The Untold Story

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by: Zaira Zarza

Pre-revolutionary cinema radio and television in Cuba: the untold story 

The first cultural institution created after the Cuban Revolution in January 1959 was the Cuban Film Institute. Its foundational document stated that cinema was an art but also “an instrument of opinion and formation of individual and collective consciousness that will help to deepen and clear the revolutionary spirit”[1]. Since then and also taking into account an audiovisual tradition in the Island that started decades prior to 1960, short, medium and long feature films and documentaries were made to criticize, praise, support, describe and/or problematize events, subjects and cultural spaces related to the winding process of construction of a new political system and society. However, what was the context of emergence of this new form of national cinema-making? What were the historical precedents of these film artists who came into sight in Cuba’s vigorous decade of 1960-1969?

Cuban cinema in the pre-1959 period is largely unrecognized in analysis of the audiovisual production on the island. Much less has been written about this part of the country’s cultural history from abroad and in a language other than Spanish. In this sense, the films made under the auspices of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) have always been privileged in the official history of cinema making in the nation. The weather also wreaked havoc when preserving -and historicizing- the films made in this first stage. Many meters of celluloid were damaged or disappeared from the film archives for many reasons, including fires, difficult storage conditions and the ravages of the tropical climate against which the economic situation in Cuba has not been able to fight with the required systematic rigor. References to this form of art in that era were often, then, contained within the oral histories intangible heritage forms.

The first audiovisual work filmed in Cuba was the one-minute short Simulacro de Incendio (Fire Drill, 1897) directed by Gabriel Veyre who worked for the Lumiére brothers and introduced the cinematograph on the Island, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean in the late nineteenth century. El Parque de Palatino (1906), Los festejos de la Caridad en Camagüey (1909) and Sagua la Grande al día (1916) by Enrique Díaz Quesada, one of the most productive filmmakers of the time, were works that continued this practice not only in the capital but also in other provinces. Díaz Quesada together with businessman Francisco Rodríguez, created The Moving Pictures Company to film and project special events such as the burial of the General Máximo Gómez.

According to researches on the film production of the period, the topics with the greatest popularity were "historical, folkloric, social, folk or just about aspects of our daily lives."[2]  Although early in the century was led by the production of documentary films, works of fiction boom win late in the 1920s.

In this new moment, many studio film productions began and the urban fabric will no longer be the main center of gaze. A new interest in the bucolic look that highlights the beauty of the countryside and the sugar cane plantation will emerges. And also, the themes of the movies frequently involved love relationships interrupted by social class differences. Co-productions with Spain and especially Mexico were increasingly common at the time. Mexican musical theater especially in the '40s and '50s with melodrama and comedy as main genres were a core influence on Cuban audiovisual production. The two silent fiction films that are still preserved are El veneno de un beso (1929) and La virgen de la Caridad (1930) both by Ramón Peón to whom historians Luciano Castillo and Arturo Agramonte have dubbed the "Cuban Griffith". Peón then directed El romance del palmar starring Rita Montaner in 1938. Additionally, two of the most celebrated films by both film critics and the public before the Revolution were Siete muertes a plazo fijo and Casta de Roble directed by Manuel Alonso in 1950 and 1953 respectively.

A team of four film activists of the post-revolutionary cinema collaborated in 1955 to produce the documentary El Mégano (1955). They were Julio García Espinosa, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Alfredo Guevara and José Massip. Two of them had studied with Nobel Prize and founder of the International of Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños Gabriel García Márquez at the Institute of Cinematography in Rome. Hence the remarkable influence of Italian Neorealism in Cuban cinema in the early sixties. El Mégano is perhaps the boldest criticism of its time to the plight of the Cuban working class as it portrays the harsh working conditions of charcoal makers in the Zapata Swamp.

An essential text devoted to the study of film in recent years is Entre el vivir y el sonar: Pioneros del cine cubano, awarded in the category of outstanding research by the Cuban Association of the Cinematographic Press. Its authors, Camagüey-born film historians Arturo Agramonte (1925-2003) and Luciano Castillo review works by the aforementioned filmmakers and also by José Esteban Casasús, Ernesto Caparrós and distributors/producers Pablo Santos and Jesús Artigas. In the book, they gather several biographical sketches of those who dreamed of a truly Cuban cinema at a time when this was just an illusion due to lack of state support. The trajectories of Enrique Díaz Quesada and Manolo Alonso "parade through these pages revealing the anxieties to bring their works to the screen." [3]  

Radio and television were other means of extraordinary vitality before 1959. CMQ Radio and CMQ Television in Havana were the precedents of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT). The technology of television arrived in Cuba in October, 1950. Gaspar Pumarejo and Goar Mestre were two entrepreneurs whole efforts were essential in its development. And already by 1958 “the country counted with 25 television transmitters with a power of 150,5 Kw, installed in Havana, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba.”[4] Radio Rebelde, a radio-guerrilla founded in February 1958 by the rebels in the Sierra Maestra has remained active until today. Created in December 15, 1929, Radio Progreso is now one of the oldest Cuban radio stations and Radio Reloj, founded on July 1, 1947, still reports news to the nearly 12 million Cubans on the island. Cuba was a founder of the radio drama format (radionovela) in Latin America. The CMKC radio station in the municipality of Santiago de Cuba was the headquarter of great pieces of the genre such as Chan Li Po and El derecho de nacer by renowned script writer Felix B. Caignet (Havana, 1892- Santiago de Cuba, 1976).

This brief overview is lacking critical analysis about Havana as the central focus of pre-revolutionary film and radio production. How was Havana portrayed at the time? What were the sights and sounds that the technology of that era allowed? The city’s hegemony was already defined then since it was the cultural capital of the country and the place where most institutions were located. This practice continues to the date despite the foundation of film and broadcast media departments in other provinces. Other regions also gained certain autonomy in film distribution and exhibition, at least in an independent way. In this edition, Havana Street View’s H-motiv shares some links of interest below related to this theme and joins the celebration of various “Foundational Myths” that have nurtured the culture of the city.

[1] Ley Número 169 de creación del ICAIC. March 20, 1959. Available at: http://www.uneac.org.cu/index.php?module=contenido&id=ley169

[2] “Cine producido en Cuba hasta 1958”, n.a. n.d. Available at: http://www.vitral.org/vitral/edvitral/cine/h1958.htm

[3]  Juan Antonio García Borrero. “Luciano Castillo sobre ‘el día de la crítica’ en el Festival de La Habana”. December 6, s.a. Available at: Festival de La Habana  (My translation)

[4] Dany Herranz Delgado. “Breve historia de la televisión en el mundo, en Cuba y en la provincia de Sancti Spíritus.” Disponible en historia de la televisión (My translation)

 

 

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