The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival will show on october 9th. some documentaries by Cuban Filmmaker Nicolás Guillén Landrián (1938-2003). The titles of the films are: In An Old Neighborhood, Dancers, Ociel of the Toa River, Reportage, Return to Baracoa, and Coffea Arabica. My biographical documentary about Guillén Landrián, Café con leche, will be shown as well on october 10th.
Films from ostracism -an interview with Nicolás Guillén Landrián
by Manuel Zayas, with the collaboration of Lara Petusky Coger and Alejandro Ríos
Nicolás Guillén Landrián passed away on June 22, 2003. Two months before, in what would be his last interview, he spoke of his banned films. These were basically the last words of a man of the most varied occupations: filmmaker, painter, sometime poet and radio host, and in his times of misfortune, park guard and street cleaner. He died in Miami but wished to be buried in Havana.
Nicolás, how did you start in film?
Well, when I was a teenager I tried to make a 16 millimeter film with a group of guys from Camagüey. But it didn’t work out because we had no way to edit it. My mother, I remember, bought me one of those cut-and-paste editors, but we couldn’t edit the film. We managed to get a camera, but not to make the film.
Do you remember what it was about?
About a Catholic festival celebrated in Havana at that time.
Later life led me down other paths: university, the insurrection against Batista …
What were you studying at the time?
Social sciences. I wanted to be a diplomat.
How did you enter the ICAIC [Cuban Film Institute]?
The woman I was married to at the time, her name was Cristina Lagorio, an actress, told me: “Why don’t you go to the ICAIC, you who paint and have this obsession with movies, you who like movies, go fill out an application and see if they accept you?” It was Juan Carlos Tabío who took me. They put me to work with Joris Ivens, taking classes from him.
Joris Ivens was a guy with a love of others and an extraordinary head for movies. It was he who named me a film director. They had contracted him in Cuba to form a school for documentary filmmakers. He approved me as assistant manager. It was a jump from administrative work to artistic work. I made him a screenplay about a painting by Van Gogh, about Van Gogh’s bedroom. With this screenplay he decided to name me to the artistic department instead of administration, and that is where I started from.
Why did you go by “Guillén Landrián”?
In my documentaries there is only one that carries my full name, in all the others I go by Guillén Landrián. I couldn’t go by Nicolás Guillén Landrián, I had to use Guillén Landrián. I had to take off my first name to avoid confusion with the poet (Nicolás Guillén). The poet didn’t make films.
Who were your parents?
My father was a lawyer, a lawyer for the sugar workers’ premium, the one who won payment of the premium to Cuban sugar workers. He was a great guy. My mother liked to make crafts, figures, decorations. She was involved in art. She got me to paint. I went to the Escuela de San Alejandro, a school called the annex of San Alejandro [Academy of Fine Arts] …
What is your debt to Patio arenero [Sand Yard], Homenaje a Picasso [Tribute to Picasso] and Congos reales [Royal Congos], your first short films, now lost? Did they prefigure your experimentation?
Of course, for the way they were edited, the camera work, for how the characters of these documentaries were worked with. I think Congos reales is a good short film. They were all four or five minutes long, they were part of a workshop in a department called “Popular Encyclopedia”, run at the time by Fernando Villaverde.
In your documentaries is there a tendency to avoid interviews?
The images were more important that the words themselves. I was interested in working the image with a new language, a bold language that is interesting to viewers.
What influenced this new language?
The ICAIC. At the ICAIC you could see all the documentaries of an entire period. What’s more, at the ICAIC all the filmmakers were intent on making avant-garde cinema, just imagine … It wasn’t only me, everyone tried in one way or another to approach cinema in this way. From the concern of establishing a position within the industry, I dared to do things that were not looked upon favorably, because it was a matter of films about the Cuban people, at those times, they had to at least be made with elation, and I didn’t have that.
In Ociel del Toa [Ociel on the Toa River], there’s an intertitle that says “It’s good people in Havana will know this”. How much were people aware of the problems of the countryside, to what degree did you want to reveal the poetry of the people living in the countryside? What were your formal goals? What did you discover?
Ociel del Toa arose from a conversation with Theodore Christensen. I was talking to him and said: “We don’t have any subjects to treat.” And he asked me: “Why don’t you go into the countryside and find a subject there?” I talked with the management of the ICAIC, got on a bus and ended up in Baracoa. There I was captivated by the beauty of the place and its individuals, the people of Baracoa. I took up Ociel del Toa as a fresco of Cuba through the lives of the peasants in this province. Without being very optimistic.
In Ociel del Toa maybe you were also announcing changes in this form of bucolic life. And changes were to come.
I focus the entire transition. Because it is normal, if I go to the Toa and the Toa continues being an inacceptable place from the political point of view of the ICAIC management, I don’t do the documentary. I integrated all the elements of political and social life of the Toa, the things the people expressed. The remark “It’s good people in Havana will see this” was one of their ideas. “How good they will see how I carry this crate and walk through the river with this merchandise, and that they will see this in Havana because in Havana they don’t know about this.” And that’s why I put it in.
