With Santiago Álvarez, Chronicler of the Third World (English version)

Still image from Los Regugiados. Photo courtesy of ICAIC

An Interview by Luciano Castillo and Manuel. M. Hadad

Santiago Álvarez (1919-1998) brought together the founding group of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) in 1959. The following year, he created the Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano, imprinting on it his innovative style of cinematic journalism. He headed up ICAIC’s Short Film Department from 1961 to 1967. A filmmaker with international interests, Álvarez traveled to more than 90 countries with his camera. He bequeathed to the history of documentary filmmaking such classics as Now! (1965) – seen by some as the precursor of today’s video-clip – Ciclón (1963),Hanoi, martes 13 (1967), L.B.J. (1968) and 79 primaveras (1969), among many others.

It is worth noting that the predominant stylistic feature in Álvarez’s prolific body of work – which he called “documentalurgia” – is the extraordinarily rhythmical mix of visual and aural forms, drawing from everything at his grasp (historical documentaries, photos, fictional images, animation, signs) with a certain dose of irony and satire to convey his message. Although he utilized fictional elements in his short film El sueño del pongo (1970), his only incursion into a long feature film, Los refugiados de la Cueva del Muerto (1983), fell short of expectations.

An assessment of his filmography leaves no doubt that his first short documentaries prevail by their own merits over his later, longer works. While facing the decline in documentary production in Cuban cinema, the almost octogenarian filmmaker, in a tireless defense of Cine urgente, began experimenting with video as an alternative. Santiago Álvarez – a man who deals in basics and for whom the force of images always stands out – insisted that “documentary film is not a minor genre, as people believe, but rather an attitude towards life, towards injustice, towards beauty, and the best mode for promoting the interests of the Third World.”

Q: Edmundo Aray called his bibliographic compilation of your cinematic oeuvre “Cronista del Tercer Mundo.” What do you think of this title?
A: It is rather broad. Surely Edmundo Aray thought of the Third World, while preparing the book on my work and realizing that over thirty years I have covered places where history has unfolded in a very strong and dramatic fashion. I have been to Vietnam, Kampuchea, Laos, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, to various countries of Latin America such as Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile; all except Haiti. I have made documentaries in all of them. This may conform to what the work of a chronicler of Third World countries might look like. The work of a cinematographic chronicler is different from that of chroniclers in print and other media, so perhaps it would have occurred to Aray to title the book in this way.

Q: In your vast filmography you have produced a considerable number of classics, but is there some work that you consider your favorite?
A: It is difficult to say, because each moment in my career has had its emotions, its characteristics. To confine myself to one or two is difficult for me, though I like Hanoi, martes 13 for obvious reasons. First because I was there during the first US bombings of Hanoi, and second because the Vietnamese people, the knowledge that these people have, the fifteen times that I have been there – before, during and after the war – have imbued in me a love and passion for Vietnam, for what it has signified over the decades, that it has had to fight against all kinds of imperialism: Chinese feudalism, French colonialism and finally North American imperialism.

In some sense, since I have worked in Vietnam quite a bit – I have made more than a dozen documentaries on this country – it is possible that I am attracted sentimentally by that work that I continue there, aside from the very special characteristics that its people possess. With their hands, feet and mode of fighting against the enemy, they defeated the biggest and most sophisticated imperialism of all. A poor people, semi-naked, shoeless, without the military boots used by the US soldiers to avoid venomous snakes, without the potable water that all the soldiers drank, malaria-ridden, full of parasites, hungry, they fought indefatigably against the aggressor. I feel a special affection for them. The work that I have done in their country has a deep and special place in my heart.

Q: There are three basic elements in your documentary filmmaking: the editing, the music and the graphics. Still, Rebeca Chávez, who was an assistant of yours, characterizes it as “the mystery of intuition.” When you prepare to make a documentary, does it really take shape as a fruit of the imagination?
A: If intuition has to do with magic and mystery, it is probably true. But I don’t think it is really accurate to say that my work is solely intuitive. Without the experience that I have had in my life – if I had not been in the United States, if I had not washed dishes in New York, if I had not been a miner, if I had not been a young rebel fighting against injustice, if I had not worked in the children’s radio hour program when I was 14 and 15 years old because I had a political calling – if I had not done all this, I don’t think intuition would have yielded anything.

Perhaps there is something “mysterious” to intuition, but if the intuitive is not linked to a reality that one has lived, the experience that one has had would not convert itself into something intuitive.

I question the concept of intuition in relation to work because however intuitive you might be, if you do not have a cultural base, an experience of reality, I don’t think intuition would surface. There are those who believe that people are born wise, but nobody is born knowing everything; rather, over time one studies, learns, obtains life experience, reproduces this experience mentally, sentimentally; then, the intuitive emerges. This how I understand “intuition.” If this describes the work that I have done over thirty years as a filmmaker, fine, let us call it “intuitive.”

Q: One of the important stages in your training was working with music in a radio station. Did this experience help you master rhythms in music?
A: Yes, it is a part of my life, a fundamental part. Again, this is why I question this idea of the intuitive. If I had not worked in the music archives in the station CMQ during the time that I did, sorting music that had been bought for radio and television programs, if I had not been trained in classifying the musical feeling to be used, I wouldn’t have realized the capacity of making something with a musical sentiment. Perhaps thanks to the fact that I worked there for years, I developed a kind of musical temperament and learned to use music for given moments of an aesthetic operation.

Having been at CMQ gave me this training, this development of the “musical ear.” I have always liked music. I keep the CDs that they give me; my wife also likes music and helps me a lot in the classification of future musical moments that can be used. So I insist that intuition is very relative, because without this training, I would not have developed this “ear” for using music in a given sequence of a documentary or newsreel.

