Held at the beginning of March in Murcia, Spain, IBAFF Film Festival is an exciting showcase of the paths the current cinematic scene is exploring.
As part of its Caribbean Avant-Garde Focus, this year the festival showed one of the most iconic Cuban films of all times: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), an adaptation of Edmundo Desnoes’s famous novel of the same title.
In close connection to Alea’s masterpiece, IBAFF also showed Miguel Coyula’s Memories of Overdevelopment, a 2010 film based on a follow-up to the original novel that Edmundo Desnoes published in 2008. In Memories of Overdevelopment, we follow the same character, Sergio Garcet, the disillusioned intellectual who leaves Cuba and its “underdevelopment” behind and emigrates to the US, only to find himself at odds with the ambiguities of his new life in the ‘developed’ world. Miguel Coyula’s film is the first Cuban dramatic feature with scenes filmed both in Cuba and the United States.
I met Miguel Coyula during Havana Film Festival through a New York friend and filmmaker, Bette Wanderman. The following interview was taken at Miguel’s house in Vedado, Havana in December 2014.
What first struck me about Memories of Overdevelopment was the density of the images and the almost collage-way of the composition in the first part of the film. The story and characters are introduced through very expressive close-ups, revealing and mysterious at the same time. The scenes and the movement of actors have a certain theatricality that reminded me of the films of Hal Hartley. The voice-over, the interior monologue of the main character, is highly poetic and his observations are surprising and sharp. Sharp is also the editing style, Miguel is not only writing with the camera, he is “cutting” with the camera which almost functions like a razor – an object that actually features repeatedly in many of the shots. The almost surrealist juxtaposition of objects, text, photographs, all very evocative of Cuban life and Cuban history, corroborated with the ominous presence of the razor in close proximity to, and at some point cutting through, a human eye reminded me of Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which Miguel recognised as being one of his influences. But Miguel’s visual style goes beyond that, a unique and mesmerising mix of cinematic influences that gel so well together that it is difficult to distinguish what he borrowed from where.
So I started the conversation asking Miguel about his visual style and his influences…
Miguel Coyula: My influences come from the art house cinema of the 60s and 70s. The Cinematheque is very close to where I live so when I was a teenager I was there almost all the time and I saw Tarkovski’s films, Antonioni, Godard. Also the classic Cuban films of the 60s, the work of Santiago Alvarez, Nicolas G. Landrian and of course Tomás Gutiérrez Alea´s Memories of Underdevelopment. And many other filmmakers. I think that what I do is a hybrid of various influences. I watch a lot of movies and I like almost every genre (except for romantic comedies!). I think it’s very hard to do something entirely original today, it’s more about how you “cook” all these different influences and merge them together to create your own voice.
There’s also a bit of Woody Allen in my film, it’s a mixture of many different things. But even before that, my greatest influence when I was a little kid was Japanese animation, its stylistic choices. Japanese animation never had a big budget like Disney to animate 24 frames per second. They had very limited resources so the animation is sometimes very limited, with only the eyes and the mouth moving many times. But every time they cut they use a different camera set-up so the visual design and the editing is very striking and they use it as a way to convey the story. Every time there is a cut, the next shot is framed in a different way so that it progresses the tension, not only from the point of view of the screenplay but also as a visual grammar. It’s the same principle we find in literature. In literature, when you finish a sentence, you write “period” and you start another sentence, you’re expressing a different idea. So when you translate that to film, each new cut is expressing a new piece of information.
Dana: This also creates a certain rhythm and a tempo. But I want to go back, I’m interested in your film trajectory. When did you start making films?
