Screening Cuba

Abstract for Screening CubaAmaya

Screening Cuba: Film Criticism as Political Performance During the Cold War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, Sept. 2010) is the first book-length comparative study of film reception, citizenship, and criticism in any two nations. It is also the first study that compares film cultures in the USA and in revolutionary Cuba. It is also one of a handful of studies documenting socialist and Third World influences on American political subjectivities. Because of these factors, this project fills a void in international media, film, and Latin American studies.

Screening Cuba compares the critical reception of four important post-revolutionary Cuban films by revolutionary writers in Cuba and leftist and feminist writers in the United States. A central argument of the book is that film interpretation and writing on political film by institutionally bound viewers is best understood as a cultural practice that people feel compelled to embrace in order to become proper political beings. For this reason, Screening Cuba details the historical, institutional, and cultural contexts of each nation and the ways these contexts constituted nationally specific ways of being political and acting politically. In Cuba, the goal of the critics and writers (from here on I use the term ‘cultural workers’) was to become (or perform as) proper revolutionaries. In the USA, the cultural workers acted to become (or perform as) proper liberal, leftist, and feminist citizens.

Screening Cuba examines two sets of viewers and, consequently, two ways of enacting political dispositions and citizenship through film reception. One set is Cuban; the other set is American. Both sets include people who worked in institutional settings—Cuban and American film reviewers, writers and intellectuals—and both sets are analyzed in relation to how they interpreted the same Cuban films. These films are, in chronological order: Memories of Underdevelopment, (1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Lucia (1968), directed by Humberto Solás (both Memories and Lucia were released in the United States in the early 1970s); One Way or Another (1974) directed by Sara Gómez; and Portrait of Teresa, (1979) directed by Pastor Vega (these films were shown in the United States in the early 1970s and during the first half of the 1980s).

The claim that film interpretation is linked to ways of being political and citizenship has to be supported with analyses of the contingent ways of being political specific to each national context and the historical and cultural forces shaping the ways of being political. Screening Cuba provides this background and dedicates several chapters to examining institutional life in Cuba after the Revolution and in the United States through the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. Each national context is analyzed by reference to institutions, cultural policy, but also by reference to the types of knowledges and ways of seeing the world common among cultural workers affiliated with Cuban revolutionary institutions and American liberal cultural institutions. The Cuban chapters trace the histories of the Cuban field of culture, including the origins of revolutionary institutions such as the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) and Cása de las Américas, and the cultural policies guiding institutional actions. Woven through these histories is an analysis of the then hegemonic definitions of citizenship, what it meant to be a good revolutionary, and how these definitions applied to cultural issues and self-identity. The American chapters historicize the field of culture by reference to growing popularity of leftism and feminism among the educated in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike in Cuba, where cultural workers performed their political identities in relative harmony with the government, American leftist and feminist cultural workers constructed a citizenship based on the notion of subversion of the system and opposition to the government. This subversive element is key to self-construction and to the workers’ understandings of cultural freedom. Evidence of the Cuban and American way of being political is found, I argue, in the way these workers saw, interpreted, and wrote about Cuban film.

The contrast between each set of cultural workers illuminates two ways of being political; it also illustrates how institutional and political cultures shape the cultural worker’s self-perception and the worker’s sense of autonomy. The final chapter brings these insights to the fore and proposes that reception of politicized film can best be understood by reference to viewer’s sense of self and political identity.

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