Talking with Ernesto Pérez Zambrano
In times of (r) evolution of the audiovisual making in Cuba, where there are discussions –and production– about video clips, independent production, advertising, and even about a cinema law, we will be talking with Ernesto Pérez Zambrano (Havana, 1981), who is a young filmmaker with an acknowledged experience on these media. He is a director and a scriptwriter of documentaries such as “Big Leagues?” (2008), “Mother, the earth” (2010), “Miniature-Universe. Las Caobas” (2011) and “Las Terrazas, sketch of a Paradise” (2012), which have been shown on different editions of the International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema, the ICAIC Festival of Young Filmmakers and many international events.
Some of his opinions about the audiovisual in Cuba today, the scene of the capital, the “alternative”, the independent film production, and the work made by youngsters, among other subjects, can be found on the following interview.
By: Yolaida Duharte López
Y: Ernesto, What assessment could you make, generally speaking, on the audiovisual made in Cuba today?
E: It is a little complicated to make a general assessment of a broad spectrum, because there are huge differences between what is made in the Cuban television –in the ICRT–, what is made in the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematographic Industry (ICAIC), or what the independent filmmakers produce. And I think that it is indeed one of the main characteristics: the fact of finding that there are special features in the different productions, in how they are taken, in the subject matters, in the perspectives. Generally speaking, it is perceived an audiovisual that, in a way, searches for being connected to the social reality; there exist from the more pleasing visions, sweetened, up to the ones that pursuit to make visible some problems –even from the official institutions–, or those that are more questioning or criticizing, which can be made by the more independent filmmakers.
There is also a group that is working round the video clip, advertising. This last, although Cuban audience don’t watch it very much, it is made, mainly advertising slots, on programs for foreign countries like Cubavisión Internacional or channels out of Cuba. This is a phenomenon that is more related to the filmmakers’ survival, which is making a way into other creation spaces because there are many filmmakers who are experiencing this video clip and advertising world. Then, they begin to make fiction or documentary; so, in a certain way, on these new forays it can be seen typical elements from the above mentioned genres.
Y: In the case of the audiovisual made by youngsters, what does characterize it and what generation nuances does make it different from the rest?
E: In general, it is characterized by a searching of social reality, the immediate, and the conflicts of Cuban society from a problem-causing perspective.
The Cuban documentary or cinema from the 60’s and 70’s tried to see from a critical perspective some edges of society, but it made this more like exploring the marks of a past in a society that tried to improve itself. The youngest audiovisual makers, –I guess that like most of the youngsters that study Social Sciences, Art or creation in general–, approaches these social matters like questioning what they experience and know. These works mainly show characters on extreme situations, in which other people and communities live, but they don’t succeed to give a solution to these conflicts. That is, the audiovisual made by youngsters shows critical points of view of a situation to criticize it or make it visible, not as part of a process of something that can be improved. It is rather a statement about the problem from criticism, not neutral, but it means a pronouncement or a position on this matter.
For example, sometimes I sense that some documentaries by the ICAIC that questioned or explored certain problems –mainly on the 70’s, perhaps on the 80’s it becomes more daring–, perceived many of these problems as a legacy prior to 1959. And I think that now there is a more critical and thoughtful spirit, but it is not anchored on that perspective that everything would be solved little by little; that is how I understand it when I see an outlook of this production. Indeed, it is interesting how many of these works made by youngsters can set links with prior works made by the ICAIC, with conflicts that happen again, but approaches or points of view begin to change.
Y: Many of these young audiovisual makers in Cuba work now from independent production companies. Could you tell me how do such companies work? Which are the most outstanding ones? And what kind of work do they generally make?