Miguel: I went to the International Film and TV School of San Antonio de Los Banos. Before that I had made two short films. I actually ended up in film by accident. When I was 16, I started writing short-stories and drawing comic books. At that time in the 90s, it was very hard in Cuba to get access to a camera. But my aunt from Miami gave my dad when he travelled there a VHS cam-corder and he brought it to Cuba. It was the time of the “Special Period”, which is the greatest economic crisis in Cuba, so my parents were planning to sell the camera. But when I started playing around with it and realised I could combine the storytelling and the comic books into moving images, I said no way and the camera was not sold. And the camera became a way of escaping from the real world and creating my own universe. It was also the time when I didn’t have a computer so again, using this technique of the Japanese animators, I had to conceive my films in chronological order, meaning that I had to write everything down and record with the camera every change in the position of the actors, the camera set-up and continue, so that taught me how to think and plan the whole movie ahead. Which was a good training because later I moved things around all the time. I work with a very low budget, I now work with better equipment but essentially the same way I started when I was 17. I write the screenplay, I do the camerawork, the editing, the sound design, the animation, part of the music. It’s a way of working that is more intuitive, closer to a writer’s coming up with an idea and writing that idea down. It’s a longer process though, it takes years. And even though there are collaborators, it still boils down to the fact that what you don´t have in terms of budget, you have to make up for with the amount of time you dedicate to the project if you want to make it work.
Dana: The character in the film mirrors perfectly your own writer/director status.
Miguel: In the novel the main character is a writer but I decided that in the film he should also be a visual artist, a photographer, that he should record his own voice and create the language of memories. It’s like going inside the mind of the character, as if the character is directing the film, that was the strategy. Both books are by Edmundo Desnoes, a Cuban writer who now lives in the US. He didn’t write any novels after Memories of Underdevelopment, which was published in 1965.
Dana: Was this because of censorship?
Miguel: I think what happened to him is something that happens to a lot of Cuban writers, once they go into exile, it’s very hard to reconnect, after a certain age and living in a new society. I think he was accumulating a lot of new experiences but he was not able to put it out and took a while to write the last novel. One of the things I liked, both in the original novel and this one is that it doesn’t have a traditional three-act narrative, it is more an accumulation of small episodes that construct a portrait of the character’s mind. This gives me much more freedom to move around and jump in time and create a language where images are more important than words. I like films where you have a dialogue with the images, that is beyond what the characters tell each other verbally. You have one layer of information in dialogue and another layer in images, which, combined, provide many other readings for a scene or a sequence.
Dana: It also seems to me that sometimes words contradict the images and the other way around, the film has this kind of subversiveness to it. Also there’s an ominous tone, maybe it’s the slightly unnerving music and the image of a plane flying over New York, it’s like disaster waiting to happen.
Miguel: Which it does. I like those sensorial elements to plant the seed for what’s going to happen later. And I do that through the use of sound throughout the film. And yes, it’s setting up 9/11.
Dana: How did you go about adapting the novel? Alea said in an interview with Cineaste (magazine) in 1977 that at a certain point the novel “was to be betrayed, negated and transformed into something else”. Did you feel the need to do the same with the sequel?
Miguel: The first version of the script was pretty faithful to the novel and I wrote it rather fast, within three weeks. Then the process of the film took so long, it took 5 years in total. I would shoot a scene and edit it while still coming up with new ideas and write those down, it could be the voice-over or a shot. I have a green screen where I edit so sometimes it’s just about turning on the camera and calling the actor, and doing an insert shot. Or an animation sequence to make a scene connect better with another scene. It’s hard to know when to stop. For me the way to stop was when the rough cut was accepted in Sundance so I said to myself, ok I have to finish. This was in 2010.
Dana: The density of the film is indeed incredible, I think this film needs to be watched a few times in order to be able to absorb everything.
Miguel: A lot of film critics told me they had to watch it several times to be able to write the review. It’s like the movies I like to go see, where the density of the information in film compels you to go see it again. And of course it is better to see it on a big screen rather than on a television set because many of the details are very small in the frame. That’s also part of the strategy, to have within a single frame a lot of visual elements that make you read the image [in different ways]. I could tell you what the images mean for me but I would be destroying someone else’s interpretation. I always want to add as many elements as possible so that the image becomes richer. And to me the different reactions from the audience has been one of the best things about the film.
Dana: Did you borrow much of the imagery from the novel or did you come up with your own interpretation of the book, thus adding your own subjectivity to it?
Miguel: I think it happened gradually. The first biggest change was to make the character younger. In the novel he was Edmundo Desnoe’s age, he is 84 now. The reason I wanted to make the character younger was that I wanted to use him as a bridge between Edmundo’s generation and mine’s. So he had to be in his 50s. In this way I could talk about historical events that were close both to Edmundo and to me. And that triggered a lot of collateral changes, in characters, timeframe and use of archive footage. Archive footage is never used in a pure state, it is always manipulated either through collage or animation. The idea was to construct the film as if the character himself was constructing the film filtered through his very personal vision of the world.
