El Brigadista
Style and politics in a Cuban film

by John Ramirez

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 37-49
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

In the following analysis of the 1977 Cuban film EL BRIGADISTA (dir. Octavio Cortazar), I will attempt to delineate the threads of a complex, at times seemingly irregular, and highly problematic text. As a Cuban film, EL BRIGADISTA must be considered in terms of that country's cultural context. Cultural production in Cuba strives to tie the artistic to the daily realm of social experience. Cuban cinema's textual dynamics find explicit grounding in popular history and national identity.

Such film practice derives from an unique context. In Cuba, cinema has an institutional validation, its artifice legitimated, and its directors moved to create "effective" works because film has such an enthusiastic following of viewers/consumers. The Cuban national film industry artistically confronts the historical effects of U.S. domination and aggression. Thus its film practice has consistently offered audiences the means to appraise critically Hollywood fictional film.

To summarize briefly, in Cuba the means for receiving film critically have been disseminated through the following production and distribution practices:

  1. There is a policy of teaching media literacy. It is seen as a necessary component of the national program for maintaining a high standard in literacy skills.[1][open notes in new window]
  2. Television programming teaching how to read and analyze film accompanies showings of commercial U.S. fictional films, and such TV programs also complement local fare. These programs propose revolutionary parameters which challenge "capitalist" visual and narrative modes.
  3. A concerted national policy of film distribution makes full use of all existing exhibition modes (movie houses and television). Cuba also utilizes a system of "mobile film units," which regularly provide films to remote regions where television reception and conventional filmhouse circuits do not extend.
  4. Documentary productions have constituted roughly 90% of the Cuban Film Institute's (ICAIC) output since 1959. In fact, ICAIC's formal film training requires that directors produce documentaries exclusively until they master that mode. Only then can they be eligible to make fiction features. Consequently, only a handful of Cuban cineastes have become feature fiction directors, and the Cuban fictional film consistently incorporates documentary footage and/or effects as a stylistic trademark.

In view of such practices, the linkage between "art" and Cuban daily life probably comes from a two-fold policy. There is a broadly enacted cultural practice of giving people a critical perspective on Hollywood. In effect, this moves the parameters of viewing fictional narrative from entertainment to pedagogy. Of course, either entertainment or pedagogy is ideologically circumscribed. In either case, a certain mode of viewing becomes emphasized by the cultural promotion of a certain kind of consumption or by more general socialization.[2] Filmmakers themselves reinforce this displacement from entertainment to pedagogy by incorporating into their fiction films, the realist and informational properties associated with documentary cinema.

Cuban film practice thus promotes to the level of popular knowledge a critical appreciation of the distinction between fictional narrative and documentary. Cuba's own narrative film practices have not tried to simply mix an aesthetic hybrid of documentary and Hollywood narrative codes. Instead, Cuban feature films offer unique textual dynamics. The fictional/documentary division makes sense precisely because the Cuban spectator has an informed capacity to relate fictional postulates to the dictates of day-to-day experience.

In this way, the poles of cultural style emerge not as fiction vs. documentary, but rather as fiction vs. national reality. The spectator engages with the film through a trajectory of identification. Documentary functions as a key mediating factor-documentary stands as an impetus to the viewer's culturally circumscribed "will to knowledge." In this analysis I want to consider the limits of such a linkage between "documentary" and social reality. The object of this project will be to map such textual dynamics in one feature fiction film, EL BRIGADISTA. These textual dynamics facilitate culturally circumscribed pathways for Cuban social positioning, specifically in terms of sexuality and gender identification.

In EL BRIGADISTA, Mario is a fifteen-year-old, aspiring medical student from Havana who volunteers for service with the Benitez Brigade of the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign. Mario is assigned to teach reading and writing to a rural community deep in the Zapata swamplands. In the course of his stay in the community, Mario faces a series of events that alter his character and steer him along a path of fearless revolutionary commitment. The film measures this commitment, as we will discover, by the degree of Mario's masculinization.

In the Cuban ideological context, the Revolution has established the conceptual framework for enacting a cohesive, unified social agenda. In this film that agenda informs the narrative, consequently privileging masculinity as a voice of authority. For example, in the film the fictional terms of masculinity correspond, at an ideological level, with the day-to-day mandate for revolutionary vigilance. In other words, the film endorses a heightening of national self-awareness in terms specific to the rhetoric of machismo.

