Cuban cinema in exile
The "other" island

by Ana M. López

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 51-59
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

"I carry this marginality immune to all returns,
too much of an habanera to be a new yorker
too much a new yorker to be
— even to go back to being—
anything else."
— Lourdes Casal[1]
[open notes in new window]

Exile has become a fashionable position from which to "speak." Empowered by postmodern practices that proclaim the decenteredness of contemporary capitalist life and by postcolonial theories of discourse that privilege the hybridity and ambivalence of exile — both inside and outside, belonging yet foreign — as a significant site from which to challenge the oppressive hegemony of the "center" or the "national," the exile experience — along with borders, margins, and peripheries — has become a central metaphor of contemporary multicultural artistic and critical practices.

Defining what such a position means for cinematic practices is, however, a difficult task.[2] Certainly, in the case of the very rich "Chilean exile cinema," we could argue that the socio-historical experience of political exile gave rise to a painfully postcolonial, often postmodern, "national" cinema: self-reflexive, nostalgic, produced outside the borders of the nation-state (often even outside the continent itself).[3] But speaking of other less clear-cut "exiled" cinemas in today's increasingly heterogeneous worlds filled with wandering artists and international co-productions is more complicated. And the task becomes even more complex when we seek to find such a cinema within the U.S., even in Hollywood itself. Simply being a foreigner — the "outsider" looking in — is not enough. Our common sense understanding of the term "exile cinema" would seem to require more than a specific positionality as "outsider." If we take the Chilean exile cinema as a possible model, the principal prerequisite for an exile cinema would seem to be a politically motivated diaspora; in other words, a "forced" political exile without the possibility of return.

In the Chilean case, the tragedy of the diaspora had a special immediacy and political poignancy. Almost universally, cultural circles could respond negatively to Pinochet's regime of terror and sympathetically to the Chilean exiles and to their efforts to position themselves politically and culturally outside their nation. But the last twenty years or so has also witnessed the slow development of an exile cinema/video practice that has been neither as sympathetically received nor as homogeneously articulated. This "other" island, the films and videos of exiled Cubans, has often grated harshly against the sentiments of those for whom the island represented our only utopian hope in the Americas.

Certainly one cannot compare the 1973 Chilean debacle with the 1959 Cuban Revolution; if anything, the politics of these events were diametrically opposed and thus gave rise to very different exile populations. Nevertheless, the Cuban exile community is a significant one and cannot be dismissed. Despite Cuba's long history of exile (already marked by wars and displacements when it became "independent" in 1902, political and economic instabilities created mass exodus in 1925-33 and 1952-58), no exodus has been as massive or prolonged as the one brought about by the 1959 revolution. By some (conservative) estimates, as much as 10% of Cuba's present population (ten and a half million according to the 1987 census) lives in exile.[4]

This significant part of the "nation" is deeply woven into the history of a "Cuba" that exceeds national boundaries. At the margins of the nation as such, this community (which has identified itself in relation to the island for thirty-three years) functions both as mirror (sharing traditions, codes, symbols, discursive strategies) and as supplement. Furthermore, although a cursory (gringo) look might see the Cuban exile community as homogeneously allied to the far political right because of its continued opposition to the revolution, it is important to note not only its heterogeneity and its historical variances[5], but also, more specifically, that the exiled filmmakers are not necessarily typical of the more hysterical and anti-intellectual Miami/New York exile groups that still think of invasions and infiltration, hold fundraisers, elect presidents and mayors in exile, and draw up elaborate post-socialism capitalist reconstruction plans for the island.

Of course, that the majority of Cuban exiles overwhelmingly sought refuge in the U.S. also had a determining influence on their politics (a reciprocal relationship) and their cinematic/video output.[6] On the one hand, the politics of the Cuban exiles, especially their anti-Castroism, challenged the pro-Cuban Revolution feelings of most people involved in independent/alternative practices; on the other, as yet another exile/Hispanic minority group, they have had few opportunities to "make it" in the entertainment mainstream defined and controlled by Hollywood. Although buttressed by official U.S. policies and actions against Cuba since 1961, Cuban exile film and video-makers have, paradoxically, had a difficult time articulating their arguments and being heard. Within artistic circles, their exile has, in general, not been a privileged position from which to speak.

Their efforts to assemble a national identity within/out of exile — to reconstruct a national history — have often been seen as the marks of a strident ethnocentrism already compromised by their challenges to the island's utopia rather than as anguished cries of an exile's loss, liminality, and deterritorialization coupled with the paradoxical need to build — reterritorialize — themselves anew.

