They manage to conceal from the reader the process by which they arrive at their conclusions. Far worse, such criticism deprives the reader of the "creative" participation which is in itself the greatest educational possibility and intellectual stimulus which film criticism can offer to national and personal cultural development, above all on a continent like ours.

This is why we never make value judgments on our television program. Instead, we deal with the factors which account for a film's success with the public. We begin to question these, showing the spectators how the visual material is structured and questioning everything that is implicit and difficult to define. Many entertainment films only marginally possess or are apparently exempt from any type of ideological or political meaning. In fact, they all have an ideological dimension, which we must both point out and criticize, since we are part of a society which is trying to transform all inherited values. So we especially emphasize how ideological messages are conveyed directly or indirectly through film. We try to perform a kind of aesthetic and ideological "de-montage," taking apart what the filmmaker has assembled in order to reveal the film's inner workings.

We are living through a process which requires our people to seek out original, creative solutions. Once it has achieved liberation, independence from imperialism, and genuine sovereignty, a country like Cuba — which was underdeveloped before the Revolution and has limited resources — has to build socialism under very difficult conditions. In order to find the solutions which correspond to our limited material possibilities, we must cultivate our analytic and reflective capacities.

So we feel that our work in the field of film has what we might call a meta-goal: To enable people to take a more critical, more reflective and analytic attitude. We strive to encourage people to take on the kind of serious intellectual effort which is the precondition of that state of readiness which any transformation of reality requires. Our program thus goes beyond the realm of film culture through its use of film as a means of stimulating critical thought.

In film, messages are always conveyed through expressive forms. A filmmaker's choice of forms is conditioned by the ideological perspective from which s/he views the reality that s/he wants to reflect in aesthetic terms. So we put great emphasis on filmic language. Some programs, for example, are totally dedicated to camera style, to the way things are conveyed visually, to the expressive means used to create a certain atmosphere in order to indirectly transmit a particular message. We try to raise awareness about cinematic language in order to help people see how these messages are put together and how what is apparently lacking in meaning does, in fact, convey meaning — and an ideological one at that.

We also try to increase people's understanding of everything having to do with the distribution network, the commercialization of film as merchandise, and the political and ideological — as well as artistic — implications which this market imposes upon the film product. We show how certain aesthetic effects derive from mercantile factors.

SILVA: You referred earlier to an ideological and aesthetic de-montage process which exposes underlying mechanisms of consumer cinema. How do you achieve this?

COLINA: In the case of a "thriller — let's take BULLITT [2] for example — we might take the hero as our point of departure. Who is he? What characterizes the hero of this kind of film? In most cases, such men are bandits. Let's try to define the particular expressive devices which prevent us from making a moral judgment about the hero when we see the film and instead lead us to identify with him in a positive way. We might try to do a de-montage of the personal life of the character, of his relationship to women or of his personal values, for example, analyzing his social behavior and how this person relates to particular institutions like the state. We would show how the film never questions the fact that it is situating the spectator in a Manichaean world of good and evil.

The program would illustrate such a process and also trace the forerunners of the particular genre in question — say Hollywood film noir, for example. We use sequences from other films in order to demonstrate the ideological base of this particular conception of a character or hero. We might also refer to literary antecedents in our attempt to explain why this particular kind of hero is presented as entertainment in a capitalist society and to articulate what meaning this form of entertainment might have. And so we look at how a very banal story has an ideological backdrop which is clearly symptomatic of an entire social structure, one based on the exploitation of one human being by another. Starting from an isolated and apparently inoffensive phenomenon, you see, one can arrive at the de-montage of an entire social, political and cultural context. This context accounts for the fact that these products, this cultural garbage, is both generated as a kind of merchandise and is also — and this is what's important — the expression of an entire social system.

During the process of analysis we look at the means of expression which produce the positive identification with the character and the closed moral universe of the film. We also examine the dramatic composition of the narrative, how the central incident — generally a robbery, an assault — is isolated from other factors and from the rest of society. The dramatic form of the narrative is also the result of an ideological point of view.

We don't say that the film is good or bad. Whoever likes it should continue to see it but should keep all these factors in mind. Spectators may continue to like a film even after this kind of analysis of it, but they are now conscious of the film's alienating mechanisms and they are armed to defend themselves.

We feel that it is dangerous to set up value judgments. To say to people that a film is good or "bad" is like slamming a door in their faces if, in fact, our judgment goes contrary to their own taste. And taste is an essential factor of personality. So we try to encourage the spectator to take a critical stance. We try not to impose our own conclusions, though they are implicit in the de-montage technique; we prefer that they grow naturally out of the debate. We insist on the fact that we are not the sole purveyors of the truth. We can make mistakes, too.

Our goal is to develop analytical tools in the reader or the spectator which will permit them to defend themselves against cultural penetration. It is beginning to become apparent that we are accomplishing our goal to some extent. We might as well say it openly once and for all: We are specialists, we've had the privilege of studying. But the great masses of our continent have not had access to the kind of study which would acquaint them with the means of analysis that we have at our disposal. This is why they are practically defenseless against outside cultural penetration. We feel that an important function for the progressive intellectual is to contribute to the development of our own people. This critical awareness will serve the spectator and the film critic not only in viewing film and television but also in their lived experiences, allowing them to recognize inconsistencies given them in the image of their situation, of their country, of their continent. Because these images are also the result of a certain class-determined perspective which dominates the mass media. We want knowledge to be a defensive as well as an offensive weapon.


1. Except in cases where filmmakers actually bring prints of their films to Cuba (as Coppola did with GODFATHER II) the Cubans must "bootleg" prints of U.S. films. The figure given here includes some new films and many that have been in circulation in Cuba for some time.

2. Fast-paced Hollywood crime drama, directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen. (1968)