Festival de cine INSTAR

Miñuca & Fernando Villaverde's provident rebellions

By ÁNGEL PÉREZ – November 27th, 2023


Still from 'Elena' (ICAIC; 1964), a fiction short film starring Miñuca Villaverde and directed by Fernando Villaverde (IMAGEN Rialta / Cine Cubano en Cuarentena).


Thanks to the efforts of  Néstor Díaz de Villegas, two films by Fernando Villaverde made in Cuba during his days at the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) are now known, after several decades condemned to oblivion. The works are the documentary The Park (1963) and the short fiction film Elena (1965). The latter was originally conceived to compose the frustrated feature film A little more Blue which would complete two other stories: ‘The Encounter’, directed by Manuel Octavio Gómez, and ‘The End’, by Fausto Canel. Only ‘The Encounter’ made it to theaters. Neither Elena nor ‘The End’ escaped unscathed from the strict ethical and political surveillance of the revolutionary power over artistic production. Elena did not convince the authorities, as it did not agree with the demands of the historical narrative demanded by the Revolution. The ideological disagreements between Villaverde and the authorities began earlier, with ‘The Park’, accused of harboring an atmosphere of pessimism that diverged from the triumphalist mood of the times and continued afterward.

Produced in 1963, at the height of the revolutionary epic, ‘The Park’ is far from the euphoric spirit that was supposed to permeate the art of the time. Its composition shows characteristics typical of the experimentation climate of those days, but it does not conceal its gaze towards a sometimes melancholic zone of social experience. While the streets preferred to be plethoric in the manner of ‘General Assembly’ (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1961), Fernando Villaverde decided to record a social profile where light gives way to gloom. This tension between recording Havana's Central Park, a social accident expected to be effusive, and the atmosphere of sadness that pervades almost through the entire film made it uncomfortable for some indoctrinated minds.

The most recent readings of the works of directors such as Sara Gómez and Nicolás Guillén Landrián, reveal a critical vocation toward the Revolutionary project, the supposed effectiveness of its mechanisms of modernization, and the creation of the "New Man". Unlike these directors, who inscribe the revolutionary process in their works, ‘The Park’ does not even include it thematically. Although there is no evident criticism or questioning on the surface of its images, its register seems to disregard that confidence in the transformation of the world promised by the Revolution. Even if we take into account Fernando Villaverde's own statements about his resentment, already at that time, about the political course of the country, it is striking that the film ignores the time of the Revolution and only looks at the time of old age, the time of beings who see death approaching.

Although the documentary consists of exploring a day in Havana's Central Park, its discourse transcends that immediate motivation. ‘The Park’ begins with the phrase: "I will never live to be a man's age; as a child, I will become an old man", and it runs through the habitus recorded, explaining the dynamics and routines captured by the film: the climate/rhythm that emanates perhaps from the elderly, retired, stray old people who spend their days there. The images chosen to draw the park, in contrast with the words of the voice that narrates, articulate a plea about the irreversibility of time, nostalgia, and longing for days gone by. Those old people who come to the park perhaps live without too much exaltation about those days, indifferent to the martial euphoria of a group of pioneers who burst in at some point.

Still from ʽEl parqueʼ, Fernando Villaverde, dir., 1963.

But this documentary is especially disturbing when the narrator's voice intervenes and we hear her nostalgic evocations with no apparent relation to the recorded environment; when the mournful music ceases to let in an unhinged voice which, while the camera contemplates the treetops, is heard to say in a broken voice: "I speak of God", or: "the fever will finish us off”. And, above all, when we notice the absolute disregard for the statue of José Martí installed on the site. It is not the time of History that matters, but "human time": the time of those old people who make Central Park their world.

‘Elena’ was also uncomfortable because it was born from that impulse that preferred to contemplate reality from a lateral perspective, different from the one privileged by power. In a beautiful photographic and editing exercise that eloquently subscribes to the codes of the Nouvelle Vague -an early demonstration of the false regency of Italian neorealism- 'Elena' narrates the movements of a young woman of the same name in Havana in 1957, as she tries to say goodbye to her partner, an underground fighter in exile in the Venezuelan embassy, who has to leave the country. Contrary to what might be expected, there is no heroic look in this film (neither in the story, nor in the design of the characters, nor in the atmosphere of the narration). Elena's pre-revolutionary Havana is very different from the clandestine Havana of El herido, the first story of 'Stories of the Revolution' (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1959). Here we do not breathe the climate of the internal struggle that was being waged at the time; we enter a city tailored to Elena's needs. It is not the subjectivity of the revolutionary man that filters the narration, but that of his girlfriend, a girl quite indifferent to that struggle. There is a scene in which Elena asks a girl outside the Venezuelan embassy: "Are you a revolutionary?", and she hears the answer: "A little, and you? Elena fixes the scarf on her head, looks away, and never answers. That question will be asked again, directed to Sergio, by the Elena of 'Memories of Underdevelopment' (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968), and well seen: the Elena of Villaverde is a little bit the Elena that seduces the protagonist of Titón.

