One Night – A Critical View of Cuban Social Reality
One Night: A Critical View of Cuban Social Reality / Dimas Castellano
Posted on April 26, 2014
Una Noche (One Night) is the film which best reflects why it is that
young people leave Cuba. That’s how a female friend of mine, who is a
lover of the seventh art, laconically replied to my question, after
visiting the film exhibition in the 34th Festival of New Latin-American
Cinema, which took place in Havana from 4th to 14th December 2012.
Because of the social theme it deals with, because of the magnificent
photography of Trevor Forrest and Shlimo Godder, Roland Vajs’ and Alla
Zaleski’s sound quality, and also director Lucy Mulloy’s script, the
British-Cuban-North American co-production Una Noche constitutes an
important cinematographic work, which, with its truthful narrative, gets
close to documentary cinema; and, due to the authenticity of the people
and social events it focuses on, it gets close to naturalism. Shot in
Havana, with local actors, dealing with a national theme, the film can
be considered to be part of the filmography of the island.
Shot between the years 2007 and 2011, the 89 minute film received
international resonance with the news that the three principal
protagonists, Javier Núñez, Anailín de la Rúa and Daniel Arrechada,
deserted the artistic delegation going to the XI Tribeca Film Festival
in New York, in the month of April 2012.
The first two did it as soon as they touched down on North American soil
in Miami, the third, after receiving the prize in Tribeca. The event,
something quite ordinary for Cubans, attracted international attention
to the film and served to confirm the film’s story.
Una Noche gained three of the prizes awarded in the Tribeca Film
Festival. Javier Núñez Florián, jointly with Dariel Arrechada–neither
with acting experience before Lucy Mulloy selected them in a casting
session–were awarded the category of Best Actor; it also obtained the
Best Direction and Best Photography awards, which made it the most
recommended film in the New York festival.
Then, in the 43rd Film Festival of India, Mulloy’s debut film received
the jury’s special prize, the Silver Peacock, worth $27,500. In the
first Brasilia International Film Festival it picked up Best Script. It
next entries–in the Deauville Film Festival, in France; in the Vancouver
International Film Festival in Canada; in the Trinidad and Tobago Film
Festival; and in the Rio Festival–are likely to attract further awards.
In Cuba, the film opened in the month of September in a sexual health
fair, organised by the National Centre of Sex Education, in the cinema
La Rampa, and more recently in the 34rd International Festival of New
Latin American Cine in Havana, included in the “Made in Cuba” section,
in which were included audiovisual productions made in the island
without the right to compete for the Coral awards.
On each of these occasions it was shown just once, and because of that
only a few Cubans have had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with
the multiprize-winning film which deals with a very significant aspect
of their lives.
The feature film focuses on the social phenomenon of illegal emigration,
especially concerning young people going to the United States, which
constitutes one of the worst tragedies in Cuba because of the large
number of people who have died in the process, because of the split
families, and because of the brain drain of Cuban professionals (a theme
I will return to later).
The principal cause of the Cuban migration phenomenon lies in the
absence of civil rights such as being able to freely enter and leave the
country, which has developed into a flight to realise human aspirations,
which, although they are basic ones, are impossible to satisfy within
We are talking about a general permanent flow which Una Noche presents
on a personal level in terms of the story of three young people who
escape in a fragile craft, made of car tyres.
In spite of the fact that the director spent several years in Havana,
gathering information for the feature, it remains suprising that,
without being Cuban, she manages to get so deeply inside the behaviour
of a part of the society and show in sound and vision the conduct of a
section of present-day Cuba, its shortages and frustrations.
Lila, one of the film’s protagonists, tells how people leave Cuba via
different routes, but she never imagined that Elio, her twin brother,
could abandon her. The story begins when Elio starts to work in the
kitchen of the Hotel Nacional, and there makes the acquaintance of Raúl.
From that moment on, Lila’s worry that her brother might leave her
begins to give her horrible nightmares which prevent her sleeping. Right
away the film starts to look into the social settings and digs about for
the possible reasons for flight.