The film's narrative rests on a coming-of-age formula. Mario enters an unfamiliar social space and thus encounters a crisis of adequate social performance. He faces this tension at the threshold between adolescence and impending adulthood. His social/emotional tension is fueled by the community's male members, who treat Mario with varying degrees of hostility because of his age and urban background. To the men, both these traits mark Mario's performance as limited. His youth connotes him as presocial (not yet of age or experience), and his urban origin connotes carefree frivolity ("People from Havana are like owls; they stay up all night and sleep all day").

In addition, Havana bears a particular historical significance for having been, prior to the Revolution, a rather notorious center of homosexual activity. That activity for the most part, ran strictly along class lines (e.g., on one hand, adolescent male prostitution accommodated an upper-class tourist sector, and on the other hand, a sector of the local elite was characterized by a flamboyant and self-indulgent lifestyle).[2] In addition, homosexual activity shared a sexual marketplace with female prostitution and a flourishing pornography trade.

The figurative cinematic tension around Mario's "masculine" traits gradually works itself out in political terms. The community patriarchs' unity is ruptured when one of them, Juan, defects to join a band of counter-revolutionaries, a group of adult males who stand in inverse relation to the community patriarchs. Juan is clearly anti-social. His dialogue suggests a nostalgic desire for a return to prerevolutionary social conditions; his actions suggest a desire for self-indulgence and individual grandeur. In the community, Juan is aggressively disruptive and divisive. Furthermore, upon defecting, he abandons his wife. Then he returns later to coerce her into complicity with his newfound counter-revolutionary male community, who ultimately shoot and kill her.

The space of the counter-revolutionaries visually excludes women; again, it is an inverse structure from that of the community patriarchs. At no point in the film's dynamic are women brought into the signifying system that bridges the text to the spectator's social position. Women do not figure here with any structural authority that would afford such linkage. Rather, the film reinforces the masculine via a textual scaffolding in which the textually expendable counter-revolution, through a system of sexual dynamics, becomes entangled or conflated with the "feminine."

In the way it constitutes the counter-revolutionaries the film offers the judgment of "inversion" — a libidinal association that in the film is visually homo-social and narratively homo-erotic. And because the counter-revolutionary space is textually imbued with a narrative excess of women, it must be eliminated. And Mario must trace a path to, conjunction with, and passage through the counter-revolution so as to become "masculine." This narrative path makes specific his textual significance.

Mario's character stands as the fictional postulate which the Cuban audience is invited to trace back to social reality. Structurally, the film signals such a tracing in part by a bracketing strategy, which opens the narrative as oral history. As the film opens, we see a sequence of wildlife footage accompanied by a male voice-over recalling March 1961, when in accordance with the Literacy Campaign the community was sent a teacher. The film ends with a sequence of black-and-white newsreel footage. Then we see hundreds of volunteer Literacy teachers return to Havana and as they reunite with/reconstitute families, we hear voice-over excerpts from Fidel Castro's welcoming speech and the melody of the Literacy Campaign anthem.

By way of these same codes, the film "maps" Mario's character. His presentation begins as a mere fictional artifice, mediated with historical/documentary evidence. The character is then linked to daily life. This audience-character linkage corresponds to the terms of the character's coming-of-age. As a privatized, pre-social adolescent, narratively individualized, he suggests a whole host of suspect connotations (often sexual) posed by individual space against a collective order. In the film's narrative resolution, his maturation process is absorbed by the documentary footage that presumes to verify history and collective social space.

A consistent thread in this mapping comes from a dimension to Mario's pre-social adolescence which the film structures in terms of pre-sexuality. As he moves between the rupture between the community patriarchs and their "inverted" opponents, Mario connotatively moves against a specific agenda of libidinal organization — one that is culturally circumscribed both by State and tradition and is recognizable as homosexuality.[3] The sole option Mario has to such a path is "masculinity." Thus, as Mario passes from individualized to collective space, from pre-social to social validation, from fictional artifice to historical signifier, his passage also represents the character's connotative movement from a narratively calculated ambiguous sexual definition to a definitive gender affiliation and performative sexual order. The film moves Mario's character development toward an essential "masculine" organization of character. Contingent on his becoming clearly "masculine" is the validation of his knowledge and social participation. Indeed, given the character's placement within the documentary configuration of the Literacy Campaign, it seems that, in this film, the weight of historical credibility attributable to that event also rests upon the youth's effective "masculinization."

