El telón de azúcar (The Sugar Curtain) was the winner of the Premio Coral for the best documentary at the 29th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana in 2007. — Ed.
In The Sugar Curtain,
the Paradise of the Cuban Revolution
Is Put in Crisis
The daughter of a Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán returns to Cuba, where she spent the happiest years of her life, and discovers that the country of her childhood is gone: “Only its slogans remain,” she laments, while contrasting personal story and collective subject.
“So I grew up in a paradise,” recalls the sad voice of filmmaker Camila Guzmán Urzúa, while the first images show excited children in the schoolyard of a primary school in Havana. The record of this reality is juxtaposed with a black and white photo of the same school almost thirty years ago, when the director was entering first grade. Cuba was a fiesta, the revolution was at its zenith, there were neither anxieties nor problems of the material order on the horizon; in the street, “There was neither advertisement nor trouble, and I was happy.” In The Sugar Curtain, this very Eden — the innocence of childhood, but also that of the golden years of the revolution — is put into crisis by a powerful, heartfelt documentary, narrated in the first person singular, that is not afraid to expose itself to controversy.
According to the director herself, daughter of a Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, she came to the island when she was barely two years old, fleeing with her parents from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. And Cuba welcomed them with open arms, providing them with work, housing, and meals. The years spent at a school of pioneers were the years of deep and lasting friendships, and in high school the idea of comradeship and solidarity, taught through the example of Camilo Cienfuegos and other heroes of the revolution, grew stronger. “We were the pioneers forging the future, to be the new human beings that Che had imagined,” says Camila. But The Sugar Curtain is a chronicle of disillusionment, a testimony of disenchantment. “The country of my childhood has disappeared — only its slogans remain,” says the filmmaker, ceaselessly contrasting past and present, personal story and collective subject.
The formal method of The Sugar Curtain is as simple as it is effective. With her camera on the shoulder, Camila revisits the spaces of her childhood and reunites with her compañeras and compañeros who are still living on the island (who are the minority) and some of the many who went into exile, like herself who ended up in Europe. She rescues old sepia school photos and contrasts them with the faces of their subjects today — still youthful but tired and resigned. And she faces what she herself calls “the ruins of my memories.” Her own reflection looms in shadow of her camera that pans a deserted, worn-out classroom, or in the image of herself reflected in the mirror, as she asks her mother why she decided to stay in the island — in the same apartment that housed the family upon their arrival — when all around her have left. There is something at once tender and painful in the first film by Camila Guzmán Urzúa. Tender, because to return to the country of childhood necessarily means to retrace a path of dreams and memories, which the director always travels with tact and sensitivity, knowing how to listen to not only the words of her old compañeras and compañeros but also their looks and their silences. And painful, because there was a profound disappointment in the whole generation born and raised in the best years of the revolution. “It was as if we started with happiness only to arrive at unhappiness,” a friend of Camila’s sums up.
“The German Democratic Republic announces the opening of its borders,” reads a little paragraph lost in a corner of a page of Granma, which Guzmán’s camera finds. The Berlin Wall fell, the socialist world collapsed, and that was all that the official newspaper of the island had to say about a reality that Cuba did not want to see and yet would crash down upon it, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and thus ceased to sustain Cuba economically. “We used to trade politics for oil, and when politics became no longer tradable, we were left without oil,” says one of the few compañeros of Camila’s who are proud of having remained in the island.
But what The Sugar Curtain suggests is that it was not only terrible economic straits, blackouts and the lack of food, that deprived her generation of hope (and not only her generation: there is a devastating side story of a marriage of a militiaman and a literacy teacher who ended up separated in exile). “If I did not keep clashing with the regime, that’s because I left,” Camila confesses, speaking of the increasing lack of freedoms (someone also speaks of the policy of denunciations), the illusion of socialism with a human face that had emerged in the streets and the arts — several mention the Nueva Trova Cubana as an example — but was thwarted by the blockade and isolation of the island. “The revolution resists, but leaving people without their dreams,” continues Camila’s reflection, observing the same paper Cuban flags that were mechanically waved at a political rally getting thrown into a garbage truck a couple of hours later.
The final scene is especially hard. Looking at their graduating class photo, Camila and a former compañero of hers who now lives in Canada go over the names and current places of residence of those students from that time: Madrid, Stockholm, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Buenos Aires. . . . It is as if a whole generation had decided to leave. Not all of them, however. There is a compañero of Camila’s (the son of the aforementioned militiaman and literacy teacher who are now in exile), who is now teaching at the same school where he studied. He says: “I hardly need anything. . . . Besides, someone has to stay.”