Tuesday, August 26, 2008


D: Octavio Cortázar, Cuba, 1968, approx. 9 minutes.
(Note: The embedded clip does not have subtitles.)

In the early 1960s, Fidel Castro placed a large emphasis on combating illiteracy in Cuba, particularly starting in 1961 during the "Year of Education." For Castro in particular, however, "literacy" did not only refer to the ability to read words in books, newspapers and magazines: the phrase also applied to audiovisual materials such as movies, radio and television. This forward-thinking vision led directly to the genesis of ICAIC, the Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Arts and Industry. Much as thousands of people from Havana and other cities went to the countryside to teach people how to read, so too did a fleet of cine-móviles bring movies to places that otherwise had no knowledge of cinema.

Por Primera Vez follows one cine-móvil crew to a very rural town in 1968. The idea is rather simple: interview some townspeople about what they think about this weird concept of "movies," then show them experiencing a movie. The novelty here naturally comes in large part from the subject itself: even Cubans would have been surprised to find people who knew absolutely nothing about the mere concept of cinema. Cortázar's documentary uniquely demonstrates a genuine tone toward his subjects that surprisingly does not exploit the subjects, even as we are allowed to laugh with (at?) their ignorance; perhaps this is because we quickly realize that, inexperienced with media as these people are, this particular situation will quickly be remedied. At first confirming whatever suspicions we have about the so-called "Third World," the end of the film goes beyond any political, economic or social statements to revel in the joy that cinema brings, a joy that (in our jaded age in 2008) we sometimes forget.

Or is this not political? Truth be told, this documentary was released in 1968, a banner year for Cuban filmmaking with a number of landmark features, including Humbeto Solás Lucía and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's masterpiece Memorias del subdesarrollo. All of these films -- Por primera vez included -- were deliberately created around this time, however, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cuban revolution; all of these films toured widely throughout Latin America and elsewhere. Each provided a complex glimpse at the Cuban reality of 1968, challenging the outside notion that independent thought was verboten under Communism. At the same time, as evidence of the above, these films could also be viewed as a type of propaganda. In this way, Por primera vez is perhaps the most subversive of all of these films, its "simple" message and happy ending masking -- or proving -- the very message the Cuban government wanted to portray.

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