Tomas Gutierrez Alea

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everyday life, socialism
Film (comedy, documentary, feature film, grotesque)
America, Caribbean
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May 20, 2003
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Tomas Gutierrez Alea
Tomas Gutierrez Alea © Ralf Emmerich - Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek e.V.


´Too much polemic about Cuba´

Born in Havana on Cuba in 1928, Tomas Gutierrez Alea influenced Cuban film-making more than anyone else. All his 29 films focus on the paradoxes of life on Cuba, and his great international successes include ´Strawberry and Chocolate´ (1993) and ´Guantanamera´ (1995). He died in 1996.
´There´s too much polemic about Cuba,´ complained Tomas Gutierrez Alea in an interview in 1994. ´It is seen as being a communist hell or a communist paradise. The real Cuba often lapses into the background.´ Born in Havana in 1928, he did much to free the island from dull propaganda films in depicting it subtly and ironically in films like Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) and Strawberry and Chocolate (1993). His last film, Gauntanamera (Travelling with a Corpse, 1996) is a romantic comedy showing the transportation of corpses in a planned economy. His films are notable for not only their fine humour and self-irony but also for their formal daring.

From his early documentary films under the influence of Italian neo-realism via the absurdly satirical feature films of the 70s to his big international successes of the 90s, Tomas Gutierrez Alea often showed the paradoxes of life on Cuba. As a keen revolutionary he developed the guerrilla´s film department together with Epinosa, then in 1959 was a co-founder of the Cuban Film Institute ICAIC. But his smile turned not only on the worries of the bourgeoisie but also on the pedantry of revolutionaries. He was as familiar with American slapstick as with films from Ingmar Bergmann and Luis Buñuel, whom he openly admired.

As a revolutionary and founding member of the Cuban Film Institute, Tomas Gutierrez Alea made films which became increasingly critical, turning with a smile and a wink to the way things were. Yet he took responsibility for having co-founded the new Cuba, and even on seeing the erosion of ideals, he still stood behind his country.

In Historias de la Revolución (1960), the first Cuban feature film from after the revolution of 1959, he showed in three episodes the struggle of the Cuban people against the dictatorship of General Batista. Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) is a satire on the bureaucratic fossilisation of revolutions and brought him his first international recognition.

His Historias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) is a subtle portrait of the needs and conscience of a man who decides in favour of the Cuban revolution. The film is about the mentality of the protagonist Sergio, who in 1961, after the failed American invasion of the Bay of Pigs, decides to linger in Cuba, though his family flees to the USA. The wealthy bourgeoisie is torn between the decadent life-style of Cuba before the revolution and the idealism of the new society. Its representatives try to carry on living off tenants and are quick to run after women.

Tomas Gutierrez Alea shows himself to be a master of overview. The film is set grandly on several levels, with cuts between fictive and documentary sequences, and between memories of lost opportunities and television images of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs. The alternation convincingly reflects the protagonist´s mind and even includes snatches from a porno-film made in the Batista era. Moreover, Tomas Gutierrez Alea director and Edmundo Desnoes, the author of the filmed novel, also comment on Sergio´s thoughts. The director uses the ´aggressive vitality´ of antitheses to make viewers more aware of their own stance.

The Survivors (1979) is a grotesque account of the attitude of wealthy Cubans towards the revolution. As Fidel Castro comes to power, the Orozco family rushes to save its wealth, but no sooner are possessions changed into money than the government prints new banknotes. The family´s servants leave, and savings become scanty. In desperation the head of the clan declares: Only who works should eat. Soon the motto claims its first victim. Tomas Gutierrez Alea shows a decadent society keen to save its own ´civilised´ standard but only becoming barbarous. In 1979 The Survivors brought him a nomination for the Golden Palm in Cannes but not yet international renown.

Not till the 90s did Tomas Gutierrez Alea achieve his surprising international breakthrough. This was due to Strawberry and Chocolate and Gauntanamera. The former is about the struggle of homosexuals against the prudery of revolutionaries in 1979. As regards his depiction of homosexuality, the director declared: ´I first inflated clichés in order to prick them.´

In a café, the artist and former teacher Diego gets to know the sociology student David. David is a committed communist and heterosexual, and Diego is politically non-committal and homosexual. The communist virgin and the liberal rake take up their positions. In his queer home full of banned books, icons and US whiskey, Diego tries to seduce love-sick David but cannot get to the bottom of his resistance. David denounces communist homosexuals critical of the regime and leaves, but Comrade Miguel sends him back to keep an eye on Diego. Soon David comes more often and sees there is more to life than ideology. Strawberry and Chocolate is a film of melting contrasts between communism and catholicism, homos and machos, suspicion and trust.

´I had long periods of taking the system to task,´ said Tomas Gutierrez Alea in an interview. There were times when I was sent into internal exile and not allowed to travel. But when it came to the crunch, they were always mature enough to accept me and my work.´ Even his last film, Guantanamera, received awards in Cuba, though it amusingly details the absurdity of the planned Cuban economy:

An unusual funeral car and a lorry are on the same route for quite different reasons. The bereaved - a civil servant, his wife Gina and an old musician, who is an old flame of the deceased - are doing their best to heed the new government decrees for the transportation of corpses. These decrees are due to the scarcity of petrol and allow each burial enterprise only a certain amount per corpse, the amount being that which on average has been used for this purpose over the last five years. Since funeral cars are allowed to operate only within their own districts, the transportation of corpses further afield relies on a relay system, in which the runners hand over not a baton but a corpse.

The journey through Cuba is not without problems. The amorous adventures of a driver, and the habit of buying wares to be sold on the black market in Havana, delay progress. The car and the lorry meet again and again, sparking off a light romance between Gina and the lorry-driver Mariano. Tomas Gutierrez Alea pointed out that his film is mainly documentary: ´This tale is based on facts. We didn´t invent the absurd aspect. This is based on our everyday life.´

Events at the HKW:
Saturday, 7th August, 1999
Cinema TriContinental
The great directors from Africa, Asia and Latin America
Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate)

Organiser: House of World Cultures


Born in Havana on Cuba on 11th December, 1928, Tomas Gutierrez Alea began making amateur films in the 40s and then trained as a professional film-maker in Rome. In 1951, together with Santiago Alvarez and others, he founded the illegal cultural society Nuestro tiempo, whose film department grew into the new national film production company. After the fall of the Batista regime, he co-founded the Cuban Art and Film Institute and made a number of films reflecting on the revolution, whose aftermath he viewed more critically after the mid 60s.

Tomas Gutierrez Alea first gained a reputation abroad for films showing life in the communist Caribbean state in a subtle and sometimes wicked way. His surprising success Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1994, and in the USA was a finalist for an Oscar as the best foreign-language film in 1995. His last film, Guantanamera (Travelling with a Corpse, 1994) won prizes in Havana and at the Sundance Festival, and was nominated for the Golden Lion in Venice in 1995.


Historias de la Revolución (Tales of the Revolution)

Film / TV,

Guantanamera (Travelling with a Corpse)

Film / TV,
together with Juan Carlos Tabia)

Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate)

Film / TV,
together with Juan Carlos Tabia

Letters from the Park

Film / TV,

The survivors

Film / TV,

Historias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment)

Film / TV,

Death of a Bureaucrat

Film / TV,

Muerte al Invasor (Death to the Invader)

Film / TV,
together with Santiago Alvarez)

Esta tierra nuestra (This Earth of Ours)

Film / TV,