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    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
    our frontiers.

    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
    world …

    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
    family members.

    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 –

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