PRINT December 1994


“REVOLUTION ISN’T RAMMED UP THE ASS.” This insight comes to a smoldering Cuban ideologue somewhere near the middle of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate. In Alea’s new film (codirected with Juan Carlos Tabío), such innuendoes belie deep tensions between desire and belief. Based on a story by Senel Paz, Strawberry and Chocolate explores the layered, and often comic, terrain between a dedicated young Marxist and a dedicated bourgeois fag. Like the ice-cream flavors of the film’s title (strawberry equals gay, in Alea’s joking sensual litmus test), these two characters are imagined by Alea as clearly defined oppositions.*

When Diego (Jorge Perugorría) spies young David (Vladimir Cruz), he immediately sets about trying to seduce this virgin sociology student. But David is preoccupied with his exgirlfriend’s recent marriage to another man. Diego, meanwhile, is trying to mount an exhibition of a friend’s sculpture, but is meeting government resistance. When David tells his communist roommate, Miguel (Francisco Gatorno), about Diego, he paints a picture of a culture queen with banned books on his shelves, Maria Callas on his turntable, and black-market whiskey in his cupboard. Excited by the possibility of turning in a spy, Miguel urges David to entrap Diego. Instead, Diego and David develop an unlikely friendship.

When unseen government officials refuse to let Diego mount his exhibition the way he wants, he writes them a snitty letter. Duly blacklisted, he decides to flee Cuba. Diego’s romantic vision of the artist, exiled for wanting to curate shows instead of laying bricks, is mirrored in his idealized platonic friendship with David.

Romanticism seems a curious approach for Alea, a committed revolutionary filmmaker whose early work was influenced by Italian Neorealism. Born into a well-off Catholic family in 1928, Alea studied law in Havana, then in 1951 went to Rome to study at the Centro Sperimentali di Cinematografia. For his first film, Stories of the Revolution, 1960, he even used the Neorealist cinematographer Otello Martelli. But it was Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968, an articulate and poignant movie about a society coming into being, that put Alea, and Cuban film, on the international map. A cornerstone of oppositional cinema, Memories . . . was part of a wave of Cuban experimental films that used decentered narratives, disruptive camera and editing techniques, and a collage of fiction and documentary film-styles to challenge both Hollywood’s aggressive commercialism and European cinema’s individualist auteurism. Alea’s films also critiqued the nationalist tendencies of third world film industries at the time, revealing the divisions and contradictions within nationhood.

This intellectual legacy informs all Alea’s cinema, which was hailed this year with a retrospective at the Toronto Film Festival. But Strawberry and Chocolate, which played in the New York Film Festival in the fall and will be released in January, is in some ways a sentimental departure for him. Though he hints at the possibilities of transgressive sexualities, the fixed style and structure of Strawberry and Chocolate constrict that movement. But if the sacrifice of complexity enables him to speak to what he considers a popular audience, Alea is comfortable with this development. —LC

LAWRENCE CHUA: What was your attachment to Senel Paz’s story “The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man,” the basis for Strawberry and Chocolate?

TOMÁS GUTIÉRREZ ALEA: It was like love at first sight. When I read the story, I couldn’t stop seeing things. I called Senel and said, I want to make a film, I don’t know why. Then we started work. Of course, after that you try to analyze the why. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with a feeling of necessity, of the need to talk about these things that have been taboo for a long time.

LC: I was interested in how you constructed the characters of Diego and David. Diego’s neighbor Nancy (played by Alea’s wife, Mirta Ibarra), a black-marketeer and former sex-worker, was not a character in the original story. What other changes were made to make the story more cinematic?

TGA: In the original story, Diego is a, how you say, a queer—no, a loca, a homosexual escandaloso, a queen. We found that it’s very difficult to deal with a character like that in a film: he immediately becomes a caricature, a stereotype. Diego has to express himself as gay so that people will recognize him as gay, but he can’t be a caricature of a gay. It was difficult to find that point.

At the beginning of the film, Diego’s trying to seduce this young boy. He’s very excited and he has to express himself as he is. But later Diego’s more at ease. He’s slightly effeminate, but not exaggerated. That’s because a wide audience needs to identify with this character. Even if you are a machista, you have to feel this character’s drama, his conflict. If it’s a caricature, then you reject it.

There was also the problem of the actors. For David we wanted a boy of about 20 and for Diego we wanted a character of about 40. There should have been a big difference between them. Diego is a very cultured man, very matured. Those are the things that can seduce David: he wants to be a writer, so he’s fascinated with Diego’s world, a spiritually rich world. But then we couldn’t find two actors who fit these age groups, so we had to adjust the characters to the actors we found. The actor who plays David is actually a few days older than the one who plays Diego.

LC: You were speaking of how a machista could identify with Diego. How do you think audiences who don’t belong exclusively to categories like machista and maricón identify with certain characters in the film—especially Diego, who comes from a very bourgeois position? Caryn James’ review of the film in the New York Times made Diego seem heroic.

TGA: Diego is not a counterrevolutionary hero. I think it’s very clear. I didn’t think anybody would be confused about Diego. But he is a man who thinks within his own head. He has his own personal criteria. He expresses that and he tries to live with that. At the same time, he’s gay, and as a gay man, he’s been socially discriminated against, has been made more vulnerable. He’s a man trying to defend an idea without weapons.

LC: Is that a kind of heroism for you?