Mario thus undergoes libidinal alignment, and this process parallels the film's whole narrative organization on a number of levels. First, since the film's story is structurally contained within explicit frames of historical perspective (via mediations of documentary form), the narrative deploys a factor of "memory." Within this "memory" factor we find very limited feminine figures:

  • Mario's passivity;
  • the matriarch of the surrogate family;
  • the young female student with whom he engages romantically;
  • his domineering biological mother who tries to dissuade him from his teaching service;
  • the defector's wife who attempts to seduce Mario.

I cite these figures in the order that they appear in the film. They exist at the rupture between community patriarchs and counter-revolutionaries. Significant is the fact that Mario figures in both the system of the masculine and in the zone of the feminine. He also stands between the two politically opposed segments of society's fragmented masculinity. This position sets him at a structural parallel with the young female student's mid-placement along the paradigm of feminine figures. The film marks the fact that the two young people each are at a significant threshold in both the men's and the women's communities by narratively establishing their romantic bonding. Add to this narrative design the text's historical circumscription and the narrative's movement whereby the coming-of-age format seems to suggest Freud's notion of pubescent libidinal organization:

"At a time at which the first beginnings of sexual satisfaction are still linked with the taking of nourishment, the sexual instinct has a sexual object outside the infant's own body in the shape of his mother's breast. It is only later that the instinct loses that object, just at the time, perhaps, when the child is able to form a total idea of the person to whom the organ that is giving him satisfaction belongs. As a rule the sexual instinct then becomes auto-erotic, and not until the period of latency has been passed through is the original relation restored. There are thus good reasons why a child sucking at his mother's breast has become the prototype of every relation of love. The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it."[4] (emphasis mine)

The brackets bring to the film the energy of memory. That memory's (syntagmatic) historical flow alternately encounters and abandons the (paradigmatic) horizontal circulation of feminine figures. This movement adds to the text's tactic of historical imperative a feminine zone that paradoxically functions as something both constant and temporary. Thus, the film's textual system conflates revolutionary cultural history with with a specific sexual economy. More specifically, the film confuses revolutionary vigilance with machismo culture.

In EL BRIGADISTA, history is determined via the masculine syntagmatic structure. The text makes clear its targets of affirmation (revolutionary patriarchs) and negation (homo-social counter-revolutionaries). However, a less dogmatic, more complex historical impetus is suggested by the film's parallel feminine figures. In one sense, the zone of the feminine suggests inversions of its own (from figures of redeemability to those of irredeemability). However, the scale of these postures is not structured in terms of polarity. One side does not outweigh the other in terms either of presence or value. Rather, these female figures circulate in the film via Mario. The spectator encounters the women in accordance with the need to calculate Mario's masculinization, and that calculation ultimately is gauged by his renunciation of those figures.

The narrative's project is to direct Mario along an impenetrable course of masculinity. Along that course, the possibility that he is homosexual can never be more than an underlying allusion. That possibility exists on a par with the text's other feminine figures, who circulate only as peripheral to Mario's correct development. Considering that Latin American homosexuality shares a particular alignment with social codes of femininity (e.g., often only the penetrated male is considered homosexual) and that in this text the most explicit assignment of homosexuality is to the counter-revolutionaries, there is little wonder that the narrative could not support homosexuality as an explicit option for Mario.

Because of this circumstance, the status of women in the film remains highly problematic. Mario's route is masculinization. Therefore the film adheres to a textual organization which, in effect, erases the feminine from cultural significance — that is, from the very fabric of revolutionary history. In this text the feminine becomes vital to the masculine regime only insofar as it offers an open field for renunciation. In this textual order, the feminine exists only as emblematic of masculine authority. The status of the "feminine" in the film corresponds to Hispanic sexual mythology, which establishes an economy of identification. That mythology depends on a descending scale of value that originates with enunciative investment in the masculine. It is a system according to which "...man is the whole entity, and woman the incomplete one, whom it is man's duty ...to make complete..."[5]

For the most part, Latin American male homosexuality is bound within the same economy of identification. Outside a feminine posture, virtually no social space exists in which male homosexuality can stake claim to a genuine value and identificatory agenda. If a man performs socially and sexually as "masculine," if his self-representation remains invested in the codes of masculinity, including maintaining heterosexual encounters, then he probably will not be read socially as "homosexual." Even though he may have sex with other males, he is not considered homosexual nor does he necessarily see himself as such if he always assumes the dominant position of penetrator. On the other hand, this cultural context presumes that the homosexual "insists on considering himself a woman."[6]

