Saturday, August 06, 2016

Preserving the Memory and Work of Great Cuban Artists
Cuban documentaries have played a vanguard role in Latin America since the triumph of the Revolution. Moved by the desire to project the county's new reality, the recording of events, aesthetically and purposefully, made film history

Mireya Castañeda |
August 1, 2016 13:08:38

Cuban documentaries have played a vanguard role in Latin America since the triumph of the Revolution. Moved by the desire to project the county's new reality, the recording of events, aesthetically and purposefully, made film history.

In 1959 itself, a new Cuban cinema was born, one in which documentaries were central. Among the core group of filmmakers was Santiago Álvarez and his Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano news series, which beyond providing short sequences of current events, became monographic documentaries.

Through the school that the Noticiero was passed many of the island's emerging cinematographers, who went on the become masters of the genre, and of full length feature filmmaking.

One of those was Octavio Cortazar, who in 1996 founded the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) Hurón Azul Center for the Development of the Documentary, which after his death in 2008 was given his name as a tribute.

Worth recalling among events in the life of Cortázar (1935-2008) is his joining the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC), in 1959, and his role as a production assistant for Historias de la Revolución, by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the Institute's first feature length film.

In 1967, he directed one the most beautiful documentaries in Latin American film, Por primera vez, presenting the story of the project launched in revolutionary Cuba to take the movies to the island's most isolated settlements. The film depicts the experience of campesinos who for the first time witness the magic of film. There are their hypnotized faces, and the object of their fascination: Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936).

Also by Cortázar are Acerca de un personaje que unos llaman San Lázaro y otros llaman Babalú (1969); and produced by the UNEAC company, La pequeña Aché (2006), documenting the multifaceted artistic work of Merceditas Valdés (1928-1996), a singular performer of folkloric Cuban music and song. He then went on to fiction, making classics of the era like El brigadista (1977) and Guardafronteras (1980).

This 2016, UNEAC's studio is celebrating its two decades of work, which includes more than 100 documentaries about music, visual arts, literature, theater and cinema; 10 short fiction films, a docudrama, and a multimedia for the 50th anniversary of UNEAC.

A quick look at its long list of productions shows the institution's commitment to preserving cultural patrimony and ensuring that the lives of irreplaceable figures are not forgotten.

For example, from the Center's first year, 1996, is Sigo empeñado en decir, directed by Jorge Aguirre about Jesús Orta Ruiz, Indio Naborí (1922-2005, National Prize for Literature winner), a poet of campesino origin, master of the sonnet and the espinela.

In 1998, Aguirre shot Nostalgia, la próxima estación presenting the avocation, connection and disconnection, the nostalgia and sound of trains pursued from his native Delicias to New York, by poet Pablo Armando Fernández (1929), National prize for Literature winner.

Cortázar himself, in the documentary Soy como soy shares the personality and artistic work of Pedro Junco (1920-1943), one of the most important Cuban composers in the 1940s, author of the emblematic song "Nosotros."

In 2000, filmmakers José Luis Mederos and Janet Capetillo made the documentary, Hecha para dar cariño, focused on aspects of the life and work of Cuban writer Dora Alonso (1910-2001), National Prize for Literature winner and creator of Pelusín del Monte, the nation's favorite puppet.

The studio has not solely produced works about poets, novelists, and musicians. This was made evident, for example, in 2001 with the documentary Permanencias, on the eminent Cuban historian Emilio Roig De Leuchsenring (1889-1964), Havana's first City Historian, directed by Omar Pérez; Don Felipe, by Niurka Pérez, on the life and work of an important 19th century Cuban scientist, Felipe Poey; Gracias a la vida (1998), by Lizzet Vila on the lives of children with disabilities in an educational institution, and La Habana del Centro, ensueño de sombras (2012), by Lourdes Prieto, who does not focus on a single figure, but rather on the municipality of Central Havana, and in 56 minutes presents its architecture, the recovery of its history, and contemporary problems.

It is no secret that music occupies an important spot at the UNEAC company. Consider La señora sentimiento by Niurka Pérez, about the singer of multiple genres, Elena Burke (1928-2002); or the two versions of Encuentro en la UNEAC, about two great pianists and jazz musicians: Herbie Hancock from the U.S. and Cuban Chucho Valdés, directed by Antonio Henríquez, both made in 2003; Isaac (2008) by Carlos León, who approaches the story of Isaac Nicola (1916-1997), the concert guitarist and professor, who was among the founders of the Cuban school of guitar - through his students, including the country's guitar greats like Jesús Ortega and Aldo Rodríguez.

Two visual arts masters have been taken to the screen as well, in Servando... en tres tiempos (2003), by Lourdes de lo Santos about Servando Cabrera Moreno (1923-1981) and some of the characteristics of his work, like his use of abstraction and figuration; and Evocación (2008), in which director Miguel Torres introduces Carlos Enríquez (1900-1989), via the work of other painters, as a tribute to his work and the Cuban identity he was able to project in it.

This year, UNEAC's film company finished its first documentary of the great Cuban concert pianist Huberal Herrera, directed by José Galiño Martínez, who  presents a direct look at the instrumentalist, with testimony from the artist himself, considered a great performer of Ernesto Lecuona by critics in Cuba and abroad; as well as Lourdes Prieto's Mirtha, an intimate, 40 minute encounter with the life and work of the outstanding Cuban actor Mirtha Ibarra; while Manuel Jorge premiered A solas con su voz, dedicated to Moraima Secada, who died in 1984, at 85 years of age.

Esther García Mariño, also director of production and promotion at the UNEAC studio, announced on Radio Cadena Habana that director Otto Braña will this year begin shooting a documentary on pianist, teacher, and repertory specialist, Pura Ortiz. Miguel Torres and Lourdes Prieto, she also reported, are working on a docudrama about the poet Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989).

During the premier of Mirtha in Martínez Villena Hall, UNEAC President, poet and ethnologist Miguel Barnet, commented that it is the organization's duty to preserve the nation's cultural memory.

Precisely what the Octavio Cortazar Center for the Development of the Documentary has done, for 20 years now, a labor devoted to preserving the lives and work of great Cuban creators.

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