E: The independent production companies, generally and with a few exceptions that have been able to keep a kind of institutionalization and certain legal support, the great majority are entities that don’t exists by law. They are rather a creation space where some production associations are established between a group of people and creators, or because they have some equipment and they put it in function of their own works, or because they rent it from private businesses. I also see them like fingerprints that characterize the works –and creators, consequently– almost with a distinctive ideological element. For example, my working group and I made one called Contrahegemoní@s (Against-domin@nce), but it didn’t exist by law; it was not a producing company; and we not even had the equipment when we began to use that name or word. We did it because you learn or know the fact that every audiovisual must be shown from a producing Company or something like that, and for us, that meant also to stand out.
The names, logos and labels take us not only to the production, but also to the ideological matter and the reach of the people behind the work. And that’s what I feel that happened; at the beginning, it was like identifying this work and separate it from the institutional production, from its discourses and ways-to-do. Later, with development, the growth of producing companies and information of people about that subject, some equipment has been acquired; the digital technology has also influenced positively because “it has reduced the costs” –at least the access to this technology for who can pay for it.
Within this kind of producing companies that have emerged I could mention the experience of Matraca, a label that has been working for some years; it is almost one of the first that came like an independent name or producing label. There is also El Central, which, above all, has a huge equipment stock, and they make Works of scripts, shooting, edition, post-production of image and sound; and so they achieve to manage some positions within the audiovisual production. It is also important the 5ta Avenida (The Fifth Avenue), which has achieved certain level and acknowledgement in the Island and overseas by giving professional productions for TV, films and advertising.
Sometimes it has happened that some filmmakers have looked for mechanisms to register these producing companies as legally as possible, but they don’t have anything to do with the national mechanisms. So, they often register them out of the country because some of their members are foreigners or have a second nationality. On the other hand, there is certain tolerance from the Cuban institutionalization; tolerance because it is a fact that cannot be overlooked; in a way, everything is in a legal limbo because they don’t find a way to legislate and validate the issue about independent producing companies. That’s how, when they register their pieces on the film festivals or on the Festival of Young Filmmakers they are asked whether they belong to an independent producing company or not; what shows that there is an acknowledgement of their existence on that spaces.
Y: Although most of these companies are here in Havana, What chief differences or distinctive features of the audiovisual made in the capital would you distinguish from the rest of the country?
E: Speaking about this subject, there is a very interesting producing company called La Concretera (The reinforced concrete machine), from Pinar del Río province. They have made a very significant work and even competed on documentary on the 36th edition of the International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema. They represent a little the example of how a name assume an identity, because I guess that their name has to do with a people’s tale about a concrete machine and Pinar del Río; but, at the same time, it could refer to how much a concrete machine produce. It is very interesting.
Getting back to the question, it is true that there exists a very Havana-centered audiovisual scene, not only on the independent or freelance issue, but also on the whole Cuban audiovisual production. It is not exclusively because there is more shooting in Havana or because there are more conflicts here, but because the way the rest of the country is filmed is very Havana-centered. These kinds of films are intended for the audience from Havana, mainly video clips, in the belief that there is more economic solvency in Havana. Sometimes you feel that values from other regions or provinces of the country are not present, or, if they are, they are stained by capital sights.
In the case of independent pieces, they are still made more from the capital, what makes us see there is an uneven distribution of resources and possibilities of productions. Consequently, it is significant how most of documentaries or fiction movies are produced and filmed in Havana, or the producers from Havana go to shoot round the rest of the country. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an important production out of the capital; one of the paradigmatic examples that it is not an independent producing company is Televisión Serrana, which has managed to create its own speech; it has generated an important cultural project that, in my opinion, has grown in importance –and not making comparisons so far– as good as the ICAIC Latin-American News. It has been a project that has made visible a region with its traditions and conflicts, but it also has educated and given the people from those mountain villages in the use of audiovisual.
There are experiences in Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey and Nuevitas, all of them very interesting. And in all that works it can be perceived that there is a lack of resources –or it is more difficult for them to find means– for producing. At the end, we are talking about the cinematographic industry, which needs a lot of resources to be made.