Can you say what in your films distances you from the revolutionary epic, the official line?
Well, in Coffea Arábiga I try to approach this some, the epic, and in Taller de Línea y 18 (Línea and 18th St. Bus Factory) as well. But the aim was not to make epic films. They wanted orthodox films, in accordance with what the State imposed on the management of the ICAIC. Though my films were orthodox in a certain way. If you see Retornar a Baracoa (Return to Baracoa), it’s a type of classic film. I can’t qualify it, I don’t know how to call it. I was trying to make films that were unlike others, that would not coincide with others, my own very personal work.
Sometimes the work was so hard that things came out despite my prior intentions. That happened in the studio, and Joris Ivens never criticized this, actually he praised me for it. But other directors in the industry, like Julio García Espinosa, always told me I was not following the screenplay that had been approved. I always had problems with this, with several films commissioned by the ICAIC …
Let me explain something. For example, I made my first documentary free, the first three or four documentaries I had all proposed and produced myself. So after having made Ociel del Toa, Retornar a Baracoa and Un festival deportivo (A Sport Festival), they put me in prison. For ideological reasons, they said. They sent me to the Isle of Pines and gave me electroshocks. After prison, I told them there was nothing else for me to do: either I stayed in the film industry or please let me leave the country. They told me no, that I should stay in the film industry and they told me to make Coffea Arábiga.
They asked me to make Coffea Arábiga, which was the most problematic documentary I made in this period. I went to the department of scientific-technical documentaries as a sort of concession to the management of the ICAIC, since they were taking me back. But, for example, Ociel del Toa wasn’t by commission, Retornar a Baracoa wasn’t by commission, Los del baile wasn’t by commission, En un barrio viejo (In an Old Neighborhood) wasn’t by commission. These were documentaries I made freely, that I chose and produced.
Tell me more about Coffea Arábiga.
There’s irony in it but not … If they see mockery in it, a lot of mockery, that’s out of my hands. I wanted to ironize about the things that were happening in the coffee plantations around Havana, the so-called “Cordón de La Habana”, the Havana Sugar Belt project. I also dealt with coffee in other parts of the Island. And I think I was very harsh in the way I told about how these people who worked in coffee did things, how they lived, worked, how they went about making coffee: planting it, threshing it, working under the sun, very tough work, and so on. But I didn’t mean to mock the coffee project because that would have been disastrous. There was irony, yes.
What about the work on the soundtrack in Coffea Arábiga?
Well, I made a mixture of tracks, there are various juxtaposed tracks. The work consisted of mixing the sound of more than one track. I used all the elements that I felt corresponded to Havana or Cuba at those times: all the artists, the characters, Pello el Afrocán, that is, the mockery was that the Havana Sugar Belt, the coffee project, was not a success, that is why the documentary is seen as a mockery of the coffee project. Because I thought the coffee project, from what I had been told, would be an achievement of the revolution and that’s why I dared make this documentary. Because I also had some doubts sometimes and wanted to place this doubt a little in the film.
What was the reaction to Coffea Arábiga?
The reaction of the management of the ICAIC, I don’t know about other sectors, was praise before the documentary. They held a gala premiere. They had a poster made by Raúl Oliva, a good designer. The documentary participated in the Oberhausen festival, but I don’t think it won a prize. But all the issues around Coffea Arábiga started suddenly. Nothing unpleasant had happened. They never told me anything, nobody from the ICAIC management said anything negative about Coffea Arábiga. Among the official spectators, someone didn’t like the song The Fool on the Hill, though it worked very well. And apparently I had to pay for this. Something that I did with such elation and dynamism, the result was ironic, a mockery for some of the coffee project.
Looking back, what does this documentary in particular mean to you?
It was a pleasant experience that I don’t regret. I am very happy to have made it, I think I established guidelines in terms of film language, and that was what concerned me most, that it be a distinct language from that of other films produced by the industry, to praise the coffee project, but it seems that this project – I repeat – didn’t produce results.
Soon you made Desde La Habana, 1969, Recordar (From Havana, 1969, Remembering) and a documentary about Rita Montaner.
In Desde La Habana, I tried to make a very subjective, personal and very experimental film, completely experimental, something that didn’t work out because they said it was chaotic. My nerves weren’t in great shape when I started these films, because the pressure under which I lived in Havana was slowly driving me crazy…
Why do you think they never brought out the final copy of Desde La Habana?
Because the ICAIC management considered it incoherent with the context. That’s what they told me, that it was incoherent with the Cuban context. Rita Montaner, the same, it was incoherent. The director of the ICAIC, Julio García Espinosa, said I was someone who was incoherent with the context.
A decade after joining the ICAIC you made Taller de Línea y 18, Un reportaje sobre el puerto pesquero (A Report on the Small Fishing Port), Nosotros en el Cuyaguateje (We in Cuyaguateje) and Para construir una casa (To Build a House). Tell me about them.