Dana: Did Edmundo Desnoe get involved in the writing of the script?
Miguel: Yes and we had differences. He fist granted me the rights to the novel when I gave him a version of the script that was pretty close to the novel. But subsequently the character changed a lot. When we were talking about casting choices, I remember he asked me if I could find someone who looks like Pierce Brosnan. And I really saw the character as a misfit, his eyes should transmit this sense of alienation and not belonging. So we clashed a bit in how the character was conceived. Initially I asked him to write two scenes for the film, the dialogue in front of Jose Marti’s statue and some of the dialogue that you see in the classroom scene.
Dana: Are those the only added scenes?
Miguel: No, there are many other scenes that are not in the novel, which I wrote myself.. And two years into the shooting, he said “ok, I’ll just leave you alone with the film” He felt the film was moving into a different territory than the novel. Later he basically accepted it as an interpretation of the novel by a younger generation.
Dana: The ending is so surprising. I didn’t expect to see the final act take on a science-fiction element. I suppose this provides the link with the film you’re working on now.
Miguel: Yes, all my films have a science-fiction element. More than science-fiction, they are always about constructing an alternative reality. But this ending, I almost found it by accident. Me and the producer were scouting locations in Southern Utah. Those are real people who live on this Martian base in Southern Utah. They are called The Mars Society and they built this base and they walk around in space suits, raising money to go to Mars. There is a group of scientists who live there and make videos about the project. I found it by accident, I was scouting for locations and I thought “I must finish the film here” because these are people who still have an utopia. Unlike Sergio, my character. It’s crazy but they have an utopia. The astronaut is played by Trent Harris a maverick cult filmmaker from Utah. Again this scene is one of those things its impossible to plan on paper, the idea only came, like many other things in the film, when I found the place. Its about using everything happens around and find a way to weave it into the narrative of what you are doing.
Dana: Another surprising and ironic turn in the narrative is when Sergio goes to the desert to get away from humanity and is visited by the Mormon women. Was that your way of saying that there is no escape from ideology?
Miguel: Funnily, two thirds of the novel is about the relationship that the main character has with one of the Mormon women. In the novel she is a Jehovah’s witness. This takes place in upstate New York. So yes this is a man who wants to avoid any type of commitment and responsibility, not only with society but also with his family, politics. While somehow still clinging to faded ideals of social justice, his dreams are shattered. He doesn’t believe in anything at the end. The novel ends with him dying in the arms of his daughter who goes and finds him in this cabin. But I thought death was a relief and I thought that keeping him alive is letting the anguish to continue. The feeling of discomfort is very important to me.
Dana: In what light do you see the character in Memories of Underdevelopment?
Miguel: I think many people interpret that film as the drama of a bourgeois who can’t adapt to the new society created by the revolution. But for me he was a man who was unable to function in either society. But because of that reason he becomes a good vehicle [that enable us] to see the society through very critical eyes. His relationship with his family also fails. A lot of people see him as a misogynist but for me he is closer to a misanthrope, all his emotional relationships fail, even his relationship with his brother in Overdevelopment. That’s because he is unable to get hold of something and there’s been many interpretations, whether it’s the fact that he grew up in Cuba. I don’t think so. But there is a Cuban film critic who talks about the schizophrenic nature in all of us who were born after 1959 in Cuba. In this sense, he defines Sergio as autistic, he is closed off to the world. But to me, it’s more a genetic element that you cannot control regardless of the environment that surrounds you when you’re growing up, it’s something that is rooted deep in your nature. It has nothing to do with political systems or external circumstances. Of course Cuba provides a very unique backdrop to the character and doesn’t make your typical immigrant.
Dana: Is that the “radical” gene, is he a radical?
Miguel: I think he has a very strange relationship with the myth of Che Guevara. He admires him and at the same time resents him. He resents the fact that Che Guevara, who was also a misfit and could be cruel, was a man of action whereas he himself is a very passive individual. Things happen to him instead of him generating those actions. All his activity is in the realm of creative writing. And even that starts to decrease towards the end of the film. As he gets older and more isolated, the rhythm of the film starts to slow, he becomes smaller in the frame as if he’s fading and shutting down.
