NY Festival's Ban Of Cuba Film Feels Like Miami Schools' Ban Of Cuba Book
If you’ve lived in Miami long enough, you’re used to seeing all things Cuban – all things – refracted through a political prism.
Music. Art. Baseball. Rum. Animal rights activists in lettuce bikinis promoting veganism in Havana. (Yeah, see the angry comments on my report about that last month.)
It’s more than tiresome. It’s counterproductive. It gets so gratuitous (I mean, I respect the Cuban dissidents known as the Ladies in White, but a conversation about the new Cuban cancer vaccine doesn’t require a speech about the Ladies in White) it alienates public backing for the very cause of Cuban democratization that Cuban exiles want to promote.
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Still, all that said, I’ll admit there’s only one thing that’s as irritating as seeing the political in everything about Cuba. And that’s seeing the political in nothing about Cuba.
So a big Bronx cheer goes out to the Havana Film Festival New York for reminding us of that this month.
Cuban film director Carlos Lechuga has pulled his award-winning movie “Santa and Andrés” out of the Havana Film Festival New York in protest. He did so because the HFFNY – created in 2000 to promote Latin American film and build U.S.-Cuba cultural bridges – pulled “Santa and Andrés” from its official competition.
There's only one thing that's as irritating as seeing the political in everything about Cuba. And that's seeing the political in nothing about Cuba.
And the festival did that for reasons that are as clueless as they are spineless.
“Santa and Andrés” deals with the travails of a gay Cuban writer struggling under official homophobia in the 1980s. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jonathan Holland, echoing most of the film’s reviews, insists it offers “a refreshingly low-key take on an idea that could too easily have become strident.” Lechuga’s script, Holland writes, is “never preachy, keeping the focus tightly on the quiet human drama.”
In other words, it’s a political drama that’s really not all that political.
And yet, the folks who run the HFFNY are deathly afraid of what they call “the political tones of what has been posted on the Internet” about “Santa and Andrés.” Or as festival director Carole Rosenberg told El Nuevo Herald’s Nora Gámez Torres this week:
“We have always stayed away from the politics of either” the U.S. or Cuba. “We do not get into political gossip.”
I’m not really sure what Rosenberg means – but I do know what she misses. Namely, that there’s a big difference between bravely shunning cold-war propaganda and cravenly censoring warm-blooded reality. Doing the latter betrays the art that a film festival is supposed to exalt.
The reality here is that the Cuban Revolution in the 20th century was darkly homophobic – starting with its máximo líder, the late Fidel Castro. Cuban leaders today, starting with Castro’s niece, Mariela Castro, have admittedly made the island more LGBT-friendly. But either way, a hallmark of a good film, as Holland notes, is its ability to engage political context as a backdrop for the human drama in the foreground. (Think “Dr. Zhivago” since we’re talking about communism.)
DEMONIZATION OR STERILIZATION?
Which is why it’s so ridiculous that the HFFNY chucked “Santa and Andrés” from its awards competition. Granted, no one should want to sit through the cinematic demonization of Cuba or any country. But cinematic sanitization doesn’t build meaningful bridges between countries, either.
In fact, Rosenberg and company remind me a lot of the Miami-Dade County School Board, but in reverse. A decade ago, the board banned the book "A Visit to Cuba." The board decreed it cast the island in too positive a light. Meaning, it showed Cuban children smiling.
If Miami schools honchos wanted an image of Cuba that’s too squalid, HFFNY bosses want one that’s too squeaky.
Normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations didn’t mean sterilizing U.S.-Cuba reality. President Barack Obama, the guy who did the normalizing, made that clear this very day a year ago in Havana. In his historic speech to Cuban President Raúl Castro and comrades, Obama called out the revolution’s abuses as well as its achievements.
But if his speech had been a movie, the Havana Film Festival New York probably would have banned it from competition. After all, the film might have created too much “political gossip.”