The exile of Cuban filmmakers must be traced back to Cuba itself and to specific events in the island that provoked it. Immediately after the 1959 revolution, the newly formed ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos) and the revolutionary government's commitment to the cinema attracted and pleased almost all of the cinephiles, technicians, and amateur filmmakers that had been active in the various (often apolitical) cine-club movements of the 1950s. However, a survey of the first five years of Cine Cubano (1960-1965) discloses that of the ten Cuban award-winning feature filmmakers mentioned, five subsequently chose exile: Eduardo Manet, Fausto Canel, Alberto Roldán, Roberto Fandiño, and Fernando Villaverde. Many others involved with ICAIC also chose exile: among them, cinematographers like Ramón Suárez, who photographed Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's films between LAS DOCE SILLAS (THE TWELVE CHAIRS, 1962) and MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO (MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, 1968); actors like Eduardo Moure, who was the male lead in the first episode of LUCÍA (1968) and in HISTORIAS DE LA REVOLUCIÓN (1961); authors/ scriptwriters like Edmundo Desnöes (MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO), Antonio Benítez Rojo (LOS SOBREVIVIENTOS (THE SURVIVORS), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1978; UNA MUJER, UN HOMBRE, UNA CIUDAD (A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY) Manuel Octavio Gómez, 1978] and René Jordán (CUBA 58, José Miguel García Ascot and Jorge Fraga, 1962); and graphic designers like Antonio Reboiro, who was responsible for many of the ICAIC's striking early film posters.[7] What prompted them to leave?

In print, several of the exiled filmmakers have traced their disaffection with the revolution to an event that provoked a national intellectual crisis: the P.M. affair.[8] In 1960, working independently of ICAIC, a group affiliated with the cultural magazine Lunes de Revolución (a supplement of the newspaper Revolución edited by Carlos Franqui) produced a short film for the magazine's weekly television program. A "free cinema" style exploration of nightlife in the bars and cafes around the Havana waterfront, the film was called P.M. or Post Meridian and was directed by Sabá Cabrera Infante (the brother of novelist Guilleimo) and Orlando Jiménez Leal, a young cameraman who had worked for the newsreel production company Cineperiódico. Neither was affiliated with ICAIC. The film aired on television and received a favorable review from Néstor Almendros, who was then a critic in the influential mass-circulation weekly Bohemia. However, when the filmmakers applied to ICAIC for a theatrical exhibition license for the film, it was denied.

ICAIC's decision was difficult for many to understand. Those associated with the film and/or with Lunes cried out "censorship," while ICAIC maintained that the film was irresponsible to the revolution and that they had the right and authority to delay/prohibit its distribution. As Michael Chanan points out, this modest film about the somewhat seedy nighttime activities of marginal Havana types was perhaps only "mildly offensive,"[9] but the historical moment — only six weeks after the Bay of Pigs invasion and Castro's official declaration of the socialist character of the Revolution — was tense and emotionally charged. The debate over P.M. reached such heights that Castro himself intervened in a famous speech known as "Words to the Intellectuals" that closed a series of meetings among intellectuals held at the National Library. His words were prophetic and have been often quoted: "Within the Revolution, everything; against it, nothing."[10]

Despite many claims that the P.M. affair was the decisive event that motivated filmmakers to seek exile, most did not leave Cuba until the late 1960s. In fact, while the debate over P.M. did reveal that there were various political positions among cultural workers (and caused a restructuring of the non-cinematic arts scene centered on the closing of Lunes, a change in the direction of Casa de las Americas, and the creation of the UNEAC (Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba in 1961) according to exiled writer Edmundo Desnöes, Castro's famous statement

"became a cover and was translated into a kind of religious principle: 'Believe in the revolution and write whatever you feel like writing.' Under this watchword, without defining what 'within' implied nor those responsible for identifying when a work exceeded the broad confines of the revolution, artists and writers worked for many years…The crisis occurred when the security margin, the frontiers of the revolution began, as the French would say, to be put in question. And to contract."[11]

In other words, the cultural agenda suggested by Castro's "Words to the Intellectuals" was not in itself restrictive and led, instead, to a period marked by a certain creative anarchy and a testing of the limits of what was possible under the definition "revolutionary." The tensions that surfaced in this period (dubbed the "years of heresy" by one commentator[12]) among artists (primarily writers) and between cultural circles and the revolutionary intelligentsia would not come to a head until 1968-1971, when the polemic case of the writer Heberto Padilla caused an international furor which culminated in a formal "tightening up" of the definition of revolutionary art and culture.[13]

In any case, although Orlando Jiménez Leal, Sabá Cabrera Infante, and Néstor Almendros (who lost his job in Bohemia after the P.M. affair) left in 1962-63, few of those working in ICAIC left Cuba before 1965. The bulk of departures of ICAIC personnel, in fact, occurred in the period 1965-68. Thus, these departures — although perhaps traceable in spirit to the P.M. affair — were more closely linked to the series of events that began in 1965 with the formation of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the internment in forced labor camps (called UMAP: Unidades Militates de Ayuda a la Producción/ Military Units to Aid Production) of homosexuals and other "undesirables" and "deviants" (in 1965-67). Personally threatening some and morally threatening others, for many exiles this was lo que le puso la tapa al pomo (the last straw). (It is interesting to note, in passing, that no active ICAIC creative personnel left the island during the last massive exodus, the Mariel boatlift of 1980. However, among the "marielitos" were various former ICAIC workers, most notably Raúl Molina, a documentary director between 1961-66 who was fired from the ICAC because of "ideological conflicts" and worked in "anonymous" non-skilled jobs — farm laborer, gas station attendant — until his departure.[14])