Well, I never knew if my documentaries were shown to the public, I wanted to tell you that. But with Taller de Línea y 18, this is what happened. They showed it in public, and Cuban radio at that time started to criticize it: “What did I mean with the question [in the movie] ‘Do you want to be examined by this assembly?’ Who was directed at?” And it was terrible. “What did Guillén mean by this?” On the radio! That was the end.
The documentary that triggered my expulsion from the industry wasn’t Coffea Arábiga, it was Taller de Línea y 18. Though I made a documentary after this, called Nosotros en el Cuyaguateje, a nice film, nothing more. But Taller de Línea y 18 was strongly rejected both inside the industry and out. In this film I used many recordings from the plant at high volume. These recordings are not on this copy, they were removed, they smoothed down the sound … Hammers, electronic equipment, the voices of the workers, all this mixed together bothered them a lot.
At the preview, Julio García Espinosa said he would only approve this documentary if the assembly plant workers approved it. And the workers went to the ICAIC, the plant administrators went, so did the union leaders, and they saw the documentary. And when Julio asked them, “What do you think, the sound doesn’t bother you?”, he said, “No, we approve of the documentary.” And the plant workers approved it, that’s why they put it in theaters.
Who gave you the most support?
Santiago Álvarez. Santiago Álvarez approved all the documentaries I made under his direction. He always treated me well.
Do you feel like a disciple of Santiago Álvarez?
Well, I’m not Santiago Álvarez’s disciple, but in a way I liked the attitude with which he confronted the political themes of the moment, it felt pretty right to me.
I consider him a good documentary maker. And Titón [Tomás Gutiérrez Alea] was always very close to me. He thought I was one of the best directors in the industry.
You were expelled from the ICAIC in the early seventies. How was that?
My leaving the ICAIC was very tough, because I wanted to make films. I hadn’t made bad films. I think in my particular case you have to look at the pressure on the management of the ICAIC, because Alfredo Guevara always praised my work.
What did you do afterwards?
I painted, but they didn’t give me materials. I started wandering around Havana, in a certain way I had a conspiratorial attitude, me alone, against the State. Because this is the work of Fidel Castro Ruz, Fidel Castro Ruz who said right from the beginning when I started at the ICAIC, at the premiere of En un barrio viejo, he said: “Damn, you’d think En un barrio viejo was made by a French director”. Imagine saying this at that time! That’s what Fidel Castro said about En un barrio viejo. So, instead of thinking of Julio, Alfredo or Santiago Álvarez, of anyone in the management of the ICAIC, I thought of Fidel Castro, that he was responsible for my expulsion from the ICAIC. It was he who expelled me from the ICAIC, I assure you. I dare swear it.
What do you think about the ostracism? Do you think you are still forgotten?
Well, no. I don’t think I’m forgotten right now. I lived through the ostracism in Havana for many years and it seems that someone or some people remembered me and try to make things different now. But ostracism is a very dark veil, it’s very impenetrable, you can’t survive it and remain a sane, aware person. That’s what happened to me.
Under what circumstances did you go into exile? What happened when you came to Miami?
Well, I was arrested and the last time I was arrested they set a risk index for me, that included: plans for an assassination attempt against the Commander in Chief, ideological divergences… What else did they say? Intent to leave the country illegally. All this was false. Cuban ex-prisoners included me on a list of people who should leave the country. And other people, intellectuals, declared I should abandon the country, that they should let me leave.
Why did you never think of making fictional films?
I proposed the script for a fictional film called Buena gente (Good People), about a very good type guy who wanted to kill a head of state. This script, which wasn’t approved, was brought out in some of my trials, they said, I had dared conceive of the death of a head of state as a counterrevolutionary. Even though the movie had a damn happy end.
What was it like to make Inside Downtown, after 30 years of not having made films?
The film, made in Miami, is like my need to show myself that I could still make movies, even though it is a video, made totally in digital, and this was the first time I had worked this way. And it turned out… Look, this documentary took a prize. Inside Downtown won a prize in Uruguay, honorable mention. It was very hard for me at first, but then as the days went by, because the shooting process was very long, I started feeling better, more disposed. Jorge Egusquiza, the producer and photographer, told me to take up an idea that could be achieved immediately and that I should do it around my modus vivendi, with people I knew here in Miami.
What did you want to get across in this movie?
I wanted to show that I was in Miami, that I was alive and making films.
After all that has happened, can you say you are happy?
I am not happy. The brief moments of happiness I have with my companion Gretel Alfonso are what make me feel relatively happy sometimes. Because happiness is a bit of a myth… But I aspire to be happy. I want to get there. I don’t know if I’ll know how. But there is always the anguish of living, every month you need to have the money for the apartment, to pay all your bills [in English] … have friendships, which is always very hard … not be alone.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a black guy six feet tall, pleasant, intelligent, affectionate with everything you can be affectionate with… Remember me like that. As an artist, my work is there. I am still an artist, I still paint, I made a documentary. People should remember me as I think I am… A good guy. Yes. A good guy.
The original text of the interview was published in spanish, and can be found here. The translation into japanese and english was made for the Catalog of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Yamagata, Japan, 2011.