Dana: I feel that this project is a way for you to explore other things as well, could you talk about that?
Miguel: Many things, yes. The novel is actually about ageing and sexuality in the third age but not so much about the socio-political events. Edmundo did not want to be too critical of the US, he said “This is a country that in the end gave me shelter and I don’t want to do what the all Latin American writers do, which is to say that the US is evil”. But to me it was an opportunity to be critical of both Cuba and the US. And because of this the film has had a hard time. Many times I screen it I get attacked from both sides, because it pulls the run from your feet. It leaves you with no politics. Many people see it in black and white, it’s a film that pulls the rug from your feet, it leaves you with no place to go and this is very uncomfortable for some people. But to me it’s great to see the audience respond so strongly, even if the response is negative. At every screening there are people who love it and people who are very vocal about how much they disliked the film!
When we premiered at Sundance, there was this woman who left the movie theatre half way through the film. And my producer was outside and he heard her saying that the movie was “pornographic and anti-American”.
Dana: But that’s great publicity for your film! And to be fair, the film is quite balanced in its views, being also anti-Cuban.
Miguel: It was a necessity to have a global objective view of the world inside the character´s subjectivity. Since elementary school my generation was brainwashed into believing that Cuba was to be the ultimate utopia. But by the time many of us were disillusioned teenagers, I became very critical and skeptical of all current political systems and have an uncanny ability to distrust politicians. That´s why the way I work is completely independent, there only very few things in this world you can control without interference, and I want art to be one of them. That´s the price to stay true to yourself. I don´t believe there is any wisdom in compromise, unless you are a politician. And the line between political activism and art gets more blurry every day. Its impossible not to be political since in the end an artist should voice his own demons instead of using art as an political agenda. In art I´m more concerned with the individual than with the masses and therefore I cannot pretend to have the answer for thousands of people that might think different that me. I´m more interested in providing uncomfortable questions that pretending I have solutions for a better world.
Here as well, it was shown at Havana Film Festival outside of competition because if you include it in the competition you have to give the director a press conference which means more publicity. It was shown in a side bar and they only screened it because it won awards outside of Cuba, otherwise they would have probably just ignored it. At the Havana Film Festival they included it in a bizarre non competitive section called “Latin American Panorama” as if I was “some Latin-American director” not Cuban. My film, as of today, like many independent productions in Cuba, does not appear in the catalogue of Cuban Cinema.
Dana: What was the reaction to your film in Cuba?
Miguel: There was again a woman who said “The images are very pretty but politically it is very wrong and I hope you get into the trouble you deserve for making it”. She was an older woman very supportive of the regime, obviously.
Dana: But you didn’t get into trouble, or did you?
Miguel: I kind of did, I’m obviously marginalised. For example news about foreign awards for Memories of Overdevelopment were omitted from the press even if an article was covering the same festival where other Cuban films were participating.
But whenever a foreign festival or showcase contact ICAIC for a retrospective of Cuban films, my film Memories of Overdevelopment is not only hidden from them, but if they dare to request it, they immediately say “that film cannot participate” as it was the case recently for a showcase for South Korea, where the woman from International Relations at ICAIC told him that if he included Memories they would shut down the whole showcase, and so the showcase was shut down. Two years ago the Latin American Film Festival in Beirut had included Memories only to remove it from the program a few days before the screening due to request from the Cuban ambassador at Beirut. Those are the two examples I can talk about because they were made public and are articles about it on the web. The rest go on behind closed doors. Fortunately these kind of pressure only applies to lower level festivals.
Dana: But you recently decided to move back to Cuba, after almost a decade spent in New York.
Miguel: Yes because it’s my country and the country goes beyond political systems. I think its s necessity to create from within. I had two scholarships in New York. The first was at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Everybody thought I was crazy but when the Guggenheim fellowship ended and I finished the film, I came back to Cuba and started working on my next film which takes place in Cuba. But I teach abroad and the film keeps moving on the university circuit. So I travel once or twice a year and show the film at universities in the US. Europe also but more in the US. It´s sad I cant show them or do that in my own country.