Despite their scattered departures over more than a decade, many of the exiled Cuban filmmakers, together with others (too young when they left and considered "exiles" as a result of circumstances[15]) who became filmmakers while in exile, have sustained a specific "Cuban" identity: they identify themselves as Cubans, have most often worked with Cuban issues/themes, and, for the most part, maintain an anti-Castro political line. In different ways, their films and videos, especially those of the first and second generations of filmmakers, articulate and attempt to contain the traumas of exile by repeating and denouncing the actual experience (the history of departures) and by symbolically reconstructing the "lost" home (with)in a new imagined community. In fact, their films often participate in what may be called a "Cuban" political culture or political imaginary that exceeds the geographical boundaries of the island-nation and that have been a constant feature of Cuban political life at least since the 1890s. Finally, the third generation of exiles, already less liminal and more assimilated, most often bypasses the explicit political discourses typical of the first and second generations, and is more interested in exploring that historically determining, but, in most cases, largely unknown "Cuban" part of their self-definition as "Cuban Americans."


Of course, not all the exiled filmmakers have continued to make films. Francisco Villaverde, for example, who was part of the Rebel Army's Culture Unit in 1959 and worked at ICAIC between 1960 and 1963 as assistant and director of documentaries, was exiled in 1965, worked for the AP news service in New York and, since the mid 1970s has been a literary critic for The Miami Herald. None of the authors/script writers have continued to write for the cinema and have found "homes" in academia (Desnöes, Benítez Rojo) or in journalism (René Jordán writes criticism for Cosmopolitan).

Many others combine work in advertising or publishing with forays in filmmaking. Orlando Jiménez Leal, probably one of the best known of the exile filmmakers, worked successfully in Latin advertising in New York, eventually setting up his own production company, Guede Films, in the late 1970s. Guede Films produced EL SUPER (1979), the first Cuban exile fictional feature — directed by Jiménez Leal and his young brother-in-law, León Ichaso — to be broadly distributed and exhibited in the U.S. and to win international awards.[16] (The "first" exile feature production was, according to all accounts, Camilo Vila's LOS GU.S.ANOS (1977?), a rarely seen, low-budget feature shot in Florida.) Subsequently, Jiménez Leal went on to direct THE OTHER CUBA (1983), a feature-length documentary financed by Italian television (RAI) and, in collaboration with Néstor Almendros, the well-known, highly polemical documentary IMPROPER CONDUCT (1984) produced by French television (Antenne 2) and the Films du Losange. (Because of generational differences and his split with Jiménez-Leal after EL SUPER, I have classified Ichaso as a "second generation" director and discuss him below). In 1988, Néstor Almendros teamed up with another younger exile, Jorge Ulla, to produce NOBODY LISTENS, a documentary denunciation of the treatment of prisoners in Cuban prisons.

It is this generation — intertwined with some of the second generation filmmakers — that most clearly evidences the peculiarity of Cuban exile film, at once closely linked to the island's cultural and political history, but the most different — especially in style — from the island's (ICAIC's) cinema. Their films articulate a contradictory, tragic discourse that mythologizes pre-revolutionary Cuba in order to radically differentiate it from the revolutionary "present" of the island and link it to their exile.

In THE OTHER CUBA, for example, Jiménez Leal devotes over half of the film to a painstaking retelling of the events that led to the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 and its early "glory years" (in fact, often using what looks like ICAIC footage) in order to set up its "betrayal" of the exiled ex-followers that he interviews extensively. Attempting to write an "other" history to contribute to the new community's social imaginary (challenging what for many exiles is the U.S.-left's blindness to what really happened and also rehabilitating the political allegiances of now-exiled individuals like Carlos Franqui — author of Family Portrait with Fidel — who was once an ardent revolutionary and is thus rejected by the Miami exile community), Jiménez Leal must filmically relive the experiences, positing the authenticity of the struggle against Batista in order provide a link between the island's history and the exiles' "Cuba."[17] Thus by displacing nationalism from the nation itself, the film creates a space within which fetishizing the lost "home" (and patria) can serve to lessen the trauma of exile liminality and as a springboard towards a form of assimilation.[18] In doing so, however, the film — and other exile productions — participates in what Nelson Valdés has identified as one of the central characteristics of the "Cuban" political imaginary, the invocation of the theme of betrayal. In Cuba — before, after, and in exile from the revolution, interpretations of social and political reality are often dominated by the belief that one's opponent is treacherous. Political differences then turn into charges of betrayal.[19]

In other words, in "Cuban" political discourse, "betrayal" does not simply connote a move away from a given political program, but a breach of personal trust. For the exiles as well as for those in the island (as demonstrated by the recent Ochoa case, where high-ranking officers were accused of drug trafficking), politics requires unconditional personal loyalty, and any wavering or political difference constitutes betrayal. Thus the interviewees' insistent accusations that Castro betrayed his own ideals, his friends, his confidantes, and finally the nation itself, echo only too familiarly in Cuban ears.