Two moments are particularly revealing in this short film. The one where the shot opens up to show the film set, in a Brechtian twist of distancing that allows the protagonist to tell the viewer how her days to come and the reunion with Octavio will unfold. And the final sequence where the young woman meets Octavio's friend, to whom she was to give an errand; she is seen flirtatiously and smiling in his car until the end of the film, in an ambiguous and suggestive shot where she leaves the frame in his direction to light a cigarette. If the first shows the absolute contemporaneity of Villaverde's creative sensibility, the second confirms his interest in those subjectivities external to the revolutionary event: in this case, a young woman eager to see her boyfriend for the last time, determined in her sensuality and ease.

Still, despite these political disagreements, Fernando Villaverde would direct yet another cursed film in Cuba: 'The Sea', his first fiction feature film. A film of which, unfortunately, no copy has been preserved and which is perhaps among the many reels that seem doomed to disappear in the ICAIC archive -and with them, an invaluable part of the national aesthetic heritage and memory. 'The Sea' suffered a worse fate than Elena! And that was the definitive confirmation for Fernando and Miñuca Villaverde: there was no possible communion between their thoughts and the ideology that ruled creation on the island. Faced with such a reality, as so many artists did then, and for similar reasons, they went into exile.

Until today, we only know the plot of 'The Sea' written between Fernando and Miñuca Naredo, his partner and collaborator, also a director, who, at that time, still signed with her maiden name. Miñuca had previously worked with Fernando on the text and narration of 'The Park' as well as on the screenplay of Elena, in which she also played the lead role.

But the cinematographic productivity of Fernando and Miñuca Villaverde would not cease with their departure from the country; from then on, they would consolidate a creative team whose works are still waiting to be rigorously attended to.

Elena on the iron bridge of Linea. Still from 'Elena' (1964), a film by Fernando Villaverde.


Once out of Cuba, a creative period began for both of them amidst new production circumstances, with different work media, stimulated by other realities and also motivated by other stylistic currents. Between 1970 -the year in which that exercise of documentary experimentation titled 'Apollo: Man to The Moon' is dated- and 1980 -the date in which Miñuca made 'Tent City' an inescapable archive about the migratory event of Mariel, a film with which they put an end to their cinematographic work-, a group of singular works appears, experimental pieces undertaken by two transgressive and avant-garde minds whose vitality reaches our present.

The exile works of Fernando and Miñuca Villaverde are significant accidents of the Cuban cinema of the diaspora, of the cinema left by that first exodus of filmmakers who broke with the regime during the first decades of the Revolution. The films produced by these authors confronted the official historical narrative and made visible the problems and subjectivity of Cubans living outside the island. But even within this specific landscape, the films by Miñuca and Fernando Villaverde are undoubtedly an exception, mainly because of their experimentation with the cinematographic form.

The films they made in exile throughout the 70s are impregnated with the spirit of aesthetic rebellion of the New American Cinema that Jonas Mekas defended/promoted so much, and with the whole artistic universe of the New York underground scene. These audiovisuals have an experimental vocation that brings them seductively close to the realms of video art and performative cinema; works that possess a politics of representation of the body and intimacy that, intrinsic to the work of the creators of that movement, would considerably influence contemporary cinema.

Settled in New York, in contact with the independent scene of the city, Miñuca and Fernando Villaverde begin to record with a 16mm Bolex camera the daily life of the big city, and their days in it. They undertake those records, as 'Apollo: Man to the Moon shows', with disdain for "the perfection of the industry" promulgated by Mekas. 'Apollo...', a sort of New York newspaper, uses the radio news generated around man's first trip to the moon, in mid-1969, to vertebrate a wide diversity of images that reflect the city dynamics and climate of those days. The voice-over ties together a series of urban images and endows them with a sometimes futuristic atmosphere. Different layers of the city -its architectural outline, its technological status, its multicultural human flow...- are compiled with absolute formal freedom. This is where the notion of recording everyday life as a strategy for humanizing the human experience as opposed to Hollywood's own prefabrication is already apparent.

The beginnings of the New York movement are felt in all their radicalism in this excellent work of fiction titled 'A Lady's Home Journal'. We enter a dreamlike atmosphere, surrealist in the style of 'An Andalusian Dog' that weaves the routines of a woman in her home and her dreams of escape from that reality. 'A Lady's Home Journal' is a work of staging and editing as sensual, erotic, and disturbing as the character played in it by Miñuca. This film exhibits, in its entirety, the type of performative writing defended by the independents, aimed at trying out other ways of dialoguing with reality and subjects that did not have to pact with the standard narrative molds. The density of readings on the female body and the culturally constructed identity of women -supported by an image as beautiful as it is hallucinated- guarantee the actuality of the aesthetic proposals of the piece.

