Festival de cine INSTAR

IV INSTAR Film Festival: Aesthetic inventiveness and political critique on the transnational screen

By ÁNGEL PÉREZ – November 15th, 2023


Documentary 'Llamadas desde Moscú', by Luis Alejandro Yero (IMAGE YouTube / Costa Rica International Film Festival - trailer)

Taxibol (2023), by Italian director Tommaso Santambrogio, is one of the films in competition at the IV INSTAR Film Festival, whose program was in charge of Cuban director José Luis Aparicio. At a certain moment of this excellent medium-length film, during its first minutes, Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, who plays himself, comments to Gustavo Fleitas, the driver of the bus in which he travels the streets of the Cuban municipality of San Antonio de los Baños: "We have to push things forward to achieve the perfection of humanity [...] Humanity is now in an abyss of evils and turbulences. There are hotbeds of tension everywhere, war, terrorism, many disputes and dictators, and populist leaders [...] People must do things in their own way to fight against these evils". And immediately afterwards he states: "And cinema is part of that, of that cultural movement that fights against the problems of the world right now. Rather, cinema is the vanguard of these cultural movements. It is not art for art's sake. Fuck art for art's sake!".

This comment, as lapidary as it is eloquent, seems to be confirmed in INSTAR's competitive program. The fifteen audiovisual works competing this year, in a catalog that disregards genres, footage and nationalities, show that aesthetic inventiveness can be closely knotted with a firm political will; a stance interested in reading, questioning and intervening the discursive landscape of power, its strategies of control and its narratives. These films, in addition to being interesting filmic exercises, are an expression of struggles of interests, of the desire to make visible, in the midst of conflicts of subjectivation and domination, the fate of the individual besieged by history.

It should be noted that almost all the filmmakers included here have gone through, in one way or another, the experience of exile and, consequently, the political reactions and the affective dislocation that this condition can unleash become transparent as discursive subjects. With many of these filmmakers, in a way, something similar to what we hear the narrator of the documentary Ventanas say: "It has never happened to me to have my body in one place and my head seven thousand kilometers away". Not only the bulk of Cuban authors in the program live outside their country, but also Iranian Saleh Kashefi, director of the brief but forceful film essay And How Miserable is the Home of Evil (2023); Venezuelan Jhon Ciavaldini, creator of Ventanas (2022), and Costa Rican Gloria Carrion, creator of the moving exercise Hojas de K. (2022).

In particular, the conjunction of works by Cuban filmmakers is evidence of a creative community in the diaspora that has expanded in time and space; whose works, in addition to producing some of the most suggestive stylistic and thematic explorations of the moment, today give prestige to the cinema of our country in the most distinguished events in the world. The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry is a petrified institution; it no longer sets the tone of the Cuban audiovisual field. Determined to continue dissecting the country and its repetitions beyond the island, as well as themselves as territorialized subjects, Cuban filmmakers work from very different geographies: Emmanuel Martín from Canada; Daniela Muñoz and Carlos Melián from Spain; Eliecer Jiménez Almeida from the United States; Marcel Beltrán from Brazil...

But it is not only emigration or exile -experienced by the filmmakers or thematized in the films- that constitute the articulating factors of the group of competing works. These are perhaps the most obvious ones. The confrontation with dictatorial or totalitarian powers, as well as the discussion of the less happy profiles of their respective countries, marked by precariousness, violence and pain, characterize the discursive interests of these filmmakers.

For example, Mujeres que sueñan un país (Fernando Fraguela, 2023), Ventanas and Hojas de K present, through precise handling of archives and testimony, the emergence of new political subjects, a citizenship capable of facing government repression; Veritas (Eliecer Jiménez Almeida, 2022) and Los puros (Carla Valdés León, 2021) delve into essential chapters of the Revolution's memory, in a frank dismantling of the control of historical narratives; Abisal (Alejandro Alonso, 2021) and El rodeo (Carlos Melián, 2022) expose individuals annulled by the discourse of History; Un homme sous son influence (Emmanuel Martín, 2023), La opción cero (Marcel Beltrán, 2020), and Llamadas desde Moscú (Luis Alejandro Yero, 2023) delve into the trauma of that emigration caused, at the same time, by ideological dissent, financial precariousness, and the impossibility of a future.