Despite this explicit link with "Cuba," however, THE OTHER CUBA is formally very different from the montage style we have come to associate with the Revolutionary Cuban cinema. Although it is a kind of compilation, the film plays down the potentially dramatic value of its juxtapositions or the explicit historical provenance — and contradictions — of its archival images (for example, the film begins with newsreel footage of a passionate Castro speech delivered during the Mariel phenomenon that also served as the opening of Brian de Palma's SCARFACE) and instead attempts to weave a seamless, narrative "other" history.

The controversial IMPROPER CONDUCT also participates in this project, although not as directly. As B. Ruby Rich argued at the time of its New York release, "in place of history, the film offers myth."[20] Ostensibly a denunciation of the treatment of homosexuals in the 1965-67 period of the UMAP camps and the 1980 Mariel boatlift, the film does not share THE OTHER CUBA's desire to articulate a historical argument (a rescate of the impulses and personal loyalties behind the revolution even as it presents a case against how it is presently constituted). Nor does it address a specifically Cuban audience (both films were produced by European television).

Instead, its denunciation of what were indeed tragic moments in Cuba's gay historiography is presented via assertions of historical fact based on personal testimonies. Weaving a history of unchanging oppression from exiles who left in the early 1960s through the 1980s and who have not, for obvious reasons, returned to the island, the film purposely mummifies the Cuban revolutionary process. The very first scene already announces the film's historical scope and its historiographic strategy by juxtaposing public demonstrations against those sequestered in the Peruvian embassy before the Mariel boatlift in 1980 with newsreel images of and interviews with (male gay) members of the National Ballet of Cuba who sought political asylum in Paris in 1966. Nothing changes. Similarly, after establishing the existence of the UMAP camps, there is no mention that those camps were indeed abolished; in other words, that even within Cuba, change can and does take place.[21]

What has not changed in Cuba and what IMPROPER CONDUCT is unable to forgive is Castro's leadership. Already, the first sounds we hear (accompanying the credits) are a patriotic hymn eliding the nation and its symbols (struggle, the flag) with Castro:

"To struggle against everything. For Cuba with Fidel. For Cuba with Fidel. For Cuba with Fidel who is the flag."

Later, most of the interviews, especially those with the exile-intelligentsia in the second half of the film (when there is a marked thematic shift from gay oppression to general oppression), return to Castro himself as the demon-like source of all "evil," betrayer par excellance.

First of all, the strategy of juxtaposing clips from a 1979 Castro interview with testimonies and newsreel footage that explicitly contradict him produces the textual effect of identifying him as a consummate liar. But, more subtly, the film also presents a series of criticisms of Castro that are related to its own paradoxical project of attempting to link gay rights with the political right. If Castro is, as the people chanting in the film's first image seem to believe, the guardian of the nation's morality ("Fidel, tighten up, Cuba must be respected"), then he is also, according to his images in the film, an odd guardian indeed: effusively embracing another man (Kruschev, when they meet in Moscow), described as a "marquesa" (literally marquise, but the connotation is closer to a self-aggrandizing "queen"), criticized for not being married or having a permanent partner, and finally, as a supermacho man. Is the film's revenge, ultimately, to insinuate homophobically that the excesses of power and oppression it alleges are grounded in a masculinity problem?

Although IMPROPER CONDUCT had wide, international repercussions and is not directly addressed to the Cuban exile community, it does serve to create a discursive space where the exile community's political rejection of revolutionary Cuba can be simplistically reinterpreted as "politically correct" in liberal eyes. Thus, like THE OTHER CUBA, it can also be said to function to reduce the exiles' liminality and to promote their assimilation. However its reception was more complex, especially since a large part of the Miami exiled community — albeit liking the attention that the film focused on "their" side of arguments — deeply resented what was interpreted as a suggestion that the great majority of exiled Cubans were homosexuals.[22]

Completing the trilogy of denunciation exile documentaries, NOBODY LISTENS expands IMPROPER CONDUCT's project and addresses human rights abuses in Cuban prisons. The film begins with a quirky, somewhat disingenuous prologue: Jorge Ulla is on the phone, pleading with various Cuban bureaucrats to get permission to import a film crew into the country. Finally, someone hangs up on him: the answer is obviously no. Unable to film in Cuba (something they obviously could not have reasonably expected to have been allowed to do), Almendros and Ulla position their denunciation solidly in places of exile — Madrid, New York, London, Miami, Paris, New Jersey — where they interview thirty or so former political prisoners and their relatives, including well-known figures like Huber Matos and Armando Valladares as well as many whose stories had not been heard before. Their testimony, presented in a series of beautifully photographed talking head shots, is harrowing. At its most successful, the film weaves these individual tales of torture and humiliation into an indictment of an all-powerful state that has managed to conceal these activities from the rest of the world. Its credibility emerges not so much as a result of the interviewees' acuity, but because of the palpable dignity of these abused survivors who unflinchingly face the camera and relive their pasts.

