Cubanidad & Unidad

LALIFF's Miel Para Osh?n recounts a man's quest to find his mother by returning to Cuba

By Ernesto S. Martinez
Published on LatinoLA: July 24, 2002

Cubanidad & Unidad

As I was sitting at the Starbucks on Hollywood across from the Egyptian Theater last night, I was talking to a UCLA colleague about Jesse Lerner?s documentary film we had just seen called "American Egypt". The film is wonderful by the way, a stunning collage of found images and texts, as well as some forged images and texts. Lerner?s fascinating and thought-provoking works are usually about foregrounding the artifice and contradictions involved in the process of digging up historical artifacts i.e., primary sources, and in critiquing the institutions and nations that underwrite these official stories that we learn in our sanctioned prison?er?schools.

But that is a story for another time and place. As we spoke about the film and discussed other films we?d seen this past weekend, outside on the sidewalk a 60-year-old, tall, slender man with white hair and a measured pace walked by. I motioned to my friend, ?There goes el maestro de Cuba. Do you know who that is?? He turned and said, ?Actually I don?t. Who is he?? I lowered my voice because the man had turned to walk into the Starbucks ( I thought to myself, ?he?s going to order a dialectical drink? or his eye will notice the Starbucks propaganda flyer about fair trade). ?That?s Humberto Sol?s, the great Cuban filmmaker.? Humberto Sol?s on Hollywood Boulevard! I wonder about a dialogue he and Fidel might have regarding this apparently incongruent setting. Perhaps it is not so incongruent. Perhaps it?s my own nostalgia for a lyrical past that never was. That damned Lerner!

Humberto Sol?s is in Hollywood to screen his latest obra (work) at LALIFF, "Miel para Oshun" (2001). The story recounts a man?s quest, exiled by force as a youth when his father decided to leave Cuba thirty years ago to find his mother by returning to Cuba. Through this return to the mother, Roberto, a professor of Latin American literature at a U.S. university, symbolizes a desire expressed in the film for the Cuban nation, both Cuban nationals and exiles, to reconcile and begin a dialogue of cubanidad (cubanness) and unidad (unity) across national borders. The film is moving and wonderfully excessive in its melodrama in the yearning for a return to an unreachable past. The film also contains bittersweet moments of reunification of family and nation, and ultimately, of hope for the future.

The film depicts a journey retracing Roberto?s, Pilar?s (his cousin), and Antonio, their driver and colorful guide. Along the way from Havana to Varadero, Baracoa, and eventually the place where his mother now lives and was born, we encounter ?Cuba? in the form of mutual riders on the trucks along the highway and in the towns where they stop searching for traces of Roberto?s mother. Cuba is represented as united and mobile moving along the island?s roads, helping each other out (most of the time).

After the first screening of his film, Sol?s addressed the audience and told of his surprise that this film, shot digitally and beautifully, has been one of his most successful films as far as international film festival exhibitions. He also spoke about his method of integrating his cast with nonprofessional and professional cast members and of having a hard time in getting the professional cast to perform as magnificently as the nonprofessionals. But what he most emphasized was his wish that this film would function as a catalyst to initiate dialogue with Cuban exiles in Miami and Cubans remaining on the island.

"Miel para Oshun" is an interesting piece in that it engages with an anxious expression about the Cuban nation through a representation of a Cuban family. This anxiety is also expressed in a short titled "Video de Familia" by Humberto Padr?n, shown this past weekend at the LALIFF, as well as other Cuban films recently exhibited in the U.S. like "La Vida es Silbar", "Un Paraiso Bajo las Estrellas", and "Hacerse el Sueco". This is not completely new since the Cuban national project has been quite aware of the role of film and its role in expressing social reality. As far back as Sol?s most famous work "Luc?a" (1968) has this anxiety to represent the diverse nation through family existed.

That is, the Cuban family in "Miel para Oshun", Roberto, Pilar, the mother, and Antonio as driver and ?color? functions as an allegory for the Cuban nation. The reunification is possible only after the father, who made a serious mistake that he cannot be held accountable for due to his hasty youthful decisions, dies.

The film then attempts to represent a type of family/national unity through bringing into the family/nation people of color from the rural or lower classes than Roberto and Pilar (who is a painter and restoration worker). The unity is represented through Pilar and Antonio?s acquiescence to Roberto?s desire to find his mother. It is also represented in the other travelers and townspeople who stand and watch with fascination in the film?s most didactic and clumsy scene. This desire is sanctified by the Afro-Caribbean religious influences that foreshadow Roberto finding his mother. What is most surprising about all is what the film's ending represents or expresses about race and class. And what the film renders invisible through the representation of Roberto.

To quote some early Cuban revolutionary films of the 60s and early 70s, ?Compa?ero, eso no buen dialectico!" (comrade that is not good dialectic thinking). This comment, based on a Marxist understanding of social reality and social change speaks to compa?eros/as who might be straying from the party line. The problem is that today, the party line has been somewhat blurred and obscured by the conquest of Latin America by neoliberal governments and policies and by the apparent victory of free market capitalism over communism (state regulated capitalism really, but I?ll wait until Jesse Lerner makes a film to clarify this point)

Is Cuban film reflecting Cuban reality or is it running away from its social questions about class and race by expressing a dream about the future? Humberto Padr?n, the young filmmaker who screened his short this past weekend at the LALIFF, addressed this question implicitly by answering another question and stated that the dialogue regarding questions of race, sexuality and class is taking place in Cuba today. He admitted that it is wrought with complexities and intractable problems.

Nevertheless, it is a shame that Cuban film is not more widely circulated here in the U.S.

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