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‘Strawberry and Chocolate’

The sweet taste of change in Cuba

Lavender & red, part 103

Published Jun 28, 2007 9:20 PM

In 1993, the Cuban state sponsored a ground-breaking movie, “Strawberry and Chocolate” (“Fresa y Chocolate”).

The movie tells the story of two young Cuban men—a heterosexual communist and a homosexual. In his 1995 Cineaste article, Dennis West described the movie about two young men getting to know each other in Havana in 1979. David is the young communist. Diego, the homosexual, West writes, “leaves in spite of his pro-Revolution sympathies and his friend’s claim that there is a place for gays in the Cuban Revolution.” (vol. 21, no. 1-2, Winter-Spring 1995)

The release of “Strawberry and Chocolate” in Cuba broke national box office records and opened up an island-wide discussion about same-sex love and prejudice.

The movie’s script is an adaptation by author Senel Paz of his own very popular short story, “The Wolf, the Woods and the New Man.”

Dennis West interviewed acclaimed Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea—affectionately known to friends as “Titón” but also referred to as Alea—in August 1994. Gutiérrez died, at age 68, in April 1996. West conducted the interview in Juárez, Mexico, during the Second Festival of Latinamerican Cinema Paso del Norte; Dennis West and Joan M. West translated the interview into English, edited it and published it in the Winter-Spring 1995 edition of Cineaste.

The movie, which played simultaneously at 10 to 12 Havana theaters, drew lines of Cubans that stretched for blocks. (Larry R. Oberg, “The Status of Gays in Cuba: Myth and Reality”)

When West asked Gutiérrez why he thought his movie “Strawberry and Chocolate” so resonated in Cuba, the filmmaker answered that as soon as the movie opened after the annual film festival, “There were very long lines to see it, and it ran for something like three months in Havana. I think it had that response because it was a well-told story with a theme that many people wanted to discuss in public. A theme that up until this time had remained rather marginalized. I’m not referring just to the theme of homosexuality, but rather to the theme of intolerance in general. I think that people really felt a great need to reflect on this, and to reflect on it openly. For these reasons, the film became a sociological phenomenon.”

When asked about the number of Cuban viewers who attended screenings, Gutiérrez said, “‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ may hold the record for the greatest number of Cuban viewers. I don’t know. But at any rate, it is the film which has attracted the greatest number of viewers in the shortest period of time.”

Gutiérrez contrasted 1979, the year in which “Strawberry and Chocolate” is set, with life on the island in 1995: “Now there is greater flexibility in job opportunities for homosexuals. In the case of representing Cuba abroad, for example, the appointment of representatives used to be handled with kid gloves when homosexuals were involved. Many people were against appointing them because they were considered more vulnerable to scandal and blackmail—and that’s true, we’ve seen it in countries such as England and the United States—but things are very different nowadays for homosexuals.”

Gutiérrez summed up, “Many Cuban homosexuals are now open about their sexual orientation. Others are not open about it—just like anywhere else—but there is a new level of awareness concerning homosexuality.”

Gutiérrez recalled the experience of his friend Aramis, who told him in Havana in 1994 about an argument with his father. Aramis said when he returned home for a visit with shoulder-length hair, his father used an anti-gay slur and ordered his son to get a haircut or leave.

Gutiérrez said Aramis argued with his father, saying, “You’re supposed to be a communist, for freedom, for human beings. I’m your son, you should love me, whether or not I’m a homosexual. What kind of communist are you?”

Gutiérrez said by the time Aramis had stormed to the door, his father stopped him with these words: “Wait. You’re right. You can stay. You don’t have to cut your hair. I’ve got to think about these things.” Aramis added, “So we hugged, and I stayed.”

‘The trajectory of Cuban cinema’

Julia Levin, a Latvian freelance film critic who lives in the U.S., described Gutiérrez Alea as the most famous director in Cuba. She noted that the filmmaker was born to a bourgeois family in 1928. After getting a law degree from the University of Havana, he studied film at “the Centro Sperimentale della Cinematographia in Rome (which had spawned, amongst others, Michelangelo Antonioni), where he fell in love with cinema and where he directed his first neorealist film, El Mégano (1954), with Julio García Espinosa, another filmmaker he met at Centro Sperimentale.”

Levin continued, “It has been noted that this film marked the very beginning of the New Latin American Cinema, the ‘new wave’ in cinema that grew out of the desire by many Latin American filmmakers to unveil the conflicting realities of their own countries and to do this by exploring the political potential of the filmic medium.

“Alea was one of the founders of the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC),” Levin wrote, “which was created in 1959 in order to vigorously produce and promote cinema as the most progressive vehicle for communicating the ideas of the revolutionary through, for the most part, documentaries, although some fiction films were made there as well.

“The ICAIC recognized film as the most powerful and important art form in modern life, a voice of the state, and, unquestionably, the most accessible form of distributing revolutionary ideas to the masses. In its first 24 years, ICAIC produced nearly 900 documentaries and over 112 feature films.”

Levin pointed out, “Artistically and intellectually, the trajectory of Cuban cinema—from cinéma vérité to experimentalism, and from neorealist drama to social comedy—has paralleled the trajectory of Alea’s directorial career. Similarly, Alea’s films are a primary source of cultural politics in revolutionary Cuba, a fact that allows one to study his films directly against the political climate in which he lived and worked.”

Daniel West added that “Tomás Gutiérrez Alea has been the most prominent of the filmmakers working in Cuba’s government-supported film institute. ... Gutiérrez Alea is a committed revolutionary, and his best features explore the social, political and historical dimensions of the revolutionary progress.” (www.sensesofcinema.com)

Solidarity served up

with a cherry on top

After Cuba lost the socialist solidarity and trade it had had with the Soviet Union, the illegal U.S. blockade tightened its grip on the island’s economy.

West pointed out in 1995, “Given the profound economic crisis currently gripping Cuba, it is astonishing that a feature such as ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ could be produced. The situation in ICAIC is desperate. Top directors such as Gutiérrez Alea earn the approximate equivalent of $5.00 per month, and the once relatively well-funded ICAIC filmmakers can now undertake a feature only if co-production money is available. The low-budget ‘Strawberry and Chocolate,’ for instance, could not have been produced without Mexican and Spanish support.”

Gutiérrez Alea, battling cancer, also had to undergo surgery during the production of the film. Juan Carlos Tabío, a collaborator, stepped up to co-direct the film.

“Strawberry and Chocolate” was the first Cuban movie to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category. (Levin)

Daniel West concluded in early 1995: “The commercial release of ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ in the U.S. is a welcome event because U.S. authorities have at times hounded Gutiérrez Alea—by, for example, denying his visa requests or blocking exhibitions of his works. This interviewer’s videotape copy of [Gutiérrez’s 1968 film] ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ was confiscated by U.S. Customs in Los Angeles when he entered the country on Dec. 11, 1993, after having legally attended the annual International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana.”

By the closing ceremony of that festival in Havana on Dec. 10, 1993, “Strawberry and Chocolate” had won most of the top awards.

“Afterwards”—West, who was a guest, described—“in the Palace of the Revolution, Fidel Castro held a reception for festival guests featuring strawberry and chocolate ice cream served together for dessert.”

Next: “Gay Cuba”

To find out more about Cuba, read parts 86-102 of Lavender & Red at workers.org.

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org