In a review of the film in The Village Voice, Enrique Fernández noted that the reception accorded to the film at its premiere at the Miami Film Festival was very telling of the film's impact on the exile community. In the past, Miami Cuban-Americans have not been very tolerant of former Castro supporters, no matter how much they may have denounced their former socialist associations in exile. However, during the screening of NOBODY LISTENED in 1988, at the moment when ex-prisoner Eloy Guttiérez Menoyo is asked whether a new Cuban political order should tolerate communists and he responds affirmatively, arguing that "Cuban communists are Cuban,"

"the theater exploded with applause…echoing a feeling…[of] young Cubans in Havana: a weariness with division and anger, a longing, perhaps naive, for brotherhood and peace."[23]

As Fernández goes on to argue, NOBODY LISTENED, despite its potential one-sidedness,[24] pushes the limits of what so far has been a narrow ideological field of cinematic dialogue. Embittered Cuban exiles seldom stop to reflect on how much their emotionalism, intolerance, and paranoia reflect with mirror-like precision the worst aspects of their antagonists' mentality.[25]

Thus the film also works as a melancholy assessment of the condition of exile itself, whether in prison, in Miami, or elsewhere: the inability to communicate over long periods of time, the silence of prison and of exile, the fact that "nobody" in the island or outside of it seems to listen.

That assimilation is a problematic endeavor filled with frustrations had already been explicitly addressed in Jiménez Leal and Ichaso's independent feature EL SUPER (based on a play by Iván Acosta). Preceding the markedly different denunciation documentaries, this is solidly a film of exile longing and displacement. The film tells the story of Roberto, a former apolitical bus driver who left Cuba in 1968 out of a generalized frustration with the system and ended up becoming the superintendent of a building in New York's Washington Heights. After a decade in New York, Roberto and his wife Aurelia are still struggling with assimilation: they cannot stand the winters, barely speak English, associate primarily with other Latinos, and are deeply disturbed by their teenaged daughter's (Elizabeth Peña) increasingly visible American-ness.

Roberto, in fact, is in the midst of a deep psychological crisis typical of the exile's condition: longing for a Cuba that never really was and unable to accommodate himself to the harsh realities of his adopted land. The film's solution to his angst — a move to Miami motivated by a job offer and dreams of sun-drenched palm trees and the sounds of Spanish — ends the story on a somewhat hollow triumphant note, for Roberto can never have that which he longs for most: not to have left Cuba.

Unlike the denunciation documentaries that followed it, EL SUPER displaces the explicitly political to address the experience of exile accommodation at a personal level. Thus, while we may consider the denunciation documentaries as part of the liminal phase of exile, this film that chronologically preceded them is paradoxically a film of assimilation that consciously celebrates an already existing new imaginary community.


Besides these better-known Cuban exile directors, a "new" generation-born in Cuba but trained in the U.S. has also emerged. Although there are marked slippages between the first and second generations, this group seems to cohere in in-between spaces: between the U.S. and Cuba, between the exiles and the North Americans. They are always attempting to "cross over," albeit in different directions. Among them are León Ichaso, Ramón Menéndez, Jorge Ulla, Miñuca Villaverde, Iván Acosta, and Orestes Matacena. Although their individual trajectories as filmmakers are quite varied, their partial assimilation has meant that they have often felt free to leave behind the explicit denunciations of the first generation in order to focus more and more on the nature of life as exiles; in other words, to wrest the exile's nostalgia away from the tragic discourse of dispossession and to recuperate it as ethnic identity — Cuban-American, but also Latino.

Certainly, León Ichaso emblematizes the "crossover" phenomenon. After leaving Jiménez-Leal and teaming up with producer Manuel Arce (and his production company Max Mambru Films), Ichaso tried to build on the success of EL SUPER to reach Hollywood. However, when their project to film a Cuban-American screwball comedy entitled A SHORT VACATION was shelved by Universal in 1982 (after spending two years in development, curiously, at the same time that SCARFACE was being planned by the studio), they independently produced their own allegory of failed crossovers, CROSSOVER DREAMS, in 1985. Starring the Panamanian singer-actor-politician, Harvard educated lawyer Rubén Blades, the film tells the wry tale of a salsero's struggle to "make it" in the New York City mainstream music scene. Like the tale it tells, CROSSOVER DREAMS is itself a crossover experience. It isn't Cuban-American, but rather a Latino film, deeply marked by the American experience and the values and narrative strategies of classic Hollywood cinema: it tells a story about Latinos in the same terms that similar stories have been told about other ethnic groups' efforts to "make it" in the American mainstream.