In another scene Lila comments that in Havana you can get what you want.
The shops are empty, but if you know the right person, everything is for
sale; a statement about the reality of daily life in the capital, which
is demonstrated by way of Raúl and Elio’s vicissitudes as they seek the
things they need to cross the dangerous Straits of Florida: tyres,
compass, wood, a motor, food and glucose.
In each process we see highlighted the mistreatment by state
organisations, the environment and language of the slums, the
under-the-counter business, the loveless sexual relations, the domestic
violence, the moral deterioration in the bosom of the family, the
destruction and lack of hygiene in Havana, the robberies, and police
repression and abuse. An asphyxiating climate which is illustrated and
accentuated by rap and reggaeton music.
In the same way, the camera, which can penetrate further than the human
eye, and the microphone, which can register sounds undetectable by the
human ear, make incursions into the homes of the protagonists.
In the twins’ house, the macho attitudes, the disagreements between the
parents and the material misery they live in; in Raúl’s apartment, the
dirt, the physical and moral destruction, where his mother, who is
getting on in years, and is suffering from AIDS, has to work as a
prostitute, and the absence of a father, who left Cuba and does not keep
in contact with them.
Along with the above, mixed in are scenes of groups of young people and
adolescents behaving irresponsibly, bathing in the contaminated waters
of the Havana Malecon, or risking their lives cycling about in the
middle of the traffic; the old man singing dementedly in the street,
whose daughter married an Italian and never came back to see him; the
woman selling religious artifacts who completes the picture with false
predictions in return for money.
The climax, which concludes and summarises what has happened in the
events narrated, expresses the key to the story. In the boat, the
dramatic conflicts, the superficiality, and the lack of foresight, show
Elio loves Raúl and Raúl loves his sister; discussions about
prostitution and Elio’s and Raúl’s superficial approach to their future
in Miami; Lila’s fall into the water; the shark attack, and the sinking
of their boat which leads to Elio’s death, while the shipwrecked Lila
and Raúl desperately cling on to a piece of polystyrene, until they are
rescued by a sea scooter on a Florida beach. The film ends with Raúl’s
detention in Havana, where we see dream and reality mixed up and confused.
The treatment of social phenomenon on the screen is nothing new.
Information about the discovery of one of the pioneers of the seventh
art, French theatre director and actor, producer of Viaje a la Luna
(Journey to the Moon), George Méliès (1861-1938), shows us cinema as a
way of interpreting and forming reality; and the North American film
director David Wark Griffith (1875- 1948) director of Birth of a Nation
and Intolerance, this last considered to be the artistic culmination of
the silent screen, who looked at history as a source of cinematographic
In that sense, Una Noche, with its penetrating analysis of Cuban
immigration, may be said to occupy a place in the history of social
criticism in our country centred on that way of observing social reality
at the margin of official apologetics.
That current, which was present in Cuba since the silent film era,
started to show itself after the Revolution with the documentary PM–a
short film about the ways in which a group of people in Havana had fun,
which was produced in 1961 by Orlando Jiménez Leal and Sabá Cabrera
Infante–which showed us a modern look at the Revolutionary reality, and
became, because of that, the most problematic film in Cuba’s audiovisual
history, at a time when the priority for the Cuban Institute of Cinema
Arts and Industry was propaganda about class struggle and the fight
against the threats of imperialism.
PM was censored and it was forbidden to show it, which produced
controversy among the artists and intellectuals which led to the
discourse of the Leader of the Revolution on 30 June 1961, known as
Palabras a los intelectuales (Words to the intellectuals), in which he
introduced the restrictive idea: Within the Revolution, everything;
against the Revolution, nothing. From that moment on, culture, which
precedes and transcends politics, became a prisoner of the Revolution
right up to today.