Also at the strictly expressive level, these works have significant points of contact. The work with the archive as a repository of memory, from which to deactivate the master narratives of power, links films like Mujeres que sueñan un país, And How Miserable Is the Home of Evil, Ventanas, and La opción cero. Testimony, as an instance capable of revealing the individual's subjection to a symbolic corpus (of affections, class, gender), also serves to destabilize official discourses in works like Los puros, Hojas de K, Llamadas desde Moscú, Veritas, Camino de lava, Mujeres que sueñan un país... The accentuation of the filmmaker's ego, as a filter for the documented realities, connects films like Mafifa, Los puros, Llamadas desde Moscú, Abisal, or Ventanas.

Poster of the IV INSTAR Film Festival (IMAGE Facebook / International Institute of Artivism "Hannah Arendt").

What exactly does Taxibol deliver? In black and white, the film presents two autonomous stories, intertwined in the discursive plane, in which the fictional register summons the crossing between the subject and History. Taxibol reflects on the survival of dictatorial/colonial powers as a cancer that corrodes the imaginary of a country. In the opening segment, after Lav Díaz and the driver recognize each other in a loquacious conversation (which flows regardless of their linguistic differences, as there are essentially human ties that bring them closer), the former confesses that he came to Cuba in search of Juan Mijares Cruz, once general of the Philippine dictator Ferdinando Marcos. Diaz tells the Cuban that, in addition to blowing his head off, he intends to make a documentary about the general to expose him: this is what happens in the second part. And that is exactly what the rest of the filmmakers included in the program do through their films. For the most part, these works are guillotines to cut off the king's head.

It is evident, for example, in And How Miserable is the Home of Evil. Its director, Saleh Kashefi, appropriated recordings of speeches by Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, archived on an official website, and intervened them with sound recordings of protests and public demonstrations. The result is a futuristic documentary that, in the aesthetic codes bequeathed by Peter Watkins, projects the imminent collapse of the Ayatollah under popular onslaught. Perhaps the most transgressive turn, in terms of representation, lies in the intervention/resignification of the image that power has drawn of itself.

And it is also evident in Hojas de K., where Carrión turns the testimonies of ten anonymous women, who in 2018 participated in the civic uprisings against the government of Daniel Ortega, into an animated story that shows the human rights violations and the repressive irrationality of the regime. The director turns animation into the ideal mechanism to give consistency to an experience (even a prison one) of which there are no records.

In the second segment of Taxibol, Santambrogio stages the general's daily life in a Cuban farm/mansion. Marcos' henchman survives there, protected by a government that allows him to stage the lost economy of control. Unlike the first segment, where the characters empathized, communicated, here everything is silence, distance, subordination. The general walks around his house like a corpse whose mere ghostly presence suggests control. In his estate all the maneuvers of totalitarianism are reproduced: Mijares watches through a telescope the routine of his workers; the living conditions of the boss are markedly humiliatingly unequal to those of his subordinates, who can barely walk in his room...

Towards the end of Taxibol, the Italian director interrupts the diegesis with archival color footage of civil protests and repression in the Philippines during the rule of Ferdinando Marcos. These recordings become a sort of materialization of the nightmares that assail the general every night. But they should not be read as an expression of guilt, but as a manifestation of his fear of historical revenge.

And there is historical vengeance, for example, in the documentary Veritas, which revisits a cardinal event in the evolution of the Cuban Revolution: "the Bay of Pigs invasion. Eliecer Jiménez Almeida explores the perspective of the events obliterated by the insular officialdom in its search for symbolic legitimacy. Members of Brigade 2506 take the floor in Veritas to testify, from their memories and above the political skein that involved the governments of Cuba, the Soviet Union and the United States, the nature of the events. Against the rationality of the official power, their allegations dismantle the label of "mercenary" with which their subjectivities were simplified; in a way, the voice of the exile is inserted in the post-1959 Cuban history, redirecting and complexifying its narration.

