They Clipped Our Wings: An Interview With Cuban Filmmaker Miguel Coyula
Miguel Coyula, a one-man cinema “band,” writes, films, edits, and does post-production on all his films. Although his work has won awards and been well received in the United States, Europe, and South America, none of his films have been released in Cuba. During several evenings in Havana, we explored his approach to filmmaking and his views on the difficulties of being an artist in both Cuba and the United States.
Mr. Coyula studied film at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba (EICTV) and has spent extensive periods in the United States as the recipient of a Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute Scholarship, on a Guggenheim grant, and as a lecturer at various universities. As one fan commented on his first feature film, Red Cockroaches, “this film should be shown to every beginning filmmaker.” Made for $2,000.00 and described as a merging of surrealism and science fiction, Red Cockroaches, with its high production values, seems more like a big budget studio film than low-budget independent cinema. Variety described it as “a triumph of technology in the hands of a visionary with know-how….” As Castro once did, Coyula operates outside the system, financing his films through grants and investors who as he put it, “are doing it for the love of art. “
His second feature-length film, Memories of Underdevelopment is based on Edmundo Desnoes’ novel of the same name. Desnoes’ first novel resulted in the iconic 1968 Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment, adapted by the revered director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Both the novel and the films trace a character’s unsuccessful attempt to adjust to two differing economic and cultural spheres, the early days of socialism in Cuba, and life in capitalist America. Well received by Cuban critics, presently, the film has no distributer. Like the character in the two Memories films, Mr. Coyula is caught in the middle, a cinema no man’s land. Undeterred, he is presently developing Corazon Azul, a science fiction film.
Our conversation focused on being an independent filmmaker on the cusp of change as the United States and Cuba restore diplomatic and economic relations.
WWR: I know you lived in New York when you had your Guggenheim. What was it like coming back to Cuba?
COYULA: The way I live my life I don’t need anything extra. Just dedicate time to the films. That’s about it. It’s different in that more people know and respect my work here so it’s easier to get actors.
In New York, I would have to become something else besides a filmmaker because the main thing in Cuba is that 90 percent of the people don’t pay rent. People own the places they live in, so that’s a relief. What I do is when I am invited to the United States, I work for a month or so, and then, I can come to Cuba and stretch that money for a whole year.
WWR: Perhaps Cuba, as a socialist country, allows you to be a filmmaker. You have the freedom of time. In the states, people have the freedom to work their butts off and no time.
COYULA: The sense of time is different in the States. The society seems so stressful and people don’t compromise what they do in their free time. I made some very good friends there. It was hard because I saw people who had talent but they gave up. American society seems to crush them down. You have to renounce a conventional life. For example, the lead actor in Memories lives in an extreme way. He lives in a city and manages by being a gleaner and that’s a philosophy of life. I do it in my films also. I get things from here and there and that’s what makes me happy. I don’t starve but that’s it.
WWR: Do you think of yourself as a Cuban filmmaker or more as a filmmaker who lives in a particular country?
COYULA: The one thing that makes me sleep well at night is to have no interference whatsoever. Perhaps because of the very system we live in, which is interfering all the time in people’s lives, I think there is a little Fidel inside everybody and people have to watch over their inner Fidel. I experiment but only within the confines of the screen. And to me, this has been my escape from reality. And it depends on the story. Red Cockroaches, for example, is a story that could take place anywhere in the world and people who see it don’t know the origins of the filmmaker. Some people thought it was an American Independent Film.
WWR: What do you think influences your filmmaking?
COYULA: Influences that shape your artistic taste and sensibilities, I think, come from experiences that happen in your childhood or early teen-age years. For example, here in Cuba, we had American cartoons, Cuban cartoons, Russian cartoons, and for some reason, I identified with Japanese cartoons more than anything else. I think genetically when you’re born there is a preconfigured taste that has nothing to do with the influences that you have when you grow up. It’s just engrained in you or engraved. And most of the influences, artistic influences in music, in film, in visual arts that have marked me have come from other parts of the world.