In 1971, in the fictional feature film Una pelea cubana contra los
demonios (A Cuban struggle against demons), its director, Tomás
Gutiérrez Alea, proposed: in any time or place it is unrealistic to
develop human existence in any authentic manner, if you impose limits on
the process, if you define limits of acceptability of group social
behaviour, if, with the starting point of a moral interpretation of
society (whether it’s called bourgeois or socialist, religion or
liberal) you prevent people freely discussing their own visions of the
The intellectual, he said, is the specialist who is most able to express
clearly the semantic incoherences which have arisen within the
Revolution. In the ’90’s of the last century, among the 60 cinematic
works of fiction produced, there emerged important works of social
In the 21st century, among the many film directors who have made
incursions into social phenomena, I would like to focus on the
prize-winning creator Fernando Pérez, who has clearly shown the
potential of cinematographic criticism for encouraging reflection among
In La Vida es Silbar (Life is to Whistle) (1998), Fernando dealt with
the search for happiness by way of inner liberation, the truth and
social communication, and in Suite Habana (Havana Suite) (2003), he
decided to convert our contradictory reality–as seen in Una Noche–into
an inexhaustible source of inspiration for love and inner liberty: love
of a neighbour and of a city, which, in spite of its neglected and
destroyed condition, he shows us to be beautiful and full of possibilities.
In that respect, Una Noche and Suite Habana are radically different. The
first one concentrates on showing the harshness of the physical and
moral destruction, the second turns away from that destruction in order
to show the hidden beauty and the possibilities of getting beyond it.
Between the two of them they offer a comprehensive close-up on the
general reality of Havana and Cuba.
On the same lines, the film producer Alfredo Guevara, President of the
New Latin American Cine Festival, in its 33rd event in 2011, said, “The
Cuban Revolution, which, in 1959 could …” This Revolution now requires
the privatisation of Cuban Society, freed from the state bureaucracy,
which corrupts everything.
The 2011 festival showed us a group of films whose common theme was
social criticism: Casa Vieja de Lester Hamlet (Lester Hamlet’s Old
House), a film which talks about who we are and how to understand
Cubans’ lives from the standpoint of emotional commitment. Esteban
Insausti’s Larga Distancia (Long Distance), in which he shows the
frustrations caused by emigration in our society.
Boleto al paraíso (Ticket to Paradise) by Eduardo Chijona, inspired by
real events, deals with the degradation of youth, going as far as
deliberately catching the AIDS virus in order to be able to have a
better life in a sanatorium. Afinidades (Relationships) by Jorge
Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz, in which corruption leads to emptiness,
taking refuge in your instincts, using sex as a way of discharging
electricity, manipulating people near to you as a means to reaffirming
your damaged personality. Martí el ojo del canario, (Martí , the eye of
the canary), by Fernando Pérez, a masterwork of cinema as historical
Just as Lucy Malloy outlines some of the causes of emigration, her film
offers the opportunity to show, as a kind of accompaniment, some
thoughts about the migration problem in Cuba, which could be useful for
those people who, having seen the film, feel inclined to get to
understand a bit more about contemporary Cuba.
The economic inefficiency, the loss of civil and political rights, the
inadequacy of salaries in relation to the cost of living, among other
things, have had very negative effects: corruption, a phenomenon which
was present in the political administrative sphere in the republic
before the revolution, spread into all levels of society; while
immigration, which had characterised the country since earliest times,
changed after 1959 into a diaspora, that’s to say, with people moving
out all over the world, as shown in the statistical data.
On 9 January 1959, the government enacted Law No.2, to restrict the
right of freedom to leave the country on the part of those who wanted to
go. This provision was amended by Law No. 18, which stipulated that any
Cuban in possession of a valid passport issued by the Ministry of State,
who wanted to travel to another country, had to obtain an “authorisation
to that effect , which would be provided by the Chief of National Police”.