I believe and feel that at least the people of my generation who live out of Havana, either thanks to the Festival of Young Filmmakers or to cultural exchanges that have been made; they do have managed to get higher levels of production. I don’t sense so much difference on the quality now; I see it more balanced. But, more works from Havana are still seen and shown, and that fact, in my opinion, makes more visible the unevenness that exists in every other issue of Cuban society. And this subject also happens because there are more producers in the capital; there are many creators who studied at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) or at the International School of Cinema of San Antonio de los Baños, and although they came from other provinces, they preferred to work here in Havana in search of different opportunities, because here there is a wider access to information, festivals, events and funds.
Y: Many times it is characterized or is used the term alternative to talk about a cinema made by youngsters or about a specific kind of audiovisual. What do you understand by alternative and what do you think about the work made from this perspective?
E: In Cuba I think that the alternative is used mainly as an autonomous relationship in respect of institutions. People want to know more if some productions had more or less institutional pressure, to what extend it had freedom on the subject or treatment of the work. But, what happens? On one hand, the distribution channels for films belong to the government or institutions, although the technology of USB allows the “alternative” distribution in the sense that it doesn’t depend on institutionalization or official promotion. That’s why I think that here the alternative is more used in dependence on if the piece is made under the shadow of official institutions, which have legitimized itself as the ones that make the audiovisual in Cuba.
On the other hand, and from the perspective of contents, speech and quality, the alternative can be questionable, in my opinion. Many of these works that try to be alternative, anti-establishment, transgressor; that attempt to be reflexive about some problematic issues, its points of views reproduce the same hegemonic views not only of Cuban institutions, but also of foreign levels. For example, for me, the alternative would be those works that attempt to question gender violence; however, we see pieces that supposedly deal about these subject matters and what they are really doing is to reproduce a sexist language. There aren’t too many spaces for other production processes, more collaborative, with communities and people. In that way a different kind of audiovisual could be made, but that is not tainted by the market and the cinematographic industry hegemony; however, many times the referents of what is seen, awarded and sold out of the country is privileged to be shown abroad.
That’s why, and regarding to the alternative, it is important to take into account the perspective of language and contents, is it alternative in respect of what? To Politics, officialdom and cultural about certain subject, to the points of view of international patriarchy that we live in our country, or they really are freeing and transgressor works of art, which try different ways to do. In that point we should see to what extend they break some canons.
Y: Lastly, and in respect of all the subjects dealt on the interview, how would you characterize your work?
E: We –and when I say “we” I mean the whole creative group that I have been working with for some years–, have experienced all that moments and processes we have made documentaries completely freelance, without the formal participation of institutions or any other collaboration with NGO. With the participation of these last, many times people think that their works are alternative because they are not made by the ICAIC o ICRT, but when some of these pieces are asked as an assignment by an NGO it is not alternative because the organization is going to ask you some standards, points of view, etc.
We have this completely freelance documentary that was our graduation thesis called “Big Leagues” (2008); all the rest have been works made to order, ones with the ICAIC, and others with NGO. I have made works in Havana and other communities out of the capital, being always a filmmaker from Havana. Just now, I would be interested in having different working methods that allow me making more alternative works, more from a collaborative perspective. But I don’t deny myself access to a creation space more individual or canonical, so to speak; I mean, I’m also interested in the author-documentary.
I think that it is not about closing any road or door, the only thing to be clear about is the sense of what you are doing; I can have a dialogue and work with the ICAIC, with an NGO or freelance; at the end, none of these things will enclose exactly the sense of my work. I’m always questioning myself if I’m not reproducing what I want to question in my work and if I’m coherent in respect of what I want to communicate. That is what worries me the most, not from what space I’m making the documentaries. And the same happen to me if I’m working in Havana or if I’m from Havana and I’m working in another province; what interests me is to have the tools to deconstruct certain stereotypes or prejudices and so to get closer to realities I experience every day, in a more dialogue way. At the end, I attempt to get an appealing and interesting audiovisual result, but from the perspective of a coherent speech with these premises as an act of self-determination and intervention, commitment to that realities.
Y: Thank you very much.