Q: In the creative process, there are two forms your documentaries have taken: one time like in Mi hermano Fidel, which was an accidental documentary, produced as the fruit of an interview done with Fidel Castro for the long film La guerra necesaria…
A: A sub-product.

Q: Yes, a masterly sub-product, but are there documentaries in which you developed the script before filming, or that you filmed and then later re-developed?
A: I never write scripts. This confession might surprise many people. I don’t use conventional scripts, which many of my colleagues work with or which obliges them to work.

The script in my documentaries is in my head and in my feelings. It is as if I were a human computer with a background of life experiences, and then one time, I pushed a button and produced some cinematic work. I draw on the past to serve as a script in the time to realize a certain work.

For example, Now! is a documentary that was born neither through intuition nor through the mysterious art of a creator. It came to be because I had seen racial discrimination in the United States with my own eyes. When circumstances became favorable for speaking out against discrimination, I already had this experience stored in my brain, and I used it to realizeNow!.

I heard the song Now! when a black leader named Robert Williams gave it to me on a CD during a trip to Cuba. I was his friend. I visited his house and one day he gave me a CD and said: “See how you like this”; and it was the music of Hava Nagila. I asked him: “you’re giving it to me as a gift?” And he gave it to me. After listening to it multiple times, it occurred to me to make a documentary precisely in time with this song.

Logically, I had already come into contact withy racial discrimination in the United States, and when I listened to the music of Now!, I began to retrieve from my musical archives what would later appear in the documentary. There was no script, but rather a whole past that was impressed on my retina and my brain, and when I set out to reject this political situation of racial discrimination, a certain experience re-surfaced. At last I could create my film.

The script is in the song itself. As you follow the song, you write the script. That is what happens in this documentary.

In the case of other documentaries on Vietnam, what script would I make? I did not know what was going to happen. When we arrived, the war was ongoing and the bombings were about to begin. The news on the tremendous aggression of the Yankee empire was terrible. I decided to go to this country to be in solidarity with its people, even though we did not have sufficient equipment; we went with a 16 mm camera and a potpourri of various kinds of films: British, North American, Italian, which had been given to us by the delegations that constantly visited Cuba at the beginning of the Revolution.

With these black and white 16 mm movies from different countries, with cameras that could record no more than three minutes at a time before the roll had to be replaced, without recorders, without lights; I used to take a battery that had been given to me by the Soviets when we passed through Moscow; a battery that looked like a tank and weighed like the devil. We called it the “washbasin” and that is what it looked like: a washbasin for lighting. That was the equipment that we brought to Vietnam.

What script was I going to use? The day after we arrived, the bombing of Hanoi began. We had been notified that the North Americans were going to bomb unprotected cities like the capital at any moment. Under international law, an unprotected city could not be bombed, a city [that] does not intend to invade others or to store military equipment. Nonetheless, this is what happened.

I didn’t know what was going to happen when we were there. I did not think about how I was going to realize the work. On the day we arrived, I began to look for the places where I guessed the bombings might start, such as for example, the bridge over the Red River. I said: “surely this bridge will be a target”; I had this feeling that it was going to be bombed; I began to note the places we were going to film in the imminent bombing of Hanoi. There was no script.

The bombing happened, and we began to look at everything we filmed, to search for additional details to recreate the bombing. It is in the editing room, once one sees all the rushes and analyzes them, that one begins to make a “script,” a potential plan for how to assemble the film.

Moreover, while the title of a documentary has not yet come to me, I cannot begin to assemble it. I need to have the title in order to begin to structure a documentary. The title, for me, comes to be like a cell where all the inherited actions that will give shape to the idea that later becomes a script encounter each other; that is to say, one should take whatever action that one might want to film as a diary: to signal what one believes to be most important on that day. This diary is later converted in the editing room into a kind of primer or script. As long as you don’t have all the developed film, even the rushes, the title, you’re already thinking of the music. In summary: I edit, and I don’t wait like others do to finish editing before putting on the music. Rather, I prepare the music simultaneously. In reality, there is no conventional script.

I believe that the documentary, like a newsreel, is “take one.” The documentary looks a lot like the work of newsreel, which is “take one” as well. This frees you from having to use a script, because you prepare it in the midst of filming things, actions that will help you afterwards to combine everything in editing, to put one image after another. You begin to use the typical language of film, which is the staging.

Q: The exceptional use of the interview as a resource in your work, which contrasts with contemporary documentary film, not only Cuban, where there is an abuse of interviews and scarce cinematic development.
A: Most of my documentaries have neither interviews nor narration; I always try to avoid them. When there is no further remedy left to me, I use them, such as for instance, in La guerra necesaria. I use narration, the speaker, in another style, but I have deliberately done most of my work without oral narration. It is music and the lyrics of the songs that I use as the narrative elements of the documentary. The film in pure state, truly.

Manuel M. Hadad is Licenciado in Historia del Arte y Periodismo in the Universidad de Oriente (Santiago de Cuba). He works at the station Radio Victoria (Las Tunas). He is a film critic, member of UNEAC, the Unión de Periodistas de Cuba and the Asociación Cubana de la Prensa Cinematográfica.

Luciano Castillo is a Cuban film critic, researcher and historian. He has published many books including Con la locura de los sentidos; Ramón Peón, el hombre de los glóbulos negros, Carpentier en el reino de la imagen, El cine cubano a contraluz. He is head of the Mediateca “André Bazin” of the Escuela Internacional de Cine and TV de San Antonio de los Baños, member of the Consejo Nacional de la Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba and Vice President of the Asociación Cubana de la Prensa Cinematográfica (subsidiary of the Filpresci).

See also: Cuba, Film