In 1961, the Ministry of the Interior instituted the notorious “exit
permit” and laid down the length of time Cubans could remain abroad. In
1976, Law No. 1312 was enacted, by way of which permission to leave was
In spite of these measures, the number of Cubans in the United States,
who, in 1959, amounted to some 124,000, increased substantially after
that date. Firstly by way of people linked to the overthrown regime or
who lost their property, along with the thousands of children who left
by way of Operation Peter Pan (1960-62), and then the first massive
outflow via the port of Camarioca and the air bridge from Varadero, with
260,000 Cubans leaving between 1965 and 1973.
In April 1980, after a bus violently crashed through the fence of the
Peruvian embassy in Havana, and its passengers requested refuge,
thousands of Cubans invaded the embassy with the same intention. The
result was another 125,000 Cubans left the island.
Between May and August 1994, groups of Cubans invaded the Belgian and
German embassies and also the Chilean consulate, at the same time as
various boats were seized.
On August 5th of the same year, Fidel Castro accused the United States
of encouraging illegal immigration, and said: either they should take
measures or we will not prevent people who want to go and seek their
As a result, during the summer of 1994 approximately 33,000 Cubans
escaped from the island, of whom about 31,000 were provisionally
detained at the Guantánamo Naval Base.
During those three huge wave–Camarioca, Mariel and Guantánamo–there also
occurred innumerable tragedies. Cautious estimates suggest that at least
25% of the boat people didn’t survive their journey in their variety of
very different floating objects.
Nevertheless, as the main cause of the emigration was the economic
deterioration and the absence of liberty, none of these laws was able to
hold up these individual departures, in groups or en masse.
The Cuban diaspora constitutes a continuing process over a period of
time by all the different ways of which Cuban imagination and
desperation could conceive, which is reflected in the 2010 United States
Census, which showed a total of 1,800,000 Cubans, which, added in to all
the others who spread out all over the world, takes us past 2 million;
that’s to say, that 18% of all Cubans are abroad.
Family members separated for years, or all their lives; married couples
who have grown old with the pain of not being able to return to their
children; kids grown up in other countries who will never more be able
to see their parents. Suffering which has caused anthropological damage
in many Cuban homes, where the family ceases to be the school of love,
education and security and becomes instead a place for ideological
disagreements, grudges and mental upsets, exactly what Lucy Mulloy was
stressing in Una Noche.
The diaspora, resulting from the absence of liberties and economic
inefficiency, has had, in turn, other negative effects. The rate of
demographic increase was altered during the years 2001-2010 by a
negative migration balance of 342,199 people, to a rate of on average
34,000 per year; a process which is converting Cuba into the only
country in America with a declining population.
In the same way, it has led to a brain drain of professionals, as Cuba,
which had managed to achieve a very high proportion of higher education
graduates, has changed into one of the countries which is losing its
professionals and technicians due to emigration.
In the last 30 years tens of thousands of doctors, engineers, qualified
in various specialties such as mid-range technical people, and skilled
workers, have emigrated, which amounts to a present day and potential
future threat to the country.
The fact is that the illegal departures before and after the Ley de
Ajuste (U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act), and before and after the migration
accords which have been agreed, clearly shows it is directly related to
the Cuban internal crisis.
The production of Una Noche, a film which shows the role of cinema in
the way we see, interpret, and form reality; comes at exactly the moment
when the Cuban government decided to modify the current migration
legislation, although the change does not give Cubans back all the
rights which were violated by the legislation described.
The need to obtain permission to leave the country disappears, but
certain categories of Cubans, either because of the positions of
responsibility they occupy, or because of studies undertaken, continue
to be subject to the same limitations as previously, which will be the
cause of further young people abandoning their studies and fleeing in
order not to be caught by the new law.
In this sense, Una Noche is the precursor to new migratory changes up to
the point where Cubans will recover the right and freedom to leave their
country just like any other citizens in the world.
Published in German in edition 60 of TRIGON magazine, entitled “Fliegen
oder bleiben?; hintergründe zum film Una noche. (To fly or to stay?
background to the film One Night)
Translated by GH
25 February 2014
Source: One Night: A Critical View of Cuban Social Reality / Dimas
Castellano | Translating Cuba –