Thus, the homosexual becomes socially recognized as the man who

"...behave[s] sexually and socially like a woman (hence the Latin American acceptance, and even approval, of the drag queen, and the frequent insistence, on the part of the Latin American macho in his private dealings with homosexuals, that the homosexual partner act like a woman.)"[7]

In this economy of sexual performances, Hispanic male homosexuality tends to be aligned with the feminine. Such an alignment prevails in contemporary Cuba. Of the hundreds of male homosexuals who took part in the 1980 Mariel exodus, the overwhelming majority who had been targeted during their lives for rehabilitation or criminal prosecution were those demonstrating a range of effeminate postures: from gestures and mannerisms to transvestism in the social sphere, and the recipient position in the sexual sphere. Furthermore, to gain virtual guarantee of being allowed to leave the country at that time, a number of otherwise "unquestionable" males merely donned feminine attire and/or affects.

EL BRIGADISTA tries to orchestrate its terms of difference along lines of ideological affiliation (e.g., revolutionary/ counter-revolutionary) and development (e.g., political immaturity/ maturation). In fact, the film bases these references upon a series of presuppositions about the "natural" hierarchy of gender positions and corresponding order of heterosexual relations. The text reveals this kind of reliance as it develops the coming-of-age motif through a metaphoric system which suggests a biological sequence of conception, gestation, and birth. The text promotes an agenda of masculinity which must pass from a fictive to an extra-textual significance. At the same time, this metaphoric development makes the text itself "give birth to" a most valued cultural product — masculinity via Mario's development.

The text does not valorize or give significance to the "feminine." Rather, it only supports the "maternal," which functions as its index of feminine value. The total realm of the feminine itself is confined to designations of mother, virgin, whore, and homosexual (all four of these appellations significantly figure to signal and signify masculine sexual performance). The text's maternal design is intended to carry textual movement from artifice to social signifier However, only a masculine significance will be "born," i.e., find its way to the extra-textuality of socially validated meaning and the film's attendant historical agenda (i.e., the Revolution, the Literacy Campaign, the institution of national revolutionary defense).

Bound firmly as metaphor within the narrative's workings, the "maternal" thus circulates as an expendable excess. Its use-value depends on its self-negating duty to deliver up masculine significance. Culturally, masculinity has an already presupposed priority. The film reinforces that cultural disposition, giving masculinity an unquestionable primacy in the spectator's social perception. In this sense, the feminine is confined to a maternalized textual function and so seems to parallel the circumstances of Hispanic femininity. The mother stands as the spectacle of edification. She must deliver socially valued meaning as the condition of her being. Furthermore, her social production has value only insofar as it perpetuates patriarchal privilege.

The opening sequence of "nature" footage, that is, shots of the swamp and of wildlife, unfolds as if the camera were penetrating a space unadulterated by trappings of civilization. The images of this "virgin" territory are accompanied by a male voice-over recalling March 1961, when the swampland community of Maniadero was sent a literacy teacher. After this voice-over recollection comes an image of a distant clearing with a cluster of buildings from which distant off-screen male voices emerge.

As discussed above, the male voice-over establishes as well as partakes of a bracketing system that assumes the unquestionable stance of concrete evidence — that is, to date, to mention the Literacy Campaign mediates the text's fiction and links it with the spectator's day-to-day perceptions and national experience. This first bracket "authorizes" the fiction and joins its all-important constituent of historical discourse to the narrative space of "nature." Consistently thereafter, both history and nature are posed as pre-givens whose dynamics escape the jurisdiction of cultural inquiry.

The epicenter of the "natural" zone is embodied in the image of a sacred tree believed to be occupied by the "guiji," a little black man of power and knowledge to whom the townspeople make ritual offerings of cornmeal to gain his protection. Though the "guiji" remains on an immaterial level of legend and superstition, its protective aspect follows the figure of Mario. The tree sustains a measure of its original meaning became it is connected with Mario through the three interweaving narrative currents: coming-of-age, defeat of the counter-revolutionaries, and success of the Literacy Campaign — the three key factors tied to Mario's masculine development. As the narrative transfers value from the "guiji" to Mario, so it empties the zone of "nature" of a masculine essence, thus setting the stage on which "nature" can be elevated to the purely metaphoric convention of "maternal life-source," and the film develops that reference solely via Mario's masculinization.

The sacred tree's introduction comes with Mario's introduction. The counter-revolutionaries later hang two revolutionary comrades from the tree's limbs. Soon after, Mario discovers evidence at its foot which will solve the murder of the comrades. Finally, Mario hoists atop the tree a Literacy Campaign flag. In significant contrast to the sacred tree as a locale of narrative importance, the men of the community engage daily in a lumber field. There they make their most valued economic contribution to the community's welfare.