As a director, Miñuca Villaverde delivers a film as suggestive for Cuban cinema as 'To My Father': a sort of video letter that pays tribute to the memory of her father, who died in Texas in 1972. The film is a sensitive portrait of the family as homeland. The shots of the children playing in the yard, of the empty rooms where the human footprint can be perceived, of the people undertaking any domestic routine, but above all, of the already ailing body of the father, depict a sentimental communion, and a home portrait where the pain of loss is intertwined with the joy of remembrance. The human experience apprehended in the intimacy of the house, tinged by the bolero 'Veinte años', irremediably refers to the experience of exile. It is no coincidence that Miñuca opens the film with a photo of her and her father in Havana in 1954. Memory and family come together to reveal a very personal corner of the filmmaker's self -a somewhat wandering self, perhaps, that still travels to who knows where, through that endless road that does not seem to end in the final shot of the film-, and they also come together because, in that corner of memory, there is room for happiness.


Miñuca Villaverde, circa 1964

If Miñuca Villaverde displayed her experimental vocation in one film, it was 'Poor Cinderella, Still Ironing Her Husband Shirt': a feverish visual and representational essay on women and the female body just a few seconds away from video art. A series of negative images, cuttings from another of her films - 'Blanca Putica, a Girl in Love' (1973), not included in the showcase organized by INSTAR, just like Love Will Never Come (1977) - and scratched celluloid, allow the filmmaker to craft a reflection on the objectification of women by the male gaze and their sexual relegation by cultural apprenticeship.

Perhaps she did not work with such a purpose, and just wanted to deliver the excellent plastic exercise that the film also is; in her work with lights, texture, color, the changing rhythm of the and montage, a seductive aesthetic experience is created. But even from the title itself, the senses detached from the looped images are accentuated: a naked female body being taken over and over again to bed to be possessed by a male body. These images, in contrast with the face of a woman (represented by Miñuca herself), invite us to think about the subjective emptying of women's erotic pleasure. In Poor Cinderella..., the cinematographic writing is the body, and the body is a curse, pleasure, joy, and conquest.

After leaving New York and settling in Miami, she directed 'Tent City'; according to Carlos A. Aguilera, "the best thing that has been done about the trauma or fracture known as Mariel". The documentary is a testimony of the artist whose words are as important as the record of the Mariel refugee camp installed "under the I 95 highway that runs from north to south of the United States, right where Little Havana ends," the filmmaker confessed in an interview with Aguilera. Undertaken with the same freedom explored in her New York films, 'Tent City' is a valuable historical document about the exodus, the confusion and uncertainty of the future experienced by those people, and, of course, the early failure of the Revolution's developmentalist discourse.

In the form of reportage, at times a home movie, this documentary captures the gaze of faces marked by history for posterity. The sense of freedom experienced by these subjects overflows the precariousness of their living conditions in that place. Miñuca Villaverde herself emphasizes in her narration: "Although the tents are surrounded by a metal fence, they feel free for the first time in many years". The queer bodies, which continually take over the camera -without hiding their identities, quite the contrary-, are the best example of how these people from 'Tent City', recently arrived in a geography and culture different from their own, now seem determined to finally express their individualities without restrictions.

Fotograma de ‘Tent City’ (1980); Miñuca Villaverde (IMAGEN Vimeo / Vía: rialta.org)


In honor of Miñuca and Fernando Villaverde, the INSTAR Film Festival will present a selection of their works during its fourth edition. The event's Special Presentations program will bring to its various venues the films 'To My Father' (1973),

'Poor Cinderella, Still Ironing Her Husband Shirt' (1978) and 'Tent City' (1980), by Miñuca and Apollo: Man to The Moon and A Lady's Home Journal (1972), by Fernando. In addition to a well-deserved act of homage, the exhibition of these materials answers one of the questions that, according to José Luis Aparicio, the curator of the event, motivated the curatorship: "Isn't the nation a more complex entity than the one demarcated by geographic limits and political extremes?" The invitation to enjoy and think about the audiovisual work of these artists is perfectly in tune with the Festival's purpose of "creating a corridor of images between several of the isolated points of our national dispersion", since, the young Cuban filmmaker pointed out, "perhaps from this imaginary network we can connect again with the island, with the diverse and complex versions of the country we find in its cinema".

With 'Tent City', as I said at the beginning, Fernando and Miñuca Villaverde end their film career. She confesses: "I'm retiring from it, exhausted of not having the means or the environment in Miami to continue making films". Reinserted into the Cuban film scene due to the attention they have been receiving in recent years, and although still barely shown on the island's screens, these films are beginning to arouse new and substantial readings. One thing is evident: the work of this creative couple still seems to us as avant-garde as when it was filmed.

Miñuca & Fernando Villaverde, circa 1964

You can read the original note here

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