Dana: And what has been the reaction of this more academically-educated audience?
Miguel: It’s been great. The festival and academic audience, the students, are great audiences for this. Sometimes the two films screen side by side and it’s interesting to see how people in their 20s react to both of them. And it’s really weird to see it now after what happened 2 days ago, the whole peace-making between Cuba and the US, because you read it in a different light.
Dana: What can you tell me about casting, who is your lead actor?
Miguel: Ron Blair is the lead actor, he is actually not a trained actor, he is an old friend of mine, also from Cuba, who identifies a lot with the main character, like me, he can recite the original film by heart, he loves the original film and the character so much. We are very good friends and collaborators and he just had the face and energy of the character.
Dana: Who plays the female characters?
Miguel: Most of them are real people who are similar to the role they are playing, except for the student Deirdre who is a real actress, Eileen Alana. Also the Mormon woman, the brother (Lester Martínez) and his Cuban girlfriend (Dayana Hernandez), the actress who plays the aunt, Susana Perez, they are all actors. And the magazine censor in Cuba, Jorge Alí, is also actor.
Dana: That is a very funny scene by the way, with the magazine censor.
Miguel: That’s actually something that actually happened to Edmundo Desnoes but he didn’t put it in the novel for some reason. Also the fact that the character gets fired because of the affair with the student is not in the novel. In the novel he just decides to leave because he gets sick of teaching but for me it was interesting because affairs with students happen in Cuba a lot but it’s no big deal. But in the US it’s a big deal. And I thought this is really good dramatic material, I don’t know why he didn’t use it in the novel.
Dana: Well, he probably didn’t want everybody to know!
Miguel: Yes but I think this is one of the things that are lost from the original novel in which he was very self-deprecating. But in the second one, it’s like he’s above all mortals, he doesn’t question hilself as much as in the original, which is why in that regard I went back to that element of the original.
Dana: The archive material is impressive, how did you get access to all this?
Miguel: The first 10 minutes are made form a lot of cut-outs from Bohemia magazine, which is a magazine from the 1950s. My aunt actually collected all of it. Bohemia magazine is a very sensationalistic magazine, what we call here “yellow press”, with lots of images of dead people and murders. They were covering all the events of the Revolution until after the revolution Fidel decided to stop free press. He nationalized it, kept the same name but the editing profile changed. The World Trade Center footage was the first thing I shot in the US after I had arrived to the Strasberg Institute when the towers collapsed. I travel with my camera everywhere and I shoot stuff and I archive it and then find a way to use it. When I travelled to Japan, to Paris, to Las Vegas, I was travelling with my previous film Red Cockroaches, to film festivals and since I was working on this one, I was creating scenes in these places and adding the actors later using the green screen. Film festivals only pay for my airfare so I couldn’t bring the actors. Not only the collage and the obvious animation parts but every live action shot is manipulated in one way or another because in most cases the actors were not there.
Dana: It works very well because it lends a certain theatricality to the film that is needed. This is a very abstract film in a way.
Miguel: I’m not a big fan of realism. I have a problem with realism and even with documentary footage, I always try to reconstruct in and manipulate it through collage or editing. Naturalism doesn’t come natural to me.
Dana: On the production side of things, did you have an American producer?
Miguel: Yes, my producer David Leitner, is American and he helped me, not with money because he is also broke like me, but he had a lot of connections to get equipment, the computer to edit, cameras, sound equipment. He reviews a lot of this equipment so he can hang on to it for a longer time. A lot of the people in the film are his friends, some of the locations I got them through him, the cabin in Utah belongs to an ex-girlfriend of his. He showed me a picture of the cabin as a possibility for Sergio´s final destination and I was mesmerized by the place. So he helped a lot. He is a man capable of working in any area of filmmaking which made him an exceptional ally. These film was really done with favors from a lot of people associate producer Juan Martinez is the first that comes to mind as he was of great help as well. And excecutive producers Suzana Dejkanovic and Steve Pieczenik. The budget for the film is so minor that it would be laughable. But the time I invested on it was titanic.
Dana: Who composed the music for the film?