The obsession to rewrite the revolutionary memory from the voices of a wide diversity of subjects (ideological, gender, political, sexual...) occupies a good part of the films in competition. This is a trend that goes beyond the Latin American geography, and becomes especially important in those countries with totalitarian governments, engaged in controlling the collective memory and the political identities of individuals. Los puros, for example, revisits the weight in the present of the sovietization years in Cuba (1970s and 1980s) from the emotional cosmos of a group of friends trained at that time in universities in the USSR. That formative time impacted their sensibilities and forged their dreams of the future; however, the redirection of the island after the collapse of real socialism meant the annulment, to a large extent, of the spaces of recognition for their identities.

Mujeres que sueñan un país (Women who dream of a country) is about memory. Now, this documentary is so significant within the whole because it demonstrates the current impossibility of the political power to control the collective memory of the country. Hardly anything is known in Cuba about events such as the UMAP or the "Maleconazo"; there are hardly any archives of them. However, of the strike of the San Isidro Movement, the civic protests in front of the Ministry of Culture, or the social outburst of July 11, there are multiple records that citizens themselves uploaded to social networks at the time they were participating in history. Through the weaving of those records and the confessions of Daniela Rojo, Katherine Bisquet, and Anamely Ramos - subjectively connected by their ethical and ideological ties to the San Isidro strike - Mujeres que sueñan un país comes to say that a new political subject, another citizenship, is brewing in Cuba. Fraguela manages to inscribe the events of San Isidro as a determining point in the configuration of a truth opposed to power, while exposing its repressive nature.

Digital recordings, left by people in their social networks, integrate eloquent compilation exercises in the documentaries Ventanas and La opción cero. In Ventanas, as in Mujeres que sueñan un país, the filmmaker appropriates videos corresponding to citizen protests that occurred in Venezuela during 2017. Ciavaldini erects the story in the form of a dialogue with his mother (he lives in Argentina, she in Venezuela). The young man feels helpless at not being able to accompany this woman who is not afraid, rather needs, to take to the streets to show her dissent. At the same time, the conversations turn out to be a plea about repression, popular discontent with the government's management and citizens' resistance to police violence. La opción cero also uses these social media materials to articulate a reflection on the dangerous journey that thousands of Cubans ventured, and still venture, through the Darien jungle (Central America) in search of a better life in the United States. Almost at the beginning of the film, a person is heard saying in one of those videos: "Even if I have to go there, in that place, in that mountain, for a year, for however long it takes, but I'm not going there, not even if I'm crazy. Forget about it, it's crazy. I've spent a lot of work in Cuba". But perhaps the filmmaker's gesture is best appreciated in the fragment that contrasts recordings of a celebration of the Armed Forces Day at the Plaza de la Revolución with those of Cubans who have accepted death as their probable destiny rather than remain on the island. This political theater is very similar to that unveiled in Ventanas when images of Nicolás Maduro are inserted on national television.

Still from 'The Zero Option' (2020); Marcel Beltrán

Between the statement made by that person in The Zero Option and the question that the director of Ventanas asks himself ("Did leaving the country solve my problems or did it generate other problems that I didn't have before?"), the respective discourses of the documentary Llamadas desde Moscú and the fiction feature film Un homme sous son influence can be placed.

'Calls from Moscow' delves into the experience of emigration. Yero turns an apartment into a metaphor for the emotional and physical confinement of a group of young people in an expectant Moscow in the face of a war with unsuspected effects. The filmmaker converses with his characters until he realizes that the illusion of exile - typical of the Cuban imaginary of emigration - is often a fallacy. Emigration always promises an uncertain destiny. Their cuir bodies are the only home that these young men, whose subjectivities in crisis face an uncertain future, inhabit in freedom. Un homme sous son influence also presents a subjectivity in crisis, a conscience tormented by uncertainty. Emmanuel Martin himself assumes the representation of himself as an emigrant through a weaving of scenes tinged by the absurd, in which Romanian, Mexican, Indian and Cuban emigrants converge. United by existential dislocation, in a society that expels them to the margins, these characters live emigration as survival, as the dilation of a dream that never seems to come true. The story articulated by Martín is as schizoid as the voices of his protagonists, who seem to come out of an American indie production of the seventies; but therein lies the potential to illustrate the illusions of beings harassed by routine and labor exploitation. In both Llamadas desde Moscú and Un homme sous son influence there is no freedom, so longed for by the exiled subject; on the contrary, exile is restriction, oppression, death in life?

