Since 1959 Cuban cinema has been an official space to document, question, and at times criticize the Revolution. While supported through the Cuban national film institute, known as the ICAIC, filmmakers have consistently worked with varying success to negotiate a protected space from censorship. Many of their films have pushed the limits of national conversations to reveal needs for societal change.
Pastor Vega’s ICAIC-funded Cuban film Retrato de Teresa (1979), or Portrait of Teresa, premiered four years after the passing of the 1975 Cuban Family Code, sparking audiences to debate the status of gender equality. Prior to its premiere the government created the Code as a form of legislation to protect the equal rights and responsibility of heterosexual partners in child rearing, and home duties. However Teresa’s story revealed that law was only the beginning of a societal shift where a strict double standard for saint-like women while accepting philandering men continued.
From the establishing shot of Teresa with her free-flying hair, her husband Ramón attempts to capture her beauty taking her picture making critics question if Teresa escapes the film’s male gaze. Despite debate over the beginning and the subsequent interactions with male characters, it is the ending of the film that left audiences and critics puzzled (Benamou and Baron). Tired of accepting her reality, the film concludes with Teresa, her hair tightly secured under a white kerchief, leaving her husband behind as she walks in a crowd of people as the words “The End” appear in white text on the screen. In this often-considered unresolved ending, Baron writes that, “Teresa is removed from the narrative, being left without (social or sexual) intercourse as she walks away from Ramón towards another possibility” (363). Teresa leaves behind her domestic world walking towards an unknown destination.
After Teresa’s unresolved ending possibly walking towards the hope of gender equality, flashing forward to 2016 to a controversial Cuban film Santa y Andrés we see another female character walking alone. Set in 1983, this time on an abandoned road in Eastern Cuba far from the busy streets of Teresa’s Havana, in the opening sequence Santa walks silently with a bright kerchief tightly covering her hair. The film’s quiet opening immediately made me think that Santa was a figure picking up where Teresa left off. Carrying a single wooden chair on a dirt path the silent character’s kerchief covering all signs of femininity gleams with lines of the Cuban flag’s colors contrasting with the dusty world around her.
Similar to Retrato, nearly 40 years later the Cuban film Santa y Andrés also caused controversy but this time not only amongst audience members debating the ending or facing social unknowns. Despite winning state script contests for Santa y Andrés prior to its premiere, upon its completion the independent film was censored from the 38th Havana Film Festival in 2016. The Festival pointed to the film's representation of the Revolution as intolerant as well as its "inappropriate uses of patriotic symbols" as the reasons for keeping it from both the festival and subsequently its distribution in Cuban cinemas.
The state festival’s decision to not include the film in its competition produced a whirlwind of controversy creating a parallel between the film’s portrayal of censorship and the experiences of the independent director Carlos Lechuga and production team known as Quinta Avenida Producciones. Despite the national controversy, Lechuga’s feature film won awards at top international film festivals from Toronto to San Sebastián, Spain and later Guadalajara, México concluding with distribution with US-based Broken Glass Film Distributors.
Overlooked in the controversy was the character of Santa. Yet I am most interested in analyzing her in this video essay. When I saw the opening scene of Santa walking I thought of her in conversation with Teresa only four years after Teresa walked out of her marriage to an unknown, possibly hopeful, place. Santa could add a chapter to Teresa’s journey after the final scene in 1979. With both walking characters, I was struck by the use of kerchiefs reflecting the characters’ experiences in both films. Given the use of Teresa’s hair to mark her femininity and slowly the rejection of the male gaze gave me pause as I saw Santa’s tightly covered hair, which is slowly revealed mirroring her journey.
If Teresa’s ending was unresolved as she continues walking forward to an unknown place, Santa’s story also ends with her walking. However Santa instead walks back and forth, in a metal cage-like space despite the vast outdoors surrounding her. In her movement, a solitary Santa continues to shovel cow excrement as the credits appear in white letters on the screen. Teresa left audiences with questions as to where she went in her journey towards gender equality, while Santa possibly answers that question, as she moves excrement from one side to another. With an ending of a trapped woman amidst an open space, it is the character’s hair and smaller dirtier kerchief in silent contrast with the beginning scene that reminds the audiences of her character’s significant yet quiet changes. In the end we could say that Teresa leaves walking to an unknown destination, while Santa is left shoveling with her own unfinished work, possibly the unfinished work for women of the revolution.
I chose a video-graphic essay as a way to bridge this 40-year dialogue between the two characters to pay attention to their journeys’ beginnings and the endings and how their travels are reflected in their hair. It was only when I began to sit down to make this piece closely re-watching that I realized how laconic Santa is and how her facial expressions and kerchief reveal changes that her words are slow to share. I noticed that these characters are fascinating contemporary figures, one from the Havana-centric west of the country where the state power and institutions are rooted, and the other an independent feature film set to represent the far east in a remote area that appears distant yet is central to the work of the revolution.