Miguel: I did the part of the synthesisers and sound design, but since I have no musical training, I also worked with Dika Durbuzovic a classical composer for the classical pieces and a Hayes Greenfield, a jazz composer for the sequence in Las Vegas. And I used many other styles of music because, same as with images, I did not want to have a main musical theme. That’s also why “overdevelopment” is the title instead of “development”, which sounds more like an architectural film. But “overdevelopment” conveys better the sense of overwhelming bombardment that the character suffers in the first half of the film. There is also non original music by authors of many genres and styles.
Dana: This also creates an antithesis to the original film, this is reflected both in the title and also in what you’re showing.
Miguel: Yes, I think the connecting point is the voice of the author, his irony, which is something I took from Edmundo Desnoes, but the aesthetic is different. The first film leans more towards naturalism, merging live action and documentary shots. Live action is usually at the service of a hand-held documentary aesthetic.
Dana: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was also hugely influenced by the Italian neo-realist school where he trained for a while.
Miguel: Sure. And he also borrowed a lot from Godard and a bit from Antonioni in the sense of this bourgeois alienated character. I think the reason the film is so successful is because he merged a lot of styles that were being adopted in the 60s.
Dana: Tell me a few things about your next project, I know you’re shooting tomorrow…
Miguel: Yes. We already have the first 10 minutes. It uses different genres and styles throughout. It stems from an idea that Fidel had in the 70s. Fidel was always obsessed with experimenting in the 70s, he wanted for example to produce the best cow in the world that would produce the most and the best milk and meat. Also with vegetables – hydroponic tomatoes. He was always toying with the idea of creating something. So it occurred to me he would actually do it on humans, to achieve the goal of the “New Man” who would then create a perfect society. It ends up being a political allegory because many of these characters who are experimented upon become misfits when they grow up because they turn out to have a lot of psychological problems or physical defects and yet at the same time are incredibly gifted in other areas. So they become anarchists and start overthrowing the regime.
Dana: Where are you shooting tomorrow?
Miguel: In a nuclear power plant that fortunately was never finished because it would have exploded for sure with the negligence we have here in Cuba. It started being built in the 80s with the help of the Russians and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the construction came to a halt. But everything is there, all the structure, the reactors, it’s a very ominous place.
Dana: Was it difficult to get a permit to film there?
Miguel: I have to sneak in, I couldn’t get a permit. I actually didn’t even bother to apply for a permit. In the story of the film, is an alternative reality where they finish the power plant and then it blows up, so half of Cuba is polluted with radiation…They also built a city around there like Chernobyl… In this film we are basically working just me my partner and lead actress Lynn Cruz. She does make up and wardrobe design as well, also serving as assistant an grip while I handle all the other elements. Its exhausting to work this way, but its great when we see the results. Also because of the film taking so long, it works great for the actors to see the scenes edited and witness how their characters develop over time.
Dana: Your films are so different from all the Cuban films I saw at Havana Film Festival. Are you in contact or collaborating with Cuban filmmakers who make films now?
Miguel: I have a friend Carlos Machado, who is about to finish a feature that takes place entirely at the nuclear city, which is the city next to the nuclear power plant. He shot the film in the city with all the people who live there, the film is about their lives. I have some filmmaker friends. But in general no, I’m not really in contact with the film industry here. I think if one is going to make independent films you should really take advantage of the freedoms that brings instead of catering of the idea of Latin-American Art Films that has become predominant in many art circuits. Now that you mentioned it it should technically be a great thing if you film doesn’t look like others, but ends up being a handicap for finding a place to fit it, which is why the film doesn’t have distribution as of today. I can´t say I’m unhappy though, I´m glad the film exists as it is, that is the one thing what makes me sleep well at night.
Dana: Do you see yourself as a “Cuban filmmaker” or a “Cuba-born filmmaker”? You seem to have more of a global grasp.
Miguel: I was born in Cuba so that dictates, whether I like it or not, some of the themes I’m interested in. In Memories of Overdevelopment I was interested in showing the image of Cuba, how Cuba is perceived abroad. And how this character in the film leaves Cuba further and further behind, he ends up on Mars. The idea of leaving everything that makes you so called “Cuban” behind and becoming a citizen of the world.