Ichaso has yet to make another feature film, but continues to work of projects that he hopes will "crossover." His latest is a script about the famous Dominican-born playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, a project also apparently being developed by another Cuban exile successful crossover, Ramón Menéndez, the director of STAND AND DELIVER (1988).[26] Not unlike CROSSOVER DREAMS in spirit, this rather conventionally told story about the real-life success of an East-L.A. math teacher who manages to inspire his students to score exceptionally well in the math Advanced Placement test, is also a Latino film. Thus with these films, the Cuban-American experience has been replaced by a more generalized Latino focus that simultaneously reflects the realities of an assimilation that in many cases is already more than thirty years old as well as the commercial imperatives of "entertainment" films that aspire to mass audiences.

Jorge Ulla, another who was exiled quite young, has chosen a markedly different path. In 1978, he directed his first feature film, GUAGUASÍ in the Dominican Republic (not completed or released until 1982). Photographed by Ramón Suarez (who won prizes for MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT), GUAGUASÍ is a lushly photographed fictional tale about the effects of revolutionary policies on a "simple" man who stayed behind, a guajiro or peasant who joined the guerrillas accidentally and, after the revolution, became a harsh executioner of his own friends, a betrayer. The film has rarely been seen in the U.S., although it was one of the three Latin American films (representing the Dominican Republic) selected in the pre-nominations for the best foreign film academy award category.

In 1980, Ulla directed IN THEIR OWN WORDS (with Lawrence Ott, Jr.), a 30 min. documentary about the Mariel exodus sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. Filmed as the exiles were arriving at Key West, the film uses their testimonies to attempt to explain this sudden massive exodus and highlights the experience of leaving and the feelings of these new exiles. Perhaps because of the experience of working on IN THEIR OWN WORDS, and despite the fact that he claims a preference for fiction filmmaking, Ulla went on to make documentaries with Orlando Jiménez Leal (THE OTHER CUBA) and Néstor Almendros (NOBODY LISTENED), thus joining forces with the "first generation of exile directors and their passionate politics.[27]

Unlike Ichaso and Ulla, Miñuca Villaverde works in a very personal and poetic style and is one of the most interesting filmmakers of this group. After working as an experimental filmmaker in New York (under the auspices of the Women's Interart Center) and directing the award-winning shorts A GIRL IN LOVE and POOR CINDERELLA, STILL IRONING HER HUSBAND'S SHIRT, she moved to Miami with her ex-filmmaker husband Francisco and directed the documentaries TO MY FATHER (1974) and TENT CITY (1984). TO MY FATHER is a record of a Cuban American family's interactions at a time of crisis: waiting for the death of the family patriarch, the filmmaker's own father. Filmed in Texas, where the family home now is, Villaverde contextualizes the sad present with a series of images of his (and her) youth in Cuba. Today, however, the father is only a slowly fading sun in a system of relatives that attempt to care for him while they carry on their everyday lives and, in essence, rehearse for his absence. At the end of the film, flat landscapes and nondescript buildings roll by as the road distances us and Villaverde herself from the sad intimacies of the family home.

With TENT CITY, Villaverde assumed a more provocative public stance. Documenting the experiences of those Mariel boatlift exiles who were hard to relocate and had to live in Army tents under an expressway in downtown Miami for several months, the film chronicles Villaverde's own fascination with their marginality and dogged persistence to assert their own identities. It begins surveying the group from outside the fence, moving slowly into the grounds, and finally, inside the makeshift homes themselves to interview and make friends with them. They are predominantly blacks, ostentatious homosexuals, and ex-cons with elaborate tattoos; outcasts with a will to live and celebrate — chanting to santería gods, modeling gowns made from linens and hand-me-downs — who had to leave their homeland and yet remain totally disenfranchised in the U.S. Their testimonies are, in many ways, more moving than those of the more literate and sophisticated poets and political dissenters usually featured in exile productions. After the final relocations, when crews come in to clean up the tents, we realize that only this film guarantees that the memory of the inhabitants of Tent City will not also be swept away.

Although more difficult to place than Villaverde and Ulla, Acosta and Matacena have also produced work dealing primarily with exilic assimilation. For example, after writing the play that was adapted for EL SUPER, Acosta went on to make AMIGOS (1986?), a low-budget feature dealing with the painful bicultural existence of a group of young Cuban-American friends living in Miami. Although conventionally shot and haltingly narrated, the film does capture the contradictions of exiled teenage life — Americans at school, yet Cubans at home — with great poignancy.


Yet a third group of Cuban exiles — what might be called the "Cuban American" or "third" generation — has been making its presence felt in alternative film and video circles. Among these primarily multimedia artists are: Enrique Oliver, whose PHOTO ALBUM (1984) offers a campy yet acute look at the transculturation of exile with tidbits such as a history of the evolution of the Cuban virgin and the exorcism of an overly-Americanized teenager by a santería priest; Tony Labat, whose Ñ (1982) is a fascinating and very experimental analysis of that letter's inscription of difference and a meditation on mestizaje; Rafael Elortequi, a University of Miami film school graduate who has done a number of experimental films; and Raúl Ferrera-Balarquet, a University of Iowa film school graduate whose MÉRIDA PROSCRITA (1990), WE ARE HABLANDO (1991) and NO ME OLVIDES (1992) offer poignant analyses of the difficulties and marginalization of gay Latino life in a North-South context.