TGA: In a way, yes, of course. There’s a shot where he’s putting a letter in an envelope, the letter he writes to the authorities protesting their censorship of his friend’s exhibition. As the camera follows him, it stops on a sign with a phrase written by José Martí: “The weak need respect. This is a task for strong people or courageous people.” Something like that. That sustains him at that moment. He’s doing something courageous by sending these letters. He ends up banned from his work, and he has to leave the country. He’s desperate: he cries, I want to be myself, as I am, and here I cannot be. He knows he’ll find difficulties outside, but he at least wants to try.

The story is set 15 years ago. There’s a moment when we see television reportage about Nicaragua, and Somoza’s flight to the States. For those interested in knowing the story’s time frame, that happened in 1979. A homosexual today doesn’t have the same situation. There is still discrimination at the personal level, but homosexuals are not as vulnerable. They can fight for their rights now. In fact many homosexuals now represent Cuba in the exterior. They come to New York to lecture, they go to Europe—and then they return to Cuba. They don’t have to escape. But at that time they were marginalized in certain ways. I know a writer who was sent to administer a public library. They didn’t publish anything he wrote.

LC: In Memories of Underdevelopment, you used a lot of documentary footage and confrontational techniques. Audiences were forced to examine their position in relation to the screen. In Strawberry and Chocolate, you flirt with these things—you have Nancy praying directly to the camera, for example, and then you cut away to show she’s not facing the audience but an altar. But overall you use these devices much less.

TGA: Yes. In Memories . . . we used them consciously. They related the story to the documentary, which is a more direct expression of reality—it’s not a fiction film, which can be located somewhere in fantasy. But I think you make films because you want to express something to the largest audience possible. So you have to use a language that can reach that audience.

LC: You’ve spoken before of the importance of a commercially viable alternative cinema. Is Strawberry and Chocolate an indication of what you mean?

TGA: “Commercial” is a very corrupt word. I’d rather say communicativo—something done not to earn money but to say things. That’s quite different. Of course, if you have a large audience, if your film is successful, then you’ll earn more money, in terms of capitalism—though not in our terms. More money isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the bad thing is to do things only for more money.

LC: You’ve said that the underlying theme of Strawberry and Chocolate is tolerance. Tolerance of what? Is tolerance different from empowerment?

TGA: Maybe tolerance isn’t the best word. Let’s say comprehension of difference—to understand those who are different from you. I don’t want to have a narrow appreciation of reality.

LC: Strawberry and Chocolate seems to conflate sexual difference with ideology—as in the scene where David, confusing Truman Capote with Harry S. Truman, says Capote dropped the A-bomb and Diego says Truman Capote would never do that, he was a homosexual. In Diego, though, that construction of sexual difference is entwined with liberal individualism, and you make Diego an outcast. Isn’t it possible to speak honestly about sexual difference and also participate in community life?

TGA: Yes, of course. But in that moment Diego is sectarian. Homosexuals too can drop a bomb. I agree with Diego in other moments of the film, but not in that moment. On the other hand, Diego is joking. You have to take it like that.

LC: But the narrative doesn’t challenge the joke. I think there’s a tendency simply to be entertained by sound bites like this one, and to fail to read them as part of a character’s complexity. Is that a failure of the film’s style?

TGA: No, it’s a failure of the audience. If they believe that’s a statement of mine . . . it’s a joke. When Diego makes racist comments about black people, that’s also a joke. Can’t we joke about ourselves? I think we have to be open. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.

LC: The instances you’ve given of Diego’s joking weren’t funny, they were sad. Do you think the comic idiom is a successful way to convey political points?

TGA: In Strawberry and Chocolate we sometimes say things very straight and seriously, but there are also comic situations. You need some salt and some pepper to become more understandable, more communicative. Strawberry and Chocolate is like Memories . . . —a serious film but with an ironic attitude toward reality.

LC: How successful do you think you’ve been in developing a communicative cinema? Has Strawberry and Chocolate broken ground with audiences?

TGA: In Cuba, people broke open the doors of two cinemas to see Strawberry and Chocolate. In one of them, after people finally got in, ten or twelve women’s shoes appeared on the floor—not pairs but single shoes. They put them on a table and when people went out, the women took the shoes they had lost getting in. It was that crazy. Why? Because people thought it was a critical film and they wanted to see it before it was banned.

In Spain, Strawberry and Chocolate topped the box office for several weeks, above more commercial American films. That’s extraordinary. In some theaters people applauded at the end, and in Spain that too is unbelievable. I’ve seen people you could call supermachos who left the film crying. If you cry, it’s because you identify with Diego, who is not a macho. That’s very important for me.

LC: You’ve said that for you to fulfill your needs as a director, you need there to be a Cuban cinema. You’ve been supportive of younger directors and have been instrumental in the growth of Cuban cinema. How do you see your own work and Cuban film developing in the future?

TGA: I always felt I needed a context, so I wouldn’t feel isolated as a filmmaker. You need to have an industry, an infrastructure, other people who think and who stimulate you to think. There was a moment when the only people making films in Cuba were the old people, like me, who started at the beginning of the Cuban film industry. It was not a healthy situation for us. There was no life. There was nothing new. So the ICAIC [the Cuban institute of cinematographic art and industry] promoted young people’s films, and that has been its policy ever since. It’s an international film school in Havana, and its president is Gabriel García Marquez. It teaches mainly Latin American young people, but also students from other parts of the third world: India, Africa. That has been the most stimulating experience. These young people are very audacious. They create new things, new images, new language, and I can enrich myself with that experience.

Lawrence Chua is the managing editor of Bomb magazine and a founding member of the black radio collective Radio Bandung.