Movies Can Defeat Bombs

For Cuba at 60 Retrospective, Ljubljana film festival Liffe, Slovenian Kinoteka

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Why look at Cuban cinema now? Isn’t Cuba a relic? Bruised and battered, crumbling, but still afoot? The socialist bloc which supported and sustained it has disappeared, like smoke in the air, after a fire. It took strong winds from the West to carry the smoke away. It was blown to the other side of the world. Be careful of prevailing winds. History is dead. Post-history is dead. Truth is dead. If the future is dead, it’s dead on arrival.

The works of Santiago Alvarez – works that comprise the very core of the Cuban cinema -- remain as neglected as any in the whole of US critical documentary discourse. The bulk of his work presents an unflinching, deeply critical perspective on US Imperialism: regarding Chile, Cambodia, Vietnam most of all. This might suggest a certain interest on the part of its subject but the opposite is true. Alvarez confronts its ideological enemy with a mirror so badly shattered as to be unrecognizable.

Noticiero ICAIC, the newsreel division of the Cuban Film Institute, organized by Santiago Alvarez, was the most articulate expression of the radical newsreel in the Third Cinema movement. Over the next 30 years, it would produce nearly 1500 weekly newsreels, and in the process transform a banal and utilitarian genre, into a veritable laboratory of radical innovation.

Working under extremely tight constraints of time and material – he had neither - Alvarez became a master of improvisation and creative invention. He combined the use of available found materials—archival footage and photographs—with what was directly in his gaze and volition -- a dynamic graphic sensibility, bold and unexpected music/image pairings, and a highly forward-thinking use of rapidly paced editing. His was a “people’s” avant garde. Cab drivers in Cuba know his work better than scholars in the US. 

The films were obsessively political, didactic even. They were made for the here and the now. They could be playful or abjectly brutal. They were borne of rage, and dripped with bitter irony, but their solidarity was almost limitless. They could be quiet or loud, short or monumental, talkative or silent. Without perfection. They showed a world forever coming into being.

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A close collaborator of Alvarez’s and the theoretical epicenter of the Cuban cine-experiment was Julio Garcia Espinosa. He was a part of the old-guard. Like Titon (Tomas Gutierrez Alea), he had studied in Europe and awakened with the neo-Realist. But his ambition was grander, perhaps by being unattainably simpler.

“Nowadays, perfect cinema — technically and artistically masterful — is almost always reactionary cinema..” JGE, For an Imperfect Cinema, 1971

Because he was a practitioner – not a theoretician – his words were a form of manual too, an instigation for other filmmakers, himself most of all. He produced the highest expression of those ideas – Third World, Third World War. Nearly forgotten and rarely screened – even excluded from this overview, It is a high-water mark of the revolutionary essay. Perhaps the most utopian film ever made.

But what does this forgotten film have to do with the present?

At 14 minutes, 28 seconds, we encounter “The Carpenter Thanh Nguyen Ngoc, a 49 year old man, comes from the Province of Bắc Hà, in the Northeast of Vietnam. A region targeted heavily by US carpet bombing, with the regular use of cluster bombs. A particularly cynical weapon, scattering tiny “bomblet” fragments over thousands of square feet. “Anti-personnel” - meaning it’s military function is to kill people. Millions of cluster bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Roughly 30% of these bombs did not detonate and remain active land mines.

The Carpenter Thanh’s job during the war was warning the other villagers of coming bombing raids. Without the aid of radar, beating on old metal bomb fragments to alert his neighbors to take shelter. As well as locating unexploded ordinances.  

The film takes us, step by step, though Carpenter Thanh’s process in deactivating the cluster bomb. He moves it to make sure that is not the trigger. He then risks picking the bomb up with his bare hands. He cradles the bomb in rice husks. He opens the bomb and inspects its mechanism – Confront. Study. Solve.

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“He had observed that fertilizer and old batteries corrode metal.” The Carpenter Thanh wraps the bomb in a banana leaf with a corroded battery and buries it in a hole for “seven days and seven nights.” Sure enough, the metal corrodes and the bomb is diffused…That was how Thanh, a Carpenter from the province of Bắc Hà, invented a system for exploding the guava bombs. A simple cheap system that anyone can learn.”

He does not just confront the war machine, he defeats it. He does so with no technology or tools to speak of, save his bravery, love for his fellow villagers, and radical ingenuity. Imperfect revolution. The most technologically advanced nation in the history of the world, employing the full weight of its grotesque arsenal against a tiny struggling poor nation, is bested by creativity.

The Carpenter Thanh shows us how to render a terrifying weapon impotent with next to nothing. Santiago Alvarez shows us how to make a movie with next to nothing. “Give me two photos, a piece of music, and a moviola,” he famously asserted, “and I’ll give you a movie.”

Cuban cinema is a poor people’s cinema, confronting poor people’s problems – most of all violence and aggression at the behest of the rich – and inventing solutions as only an inventive but poor people can. As the old order collapses around us, these are necessary lessons.

The power of the rich is a paper tiger. Cuban cinema shows us. Ripping the paper to shreds. This sense of our power is essential. But that is the power of Cuban cinema and the unfinished movement it helped define: it has little interest in effect. It preoccupies itself with cause. It intervenes at the place where dynamics assert themselves into hateful forward momentum.

The lessons of the Cuban cinema literally and conceptually deactivate bombs. They can bring the most powerful – most abusive – nation on earth crashing back to earth. They can disarm the bully. They can arm the rebellion – with faith and creative invention. If a movie can be made with next to nothing, then so can a revolution.

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