WWR: Some critics believe that writers are writing the same novel or filmmakers are making the same film over and over: the plot and characters are different but the overall issue or theme is repeated. Do your films fit this category?
COYULA: I like misfit characters. That’s the one thing in common. Through these characters you can explore everything you don’t like about the world.
WWR: Presently, I am visiting Cuba as part of a Fulbright Association Tour. The organizations we visited on this tour extoll Cuban socialism and the many benefits the revolution has brought the people. We keep asking those we meet if life in Cuba will change now that Cuba and the United States are resuming a diplomatic and economic relationship. As these changes proceed, will you be affected as a filmmaker?
COYULA: Technically, the way I make films—and I’ve shot in many different countries—it has to be the same way, that is, just be completely independent. Just the camera which becomes an extension of the arm and the computer for post-production.
WWR: Yet you have adapted Edmundo Desnoes’ novel Memories of Overdevelopment whose protagonist cannot adjust to capitalism just as how in Memories of Underdevelopment, that same character couldn’t adjust to socialism.
COYULA: Well first of all I loved Memories of Underdevelopment. I saw it when I was 16. What was interesting to me is that the main character is always drifting. He has no obligations; he has no family. He doesn’t believe in a political system. I always thought the first film was interpreted as a story of an upper middle class bourgeois that came to the process of the Cuban Revolution. My interpretation is that this is a man who is unable to fit into any society: he’s unable to have an emotional relationship and because of these characteristics he becomes an interesting vehicle to see what’s wrong with the two societies, both Cuba and the US.
During the five years of shooting and editing, I made many changes. About 50 percent of the novel with respect to the film changed because I made the character younger which radically changed the story.
Memories of Overdevelopment
WWR: How did Desnoes feel about these changes?
COYULA: Initially, he said, “You go on your own.” We disagreed mostly on the pessimism of the character. I really saw this man as a misfit. And he saw him more as a “Sean Connery” where women were falling at his feet. I wanted to study the feeling of my generation that the revolution gave us wings to fly but then clipped them, and we are unable to function in any society of the world. It has nothing to do with communism or capitalism. It’s just this inability to trust politicians and to realize we are on our own. Which was the way it was in elementary school. They were brainwashing us with this idea that Cuba was going to be this utopia where everything was going to be perfect. Then when we were teenagers during the Special Period (a time of economic crisis in Cuba beginning in 1989 mostly as the result of the Soviet Union’s break up), we realized it wasn’t going to be the case.
WWR: How were your wings clipped? In what way?
COYULA: Because the Cuban film industry never wanted to produce my films, I had to learn every specialty from writing to shooting to editing to sound design to special effects: it’s been the only way for me to survive which is the case not only in the Cuban film industry but in any film industry in the world. The films I make don’t fit in the commercial or the art house mainstream which exists in many film festivals in Europe that are expecting Latin American films. They’re more interested in social context and minimalist mise-en-scène. Certain requirements that I do not meet so I’m left on my own.
WWR: Do you think this has to do with you personally or is it a part of the environment of Cuba where, as you said, you were promised a paradise? What paradise were they promising? What were you expecting to happen?
COYULA: I still believe in the ideals of so called social justice where people have the basics which is the way I work. I live and work only to be able to do my films which means renouncing having a normal life, just dedicating money to eat and to make the films.
Ironically, my films play much more outside of Cuba which bothers me. I’d like people not to see a pirated copy with bad quality like in the paqueta. A paqueta is made when someone hacks into the internet on their jobs or black market satellite internet and downloads one terabyte of information which includes films, music, software, whatever you can think of and they sell it for two cukes (A cuke is one of the two currencies used in Cuba and is equivalent to one dollar.). It’s passed around on hard drives and that’s how information, movies, and TV shows circulate. When you go to visit a friend, it’s always a must to bring a disc or a pen drive. You take whatever they have and you pass it around to other friends. So every week, this package of one terabyte is available.
