This week’s series on Cuban filmmakers at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar wraps up with Gilliam de la Torre, the youngest of the three. Here, de la Torre talks briefly about her own documentaries before focusing on the other filmmakers at the seminar whose work most impressed her.
Gilliam de la Torre (Havana, Cuba, 1983): In the 1960s Cuba was a privileged country for studying and developing as a filmmaker, owing to the money that was there. When the Revolution succeeded, ICAIC was founded, and cinema was an active part of social change. Many went to study in other places, such as Cinecittà, and leading foreign filmmakers came to Cuba because they were interested in the changes. In addition, filmmakers were given resources, and the idea of the newsreel was initiated. Every day they went out into the streets, and students were given a camera to record what they were seeing. Today there is no industry or materials or anything. To make conventional cinema is very difficult, if not impossible. But the introduction of digital technology, albeit expensive, makes it possible to make movies. Don’t forget that, in Cuba, national distribution of films is done by the State; therefore, filmmakers who work independently have no way to distribute their work in the country, so they have to try outside. There are many more people making films now than fifty years ago, but they’re doing it in poor conditions and in a hurried and improvised way.
I began as a photographer and a cinematographer. I graduated in film in June 2011. I was interning as a photographer for a theater journal, and later I was a cinematographer for documentaries, short fiction films, and video clips—some with ICAIC. I was also coordinator of photography in the film school of San Antonio de Los Baños, in Cuba. I have three documentary projects, two of which are completed. I make documentaries because I can tell stories in a personal form; I think if I don’t do it, nobody will. My projects tend to deal with memory, with my life experience, with childhood. One is about the zoo I used to go to as a child, the only zoo in the city. It’s a natural park within the urban landscape. My attention was caught by the solitude of this space, which is quite large. Later I began to be interested in the relation between animals and people. All kinds of people come together there, exercising or playing musical instruments. I began to go very early in the morning, capturing shots of the empty space, and adding my voice with commentary about what I was seeing.
The films of Latvian director Laila Pakalnina, which we’ve seen here at the Flaherty, have a lot in common with what I’m doing. Seeing her work has given me courage. Many documentaries are made in Cuba; there is a documentary tradition that exists since the 1960s, but it’s a very narrative tradition and, to a certain point, it has stagnated formally. It’s a very political cinema, very social and very interesting, which deals with important subjects. But it’s pigeonholed formally; it’s not innovative, and doesn’t seek new ways to tell stories. I have, though, a tendency not to use narrative. In the two works I’ve made, there is no dialogue, just visual designs. The work I’ve seen at the Flaherty has motivated me in the sense of not being afraid to experiment with the image, with time, to betray the image and experiment with archival documents. It’s been very inspiring.
I appreciated most the work of French director Sylvain George on social upheaval because it combines visual poetry and aesthetic searching, with an interest in very concrete and problematic issues. He never loses perspective. This ability to combine both interests really struck me. I’m also interested in the works of U.S. filmmaker Su Friedrich because they deal with the kind of things that I would make, coming from personal experiences, from things I’ve felt. My third project, A Muerte Película (Death to Film), is the story of an elderly couple: she is a psychologist and he is a projectionist. They carry on a very interesting social discourse. The Flaherty has made me think about how I can put images to their interviews. To sum up, on one hand I’m taking away the idea of reflecting on cinema per se and its cinematic tools and, on the other hand, reflecting on the approach towards “the other,” which makes of cinema something more authentic. I’ve been observing, conversing, and I’m taking away with me a notebook full of ideas with one key conclusion: the necessity to rethink the medium.
I want to make films wherever I go, although I think that Cuba is where I can achieve a more profound analysis of any topic, because that is what I know, and it’s part of what I am. I have a connection with Cuba that I will not lose for the rest of my life, but as a photographer and cinematographer of course I’m very interested in discovering other ways of seeing and other cultures. At the Flaherty Seminar we are isolated on a university campus, but this space is filled with people from many different places, and this offers a variety of perspectives on art and on life. Consequently, this experience has offered an immediate way for me to access the codes of representation that are operating in contemporary art and culture.