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Reading Charles Lane’s important column in The Washington Post about a new indie film, Una Noche,(One Night), I promptly rented it “On Demand” on my cable system. It is also available as an iTunes download.
Filmmaker Lucy Mulloy is new to the business. This is her first film, and it is now available after premiering at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, as well as the Berlin Film Festival that same year. Unless you live in New York City where some theaters are showing it, you have to watch it at home.
What Mulloy has done is to reveal the truth about daily life in Communist Cuba, which few Western visitors to Cuba have little understanding of. Indeed, the very week that Mulloy’s film has been made available for viewing, The New York Times Travel section featured two different articles extolling tourism to Cuba, and in effect encouraging its readers to avail themselves of the opportunity to engage in well-managed Potemkin Village tours, in which representatives of Cuba’s tourism industry — controlled by Cuba’s state-security apparatus — guide the gullible Americans to show them how joyous and happy the people are, and how wonderful the regime is that gives its people such a good life. They come back extolling the virtues of the Cuban government, joining in calls to lift the embargo on Cuba, and reporting on how well off things are for the people.
The first Times article informs readers that “those eager to get to Cuba just have to pay, and agree to take part in a busy, highly organized tour with very little free time.” Sure, if you had time on your own, you might wander off and see the parts of Havana that Mulloy shows us, and see how people really live and learn what they really think. When I went there in the mid-1970s, I did just that, and ended up getting arrested and thrown into a local holding cell in a police station for six hours because I took a photo of a giant line in front of a nationalized Woolworth store that had just received a rare shipment of plastic shoes from Eastern Europe.
The second Times article notes that “nearly every major tour company is now jockeying for the hearts and wallets of American tourists.” Why not? The tours cost a great deal of money, the food is reportedly mediocre (perhaps better than when I was there, and it was close to inedible) and you are given little time for any R and R — continually shuttled to one orchestrated activity after another. As they put it, “you can’t simply show up and luxuriate at the beach.”
Take, for example, National Geographic’s trip. The group informs prospective tourists that they will “engage in a specially arranged question-and-answer session with Cuban professionals, discussing education, economics, the role of government, and other topics of interest.” Just don’t bring up the murder by the regime of Oswaldo Paya or the harassment of the Ladies in White, or ask to see the prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, or anything like that. Should you persist, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself on the first plane out of Havana or confined to your hotel room.
Or look at the tours from the Insight company. Watch some of their videos. It’s all so beautiful, clean and joyous — especially the music. And when at day’s end you join with Cubans dancing outdoors on a public square, you’ll think you have seen the real Cuba, and that you’ve had an experience few of your fellow Americans have enjoyed.
So let us return to Una Noche and Lane’s article. He writes the following:
The truth about Cuba, however, is that the revolution’s achievements were never as great as its propagandists claimed and that economic and social conditions on the island trail those of many Latin American countries Cuba once surpassed.
Cholera has returned to Cuba for the first time in more than a century. In three reported outbreaks since the summer of 2012, more than 600 people have been sickened and at least three have died, according to official Cuban data.
Mulloy’s film, Lane adds, “dramatizes the heartbreaking moral and psychological decay of the revolution’s subjects, especially Cuban youth….Denied free expression, forced to hustle incessantly for life’s necessities, bombarded by propaganda and hounded by brutal police, young Cubans live in what Mulloy aptly calls a state of ‘nervous desperation.'”
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The film shows us the life of a brother and sister and a friend, and their decision to risk all and build a homemade raft they plan to use to escape to Miami. The actors are all real Cubans — not professional actors — and the homes and the street and neighborhoods you see are the real ones. The film shows the decay and despair of daily life, the horrid routines of Cubans trying to exist and eke out a living, and all of this gives lie to the propaganda which the new tourism bombards visitors with.
If you watch the film — and I hope you do — you will learn that Cuba still matters. Hopefully, the complacency of our people, and the belief that Cuba’s prison island is forever, will disappear, and you will realize that the apologia of the media for the tyranny Fidel Castro created must and will end. We learn that the Cuban people have one way to cope — planning to escape. They knew too well that brave dissidents who began to have a following, like Oswaldo Payá, have been eliminated by the techniques taught by the old NKVD and later the KGB beginning in Stalin’s Russia.
My only question is why the Cuban authorities allowed this film to be made in Cuba. Perhaps the filmmaker had an agreement that there would be no mention of Fidel or Raul Castro, no discussion of communism, no portrayal of political dissidents, and virtually no politics at all. If so, the filmmaker accepted a deal that paid off. We all know who controls Cuba, and how the party’s control is cemented through the apparatus of state security. What we do not know is how Cubans actually live, and by showing us that, Mulloy has broken through the barrier of the false view of Cuba perpetrated by the regime and the new pro-regime tourism.