WWR: Your work situation seems very frustrating, yet you continue to make feature length films with virtually no budget. How do you pull this off?
COYULA: Working digitally allows me to make films. Also, I am always shooting scenes that interest me. Sometimes it takes years to use something. For instance, the Twin Towers on 9/11. I shot them when they collapsed. I happened to be on 8th Street and 6th Avenue. While making Memories for Overdevelopment, I was traveling to festivals with Red Cockroaches. I could shoot in Japan, Paris, London, and Tokyo as my airfare and accommodations were paid for. Then, later I would digitally place the actor in these locations. I also use found video and then digitally alter it. In my most recent film, Corazón Azul, I include images from Occupy Wall Street and then altered them for my purposes. In the filming of Memories of Overdevelopment, we were using the author’s apartment; however, he and I had a falling out, and so I had to reconstruct the apartment by using the images I had filmed before he kicked us out. He said, “Go” and in the next 10 minutes, I grabbed images of the apartment. But after a screening in L.A., he said he accepted the film as an interpretation of the novel by a new generation.
WWR: I read that beside the Guggenheim grant, you had outside investors for Memories of Overdevelopment. Were these friends, so you didn’t feel pressure to compromise?
COYULA: First we started with investors, that is, someone who donates $2,000 or $10,000 in exchange for executive producer credit. There is always pressure but since they know me, they were doing it for the love of art. To me that was always important. It´s always been about people that gravitated towards my project. I’m very bad about trying to go out and sell my films to an investor because if I go and hustle to get investors, there is always a compromise. To keep expenses down, I defer payments to the actors. And the rest of the crew is just me. I do the filming, the editing, and the post-production. It’s the time you invest.
WWR: Have you made any money off your films?
COYULA: Only the first film, Red Cockroaches. It’s the only film I made that got distributed.
WWR: You mean Memories of Overdevelopment didn’t get distributed?
COYULA: No, even with all the awards, all the good reviews. But making money doesn’t matter to me as much as if there was a fire here: then, the masters of my films will be lost. The ICACI (the state sponsored Cuban Film Institute) don’t have it since I don’t exist in their catalogue of Cuban films because the films are controversial or because they don´t fit, in terms of form or content, to the profile of a “Cuban Film.”
WWR: So how do you finance your next film?
COYULA: I’ve been doing this for twenty years now. I started when I was seventeen making shorts. It was very clear from the beginning that I wasn’t going to make a living given the kind of films I wanted to make. So I have had to do something else, camera work and teaching. I teach mostly in the US. I’m invited for a week or two, sometimes a month to do a workshop, show my films, discuss how they were made.
I have a list of universities that want to buy Memories of Overdevelopment, but the biggest problem we have are the music rights which would cost $50,000, more than it cost me to make the film. This isn’t a problem for festivals and special screenings, but we are not able to sell the film for distribution. So until we find a distributor who is willing to pay for the rights or a millionaire, the film sits in limbo.
WWR: Would Cubans in Miami be willing to provide the funds?
COYULA: No, no. The film has had a complicated relationship with Miami Cubans because it’s a film about a man who doesn’t fit either in socialism or capitalism and politics are black and white in Miami. The first time I screened the film in Miami, there was an eighty year-old woman in the audience who probably left Cuba in the first wave after the revolution. And she was very angry with the film. She said that this film was made by the Cuban government to say that all Cuban exiles are suffering and miserable in the US.
WWR: You seem to be caught in the middle of the benefits and evils of socialism and capitalism.
COYULA: Edmundo Desnoes once said, “In Cuba, I felt important because they censored me. In the US, I can say whatever I want but nobody cares.”
Judith Zinis was a 2013 Fulbright Scholar in Greece where she taught film studies at the University of Athens and researched Greek-American filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos. As a professor at Ocean County College, she has developed and taught Film of the Sixties, World Cinema, and From Literature to Film. At Mathey College at Princeton University, she presented several examples of Greek Cinema. Recently, she published an article on the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival for the publication Urban Agenda.