A similar perspective on immigration, but from the point of view of those who stay behind, is offered by the Haitian short film Agwe, by director Samuel Suffren. It tells the story of a family fractured by the imperative to leave the country in search of a better life, no matter the cost. Agwe is named after a deity of the sea in Haitian vodou; the protagonist makes an offering to her after waiting ten years for her husband, who left on a sailboat bound for the United States. Waiting, loneliness and uncertainty constitute the expressive core of a work where the image is enough to encrypt the historical breakdown of a culture, perhaps due to imperatives equivalent to those that push the Cubans presented in The Zero Option to risk their lives in the Darien jungle. In any case, the individuals present in both films, as in Los puros, Camino de lava, Abisal, Hojas de K., El rodeo... are now, in one way or another, subjects on the run, beings engaged in building their stories.

Popular religions and skin color as sources of identity, indexes of the subject's historical evolution, have an important place in the documentary Lava Road. Just as it is impossible to understand Agwe without looking at the history of Haiti and the current fate of its society, it is impossible to glimpse the discursive scope of Grethel Marín's film without a minimum idea of the place of the Afro-descendant subject in Cuban life. Camino de lava delves into the relationship of a black lesbian woman, Afibola, and her young son, Olurum. The testimonies of this woman - an Afro poet and cuir activist who participated in the construction of the script - present her concerns about her son's social place and his future. Her words sketch a family model capable of challenging the macho conservatism, racism and gender violence that plague "the outside" of Central Havana and the country as a whole. Streets and institutions are enclaves of segregation and violence; the home is a space of resistance that gives identity.

Mafifa explores a social habitat where (symbolic) violence, conditioning gender relationships, almost condemned Gladys Esther Linares to oblivion—the only woman who has integrated the mythical Conga de Los Hoyos in Santiago de Cuba. Daniela undertakes a documentary road movie to rescue Mafifa's memory while examining the singularity of a human and social environment: characters, houses, neighborhoods, and other spaces in the city, as well as celebrations, parties, and, in general, cultural practices that define and explain a way of existence. By investigating the universe of values around the bell-ringer, scrutinizing her traces in the memories of those who knew her, Muñoz Barroso also attempts to know herself a little more, and that premise orchestrates the original autoethnographic experience unfolded in the film, similar in certain aspects to what is shown in Ventanas.

Still from 'Mafifa' (2021); Daniela Muñoz Barroso

The two films that complete the competitive program of this IV edition of the INSTAR Film Festival are the fiction short film El rodeo and the documentary essay Abisal. In their respective styles, the filmmakers evoke a subject detached from History, suspended in time, a residue of a time that is rapidly escaping. Although both films choose to install their narratives above contextual determinations, it is inevitable to find similarities with the exposure to the elements that the Cuban revolutionary project has become. The degree of stylization is what enhances the allegorical scope in each of these cinematic exercises.

The Rodeo places its narrative on an islet where a farewell takes place that has all the appearances of a religious ritual, staged in the form of a Cuban party. It is a definitive escape from reality. Melián does not seem to celebrate death as a triumph over a bleak reality or as a passage to happiness, but as the liberation of a subject disconnected from their time, to whom History does not offer footholds of recognition. Their dreams, expectations, their idea of personal fulfillment, have been ravaged by time, just like the artificial dam surrounding the islet covered "the little park where they met," the characters who are now bidding farewell. In the estranged atmosphere of El rodeo, death is a metaphor for the historical suspension of a generation of Cubans; just as experienced by the characters recorded by Alonso in Abisal. But the death of these characters is not a historical one, but existential; theirs are residual lives. Alonso immerses the viewer in a shipyard graveyard. Through meticulously composed photography, with expressionistic plasticity, he transfigures the shipyard into an image of present-day Cuba.

Still from 'El rodeo', Carlos Melián, dir., 2020.

The organizers of the event have stated that "the concept guiding this edition is the transnational character of the new Cuban cinema, as well as its growing dialogue with diverse cinematographies, especially those of countries also ruled by dictatorial or authoritarian governments". In this regard, the selection in competition could not be more eloquent.

With venues in Barcelona, Paris, New York, Miami, Mexico City, Buenos Aires or São Paulo, and with online transmissions for Cuba, the INSTAR Festival will be an unmissable event from December 4 to 10, 2023.

You can read the original note here

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