This last generation — the Cuban-Americans — is perhaps the most distant from the exile experience as such. Certainly, their work is not linked to the usual anti-Castro political Cuban exile agenda. However their general concern with biculturalism (and the related loss, marginality, and difference) is nevertheless still couched in the terms of an explicit exile positionality — a Cuban-ness slipping into Latino-ness — that is unavoidable. And which, full circle, returns them to the mainstream of the contemporary art scene.

Although this generation is also the most distant from the island itself — some left as tiny children, others were born in the U.S.[28] — -its work is, paradoxically, the most closely linked to the island's cinema. In Cuba, an aggressive group of young "amateur" filmmakers, loosely associated with the youth cultural organization Hermanos Saiz (and, in many cases, students at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana or the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión in San Antonio de los Baños) and working independently of ICAIC, has begun to express similar cinematic concerns and experimental multimedia approaches.

Films and video work such as UN PEDAZO DE MI (A PART OF ME), Jorge Luis Sánchez, 1989), EMPEZAR DE CERO (STARTING AT ZERO), Ibis Gómez García, 1991), OSCUROS RINOCERONTES ENJAULADOS (MUY A LA MODA) / DARK CAGED RHINOCEROS (VERY MUCH IN FASHION), Juan Carlos Cremata, 1991), and EMMA, LA MUJER MARCADA (EMMA, THE MARKED WOMAN), Camilo Hernández, 1991) tackle topics that the national cinema has shied away from (respectively, marginality in contemporary Cuba, the excessive presence of Martí busts throughout Havana, Cuban irreverence, and notions of cultural identity) in a highly experimental and iconoclastic fashion.[29] For both sets of filmmakers, the expressly political — the revolution — is not a direct concern, but a decentered subtext that is subsumed within other categories of life and experience. Perhaps because of their youth, because of their comparatively similar exposure to different varieties of film and video work, or because of a generalized postmodernist climate that has reached into the island itself, the work of the third generation of Cuban-American filmmakers and the new generations emerging in Cuba share a common ground.[30]

In the long and complex history of Cuba and its diaspora, its film and video productions seem to have, partially, effected a graceful reencounter. There is now, it seems, a small "Cuba" that exceeds all national boundaries.


1. Lourdes Casal, "Para Ana Velford," Palabras Juntan Revolución (Havana: Casa de las Americas, 1981), p. 61. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Spanish-language sources are my own.

2. Hamid Naficy has begin this project in his "Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization," Quarterly Review of Film and Video vol 13, nos. 1-3 (1991), pp. 85-116.

3. The literature on the Chilean exile cinema is quite extensive, but for a good summary see, Zuzana Pick, "Chilean Cinema in Exile, 1973-1986." Framework, no. 34 (1987), pp. 40-57.

4. Peter Marshall, Cuba Libre (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 242. Less conservative figures indicate the possibility that as much as 12% of the present Cuban population (or 1.2 million) lives abroad. See, for example, Ileana Fuentes-Pérez, "By Choice or by Circumstance: The Inevitable Exile of Artists," Outside Cuba/ Fuera de Cuba (New Brunswick, N.J. and Miami: Office of Hispanic Arts, Rutgers University and the Research Institute for Cuban Studies, The University of Miami, 1988).

5. The earliest exiles are, for example, very unforgiving of those who collaborated with Castro and the revolution and whose subsequent change of political opinion has not convinced them. Thus, Carlos Franqui, an ex-Castro ally, is not very welcomed in Miami circles (he lives in Italy). When he was introduced to the audience awaiting a screening of THE OTHER CUBA (based, partly, on his story) at the Miami Film Festival in 1985, the audience's resounding boos convinced him to remain in his seat rather than go up on the stage and face the crowds. See, Enrique Fernández, "Miami's Autores," Film Comment, 21, no. 3 (May-June 1985), p. 46-8.

6. Various exiled film workers did not come to the U.S.. Most notably, Nestor Almendros who left Cuba to become a world-famous cinematographer in France and only began to work for Hollywood producers in the late 1970s. (Almendros died in Paris as this article was being written.) Others were Fausto Cartel, who has directed several films — LA ESPERA (POWER GAMES), LA ESPUELA (THE SPUR), and MARIA LA SANTA (MAMA, THE SAINT) and a TV serial (EL JUGLAR Y LA RENA / THE JOKER AND THE QUEEN) in Spain and Humberto López Guerra, who produced a documentary in Sweden entitled CASTRO Y CUBA.

7. Tracking the journeys of Cuban exiles involved with film and video is a difficult task. I have relied on personal knowledge, some accounts published in the Spanishlanguage press, and, finally, upon María Eulalia Douglas' Diccionario de Cineastas Cubanos, 1959-1987 (Havana/Mérida: Cinemateca de Cuba/Universidad de los Andes, 1989) which identifies past and present ICAIC personnel (including those that have left).