The film's closing bracketing system complements this configuration of "nature." Here the epicentral image shows Fidel Castro in the closing newsreel (plate 23). In that celebratory image, the narrative's three major currents merge and culminate. In this sense, the relation between the narrative zone of "nature" and the circumscribing historical discourse figuratively becomes an intercourse between the maternalized zone of production and the law of an extra-textual authority. This bracketing system corresponds to previously mapped gender positions and sexual affiliations. The historical-discursive brackets hold back the amorphous circulation of the narrative's "natural" zone. "Nature," embodied in the sacred tree, is mystified. The film justifies nature only insofar as the narrative defers significance away from nature's "mystery" on to the assumptions surrounding history, embodied in Castro's image.[8] Furthermore, the tree functions as a non-specific, natural feature, exchangeable with other trees, while Castro functions as a specific figure, an actor in history.

This structural contour reinforces gender dynamics and buttresses their presumed infallibility by binding them to this textual blueprint. In the text, the imperative of a culturally specific Oedipal agenda operates. Here, historical discourse signifies the Law of the Father. It gives the fiction a mission: to deliver the seed of the masculine thematic to fruition. Such fruition can be gauged by how much the film, in fact, links its "masculinity/ revolutionary" thematic to the audience's extra-textual day-to-day experience.

After the opening sequence of "nature" footage and male voice-over, we see the community patriarchs gather in anticipation of the teacher's arrival. One of these men, Gonzalo, takes leave of the group. He enters a dwelling where Marianna, his wife, busily prepares a meal. Then we see Gonzalo quickly exit to rejoin his compañeros who will pick up the teacher at a nearby Literacy Volunteer encampment. The shot stays with Marianna who sets a dish in the window to cool. From outside the window hands appear, stealing food from the dish. Marianna shouts out that the teacher will be there soon to set the thieves straight. We then see a teenage boy and girl outside, running side-by-side from the window. The boy speculates that the teacher will be bald, fat, and ugly. The girl counters with the suggestion that the teacher might be handsome.

We then see the Literacy encampment where a number of community patriarchs are assigned Mario, a fifteen-year-old volunteer from Havana. Gonzalo immediately takes issue and refuses to accept the boy ("We came here for a real teacher, an educated man!"). As the patriarchs return, curious and well-wishing community inhabitants greet their pick-up truck, but the teacher is nowhere in sight. Gonzalo gets out of the truck in a huff and stomps away. The teenage boy seen earlier peers into the truckbed and calls out to the community members, who begin to gather around. Seen in medium shot, community members directly face the camera laughing and making jest. We then see a reverse medium shot of Mario asleep inside the truckbed in a fetal position. Over a zoom-in on Mario's sleeping image, the film's credits role.

Here begins the "birthing" metaphor. The opening bracket's male voice-over passes to the community patriarchs. We do not know if the introductory male voice belongs to that group. It may have come from Gonzalo, the member whose attitude toward Mario speaks for the male community as a whole. In fact, Gonzalo figures as the narrative's key father-figure. As head of the surrogate family where Mario will live, Gonzalo becomes a pivotal guiding authority for Mario's development. Beyond that, the film's initial transference of authority to Gonzalo ultimately leads to the closing bracket's authorizing image of Castro.

This sequence also introduces two women characters in their prototypical positive relation to the patriarchal order: i.e., wife/mother (Marianna) and virgin (adolescent girl who will love Mario). Then, through the fetal connotation of Mario's sleeping image, we are introduced to a pattern of direct gazes. Preceding that image we saw one of the community members gazing directly into the camera. That first direct gaze is addressed to the spectator through Mario's image highly encoded as "underdeveloped." Next, the credits emphasize such an underdevelopment, punctuating it and conventionally signaling the spectator to anticipate narrative advancement. Beyond that, this particular shot/reverse shot dynamic conditions viewers to anticipate that subsequent direct gazes will generally focus on and point out the narrative's progress, most specifically the course of Mario's fictional gestation. In the film, such a pattern culminates in the two final direct gazes. When he is finally clearly and irreversibly incorporated into the order of fearless revolutionary commitment, Mario is at the end of his stay. He himself looks at the camera with such a gaze. Mario also elicits a direct gaze from the tearful young woman/virgin onto himself. (She is the only singular female figure to function in the pattern. Her reference to Mario is caught up in a host of sexual dynamics which I will clarify later).

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