HBO Documentaries Illuminate Castro's Brutal Cuba
Two offerings coincide with strongman's death.
Glenn Garvin | December 3, 2016
HBO should get a little trophy from the television industry for giving
executives something to talk about at holiday parties besides falling
ratings and the specific level of Hell that should be reserved for
whoever invented this internet thing. Instead, they can ponder over the
question: Is HBO's documentary division the most genius outfit in
television, or just the luckiest? Months ago, HBO acquired two
unheralded documentaries on Cuba, then booked them for the very moment
when Fidel Castro would head off to the great workers' collective in the
sky. Water-cooler buzz galore, Latin American Policy Wonk Department.
And if that department had an Emmy, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or
Death would win it right now. First-time director Olatz López Garmendia
is better known as a model and a fashion designer, but she must have had
a career in operating heavy construction equipment, too, because Patria
O Muerte takes a merciless wrecking ball to the Potemkin Village imagery
of Cuba promoted by most of the American chattering class. The
desolation and despair of Castro's Revolution—its actually existing
socialism, as Marxist theoreticians of the 1950s would have called
it—has never been on such devastating display for American audiences.
Garmendia lived in Cuba as a child, when her Spaniard parents joined the
flocks of European Fidel groupies moving to Havana to stand by their
man, but she clearly didn't swallow the Kool-Aid; Patria O Muerte is not
her first demythology project on Cuba.
She also informed the sensibilities of her then-husband, Julian
Schnabel, when he was making his epic anti-Castro movie Before Night
Falls. (Garmendia worked on the film as music supervisor.) She made
Patria O Muerte as something of a samizdat work; the film was shot
without Cuban authorization, and she had a devil of a time getting the
footage off the island.
Without narration and little archival footage, Patria O Muerte makes its
points through a series of interviews of ordinary Cubans, filmed in
their seedy tenement apartments in Old Havana. The stories they tell,
with only occasional exceptions, are not of lurid torture or
persecution, but of the quiet desperation of life in a dead-end society
weighed down by decay of every type: economic, physical, mental.
There's a cadaverous old man named Julio who bluntly declares his life
useless and is clearly talking about more than his grubby apartment when
he responds to a question: "What am I missing? Everything." Or Valery, a
goth transvestite who took to the streets as a jinatera, as the island's
part-time hookers are known, after the remittances from a sister in the
United States dried up and she found herself without enough money to buy
a new toothbrush. That career ended, though, one night after she was
lectured by a tourist whose appreciation for cheap commercial sex had
not diminished his more-revolutionary-than-thou ardor for the Castro
regime. He told her that "Cubans were shameless, that Cubans said they
had problems, when there weren't any problems in Cuba." Retorted Valery:
"If that's true, then what am I doing here with you for $20?" She left
the streets, fearful that she was "about to kill [herself], or kill one
of these foreigners."
Or Mercedes, a housewife living in a tottering building built in the
1870s in which she must sleep with one eye open to avoid being hit by
chunks of falling masonry. Her young son, injured in a balcony collapse,
needs surgery, but building repairs make it impossible: "If we buy
cement, then we can't buy food or medicine." An aphorism which, oddly,
didn't make it into Sicko, Michael Moore's encomium to the Cuban
Garmendia shot some interviews with dissidents, too, including rogue
blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose contribution of an audio tape of her 2010
detention by men without uniforms or credentials is by far the most
chilling moment in the film. Unfortunately, her cameras weren't along
when one of her subjects, graffiti artist El Sexto, was arrested when
found in possession of a couple of pigs painted with the names Fidel and
Patria O Muerte's companion piece, Mariela Castro's March: Cuba's LGBT
Revolution, is a far better film than I would have guessed, given it's a
project of longtime Castro apologists Saul Landau and Jon Alpert. But it
has to be given credit as the first English-language documentary to
discuss, however briefly, the regime's brutally harsh treatment of
homosexuality during the 1960s and 1970s.
There was no shortage of official homophobia around the globe at that
time, of course, particularly in the machista world of Latin America.
But few counties took it to the extremes of Cuba, where gays were locked
up in work camps for years at a time.
"Look at me here, with bright shiny eyes," says one elderly gay man,
brandishing what looks like an old graduation photo. Then he opens the
internal passport the government issued him after two years in a work
camp: "The camp changed that for the rest of my life. ... My eyes are
vacant and sad." They would become sadder still; the passport was marked
with his sentence to the work camp, Castro's equivalent of a pink
triangle that doomed any social or professional prospects.
But that rare and valuable look at a largely unseen side of Cuban
history is over in a few short minutes. The rest of Mariela Castro's
March is about the budding movement for gay acceptance being led by the
daughter of Raul Castro. It has its oddly charming moments, including an
interview in which Cuba's first female-to-male transgender surgery
patient displays his bulging new package, which he's named Pancho, and
proclaims: "Pancho works perfectly!" Grumbles his elderly brother: "I'm
Yet too much of this documentary is suffused with the cult of
personality that colors everything about the Castros. And there's no
awareness—on the part of the filmmakers or the movement activists,
though the latter may simply be exercising reasonable prudence—of the
irony of seeking liberty in one small sphere of Cuban life while
ignoring the crushing totalitarianism of everything else. "I can shout
that I'm gay and nothing happens!" boasts one giddy man. Yeah, but
trying painting "RAUL" on a pig's butt and see what happens.
Photo Credit: 'Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death'
Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own
Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a
Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about
television for the Miami Herald.
Source: HBO Documentaries Illuminate Castro's Brutal Cuba - Reason.com -