8. See, for example, Nester Almendros, "A los Dictadores les Gusta el Cine," Noticias de Arte (New York), September 1987, pp. 10-12 and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, "Cuba's Shadow," Film Comment vol 21, no. 3 (1985), pp. 43-45.

9. Michael Chanan, The Cuban Image (London: British Film Institute, 1985), p. 101.

10. For the complete text of Castro's speech, see, "Palabras a los Intelectuales," Política Cultural de la Revolución Cubana: Documentos (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1977), pp. 5-47.

11. Edmundo Desnöes, "Epilogo para Intelectuales," Dispositivos en la Flor, pp. 539-40.

12. Maurice Helperin, "Culture and Revolution," The Rise and Decline of Fidel Castro (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 351-353.

13. Padilla, an award-winning (UNEAC. 1968) yet disaffected poet, was arrested for dissidence in 1971. His subsequent public confession and apology, the ban on his books, and the government's refusal to allow him to travel (until his final departure via Spain in 1980) caused an international scandal, which provoked the first split between Cuba and international intellectual circles. For an excellent assessment and compilation of important documents see, Lourdes Casal, El Caso Padilla: Literatura y Revolución en Cuba (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1972?).

14. See, Jorge Ulla, Lawrence Ott, and Miñuca Villaverde, Dos Filmes del Mariel: El Exodo Cubano de 1980 (Madrid: Editorial Playor, 1986), p. 158. Molina, who wrote the preface to this publication of the scripts of Ulla's and Villaverde's films, now lives in New York and works in the Latin American Department of Associated Press.

15. In addition to those that accompanied their parents into exile, the Cuban diaspora also included a number of children and teenagers sent by their parents to the U.S. (between 1960 and 1963) in response to rumors that the government was about to impose child custody laws that would give the State absolute authority over all children. For several years, thousands of children were met by the Catholic Charities Organization, which set up camps in Miami — Matecumbe for boys, Kendall for girls — and later relocated them to orphanages and foster homes throughout the country. This forced orphanhood was among the most tragic results of the Cuban situation. For moving testimonies, see, for example, Jesus Díaz, De la Patria y el Exilio (Havana: Ediciones Union, 1978).

16. EL SUPER won the grand prize at the Manheim festival, a festival award at Biarritz, and was selected for a Mostra at the Venice festival in 1979.

17. I use "Cuba" to refer to the greater nation, beyond the geographical confines of the island, that includes the exiled communities.

18. It is interesting to note that when THE OTHER CUBA aired on a Spanish-language television channel in Miami/New York in late 1984, the film's contribution to the community's social imaginary ("what it can teach the children") was what most interested the participants of the panel discussions among Jiménez Leal and prominent Cuban exiles (primarily university professors, critics, and community organizers) that followed the film.

19. Nelson Valdés, "Cuban Political Culture: Between Betrayal and Death," in Sandor Halebsky and John M. Kirk, eds., Cuba in Transition (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992). pp. 217.

20. B. Ruby Rich, "Bay of Pix," American Film (July-August 1984). p. 59.

21. The film's U.S. release provoked a heated debate between (and within) progressives and gay liberationists too complicated to rehearse here. See, for example, in Village Voice: Richard Goldstein, "¡Cuba Si, Macho No!" (July 24, 1984), pp. 1, 42-44; Néstor Almendros, "An Illusion of Fairness" (August 14. 1984), p. 40; and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, "¡Cuba Si, Almendros No! (Oct. 21, 1984), pp. 46-47. And also, Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez-Leal, "Improper Conduct," American Film (Sept. 1984), pp. 18,70-1.

22. See, Alea, "¡Cuba Si, Almendros No!" p. 47.

23. Enrique Fernández, "Nobody Booed," Village Voice (March 22. 1988), p. 42.

24. It is interesting to note that Almendros and Ulla waged a long and arduous battle with PBS to get NOBODY LISTENED aired on U.S. television. For more details see, Jacob Weisberg, "Nobody Watched," The New Republic (August 13, 1990), pp. 12-13.

25. Fernández, "Nobody Booed," p. 42.

26. Enrique Fernández, "Three Amigos," Village Voice (February 28, 1988), p. 34.

27. Despite the fact that he has argued that "politics is a synonym of paranoia" in "La certidumbre de lo imposible." Ulla & Ott and Villaverde, Dos Filmes de Mariel, p. 127.

28. With the exception of Ferrera-Balarquet, who was over eighteen when he left Cuba during the Mariel exodus.

29. For more information, see Alejandro Rios, "Otro Cine Cubano de Hoy," Cine Cubano, no, no. 133 (Nov-Dec 1991), pp. 53-57.

30. Perhaps it is also important that these young Cuban-Americans have also managed to make "pilgrimages" back to the island itself, not so much to exorcise the past, but to re-encounter their Cubanness.