The Indigenous Theme in Cuba Cinema: A Complete Vacuum? (Part 3)

28 01 2010


Woman descended from the Indigenous Tainos, a native of De Caridad de los Indios, in Yateras in Guantanamo province in Cuba.

A particularly significant milestone in the history of Cuban cinema on the Indian issue is the documentary A Legacy (1976, 26 minutes, color) by director Santiago Villafuerte. The film is the first to show evidence of the presence of descendants of IndoCubans among the peasant population of Cuba. The film is the first work that is concerned with the difficult issue of Indian heritage evident in certain sectors of the current Cuban population, and its culture. Villafuerte goes in search of descendants of IndoCubans living in the area of the Yateras Mountains (in the province of Guantanamo), to bear witness this sociocultural phenomenon, which amazed most viewers then and still does today. The documentary has the additional virtue of presenting separate interviews of two of the most prestigious Cuban scientists associated with the study of Cuban indigenous issues.  He interviewed the anthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Manuel Rivero de la Calle, then Director of the Museum of Anthropology, and also Luis Montane, a professor at the University of Havana, and the experienced archaeologist at the Academy of Sciences of Cuba, and Dr. Jose Manuel Guarch Delmonte, both deceased. Their testimony was based on their rigorous scientific research (that of Rivero related to ethnic and indigenous cultural survival in the peasant sector of the contemporary Cuban population) as well as the testimonies of descendants of those Indians (today mestizos). This research apparently stimulated Villafuerte to continue exploring cultural evidence relating to that sector of the Cuban population.

Altar Cross (color film, 14 minutes), A Changüí Party (also in color, 11 minutes), and The Owners of the River (also in color, 12 minutes), are three films also made by him in 1980, with images recorded during his long and adventurous journey through eastern Cuba. Villafuerte is attracted to everything that, in his fine artistic intuition (now supported by the experience of having known true descendants of IndoCubans), he suspects may have an indigenous background.  Hence, in Altar Cross, without identifying the details of Indian origin contained in the ceremony (only available to anthropologists), he takes testimony of how it was traditionally performed among Guantameran peasant families. He inquires about their religious background (Catholic) and how they have held onto these forms of celebration for so long. This documentary is also the first audiovisual evidence of such an aged creole and popular religious ceremony, never before recorded and now largely defunct, hence another merit for this work.

A Changüí Party vibrates in the same string of perceived resonances of Indian ancestry in different expressions of the spiritual culture of Cuba. Again, Villafuerte’s work opened the paths for finding ancestral roots, this time in traditional Cuban popular music. The Changüí, a vocal and dance genre popular in vast rural areas especially in eastern Cuba, is a matter of interest in searching for the earliest roots of the Cuban. The theme of the documentary ties together very closely the issue of a possible Indian heritage that little more than a century later again be investigated. 

The Owners of the River is a testimonial to a simple but unique peculiarity of the area: the peasants who live along the river Toa in Guantanamo and are engaged in navigating it, transporting goods and people. But even though here they are seen as simple fishermen or men of the river, the viewer can not help but feel the atmosphere it evokes of the indigenous people of this place (many actually distant descendants of the native), such as the environment, and even boats, which, like the indigenous before them, they produce with their own hands and “dugouts.” Today we know that the dugouts recall the memory of the Indian canoe that for so many centuries sailed the same waters.

In the decade of the 1980s, Cuban film about indigenous issues added four titles; while not referring to IndoCubans, at least they point to the lively and ethnically distinct indigenous living in other nations of America, as they are co-productions with two of these countries. From Peru three films were added, where the indigenous majority is part of the territory and the population struggling to survive as human beings while preserving their ancestral culture. The fourth film was made in Ecuador. Of these the first of that decade was The Wind of The Ayahuasca (1982, 86 minutes and in color), directed by Nora Iscue, which relates a curious story of love resulting from the indigenous religion in the Peruvian Amazon region. The second is In the Land of the Awajunti (1984, color, 21 minutes), directed by Alberto Durant, which is about the survival of indigenous Awarunas (also of the Peruvian Amazon), who affected their traditional lifestyles introducing changes in their habitat. The third is entitled Exodus Without Absence (1985, 12 minutes, in color), directed by Cuban Jorge Luis Sanchez, which reveals how the Ecuadorian community of Puesetus struggles to preserve their ancient cultural traditions despite needing need migrate to the city. And finally, the documentary Rimac Tampu (A Trip to the Past), (1989, 20 minutes and in color), directed by Rafael Delucchi, offered evidence of the survival of Indian spiritual culture of Peru (their myths and legends), despite the devastation of the people by colonialism and the imposition of modern Western culture. 

Returning to the theme of IndoCubans in the national film production of the 1980s, two short productions that although they do not directly address that case, they brush the surface, or contain it implicitly. The first of these if The Bohío (The Hut) (1984, 9 minutes, color): a cartoon directed by Mario Rivas, who uses that typical model of Cuban peasant housing construction (an inheritance of IndoCuban, later modified) as a reason for repetitive speech on key moments Cuba’s history from the colonial period until 1959. The second is One Day I Left (1987, 14 minutes and in color), directed by Guillermo Centeno. This takes place in the small town of Baracoa, and dwells on its vintage Indian origin, about the meaning of its aboriginal name, but mostly about its people today, many of them descendants of the aboriginal ethnic and cultural heritage – how they live and how beautiful is the environment where the population evolves. 

In those years, Modesto Garcia returns to the memory of IndoCubans and produces a short animated documentary called, simply, Aborigines (1986, 6 minutes, in color), which the following year won the Annual Award of the Critic 1987. This develops a very interesting topic: a group of IndoCubans victoriously rejected the attack of others living in the same area, and as they move through the territory come into contact with another indigenous community that welcomes them and from whom they learn farming techniques, the making of ceramic vessels, the making fishing nets, etc. Upon returning to their home communities, they bring the contribution of new knowledge. Thus cinema is reflected in one of the most complex cultural phenomena and interesting parts of the history of the Cuban indigenous past: the process of miscegenation and cultural exchange that occurred between the primordial human groups with different lifestyles, who  coexisted in Cuba for many years.

(To be continued in the next post.)

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13 02 2010
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13 02 2010
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13 02 2010
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15 02 2010
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