On his documentary Contra las Cuerdas (On the Ropes) and first visit to New York

*Interview of Amílcar Ortiz Cárdenas by Lily Hartmann from January 2017

Contra las Cuerdas (On the Ropes) tells the story of a racial debate initiated in Cuba in 1959 with the triumph of the Revolution; this debate soon disappeared in 1962 from the national public sphere. Through interviews with activists and researchers, the documentary asks how the anti-racism campaign silenced discussions of race in Cuban society and impacted the way racial issues manifest in Cuba today.

Where did the idea for your first documentary on the issue of race relations come from?

The short documentary Contra las Cuerdas (On the Ropes) was part of my thesis and studies at the University of Arts Department of Radio, Film, and Television (ISA, Instituto Superior de Arte). I always planned to produce a larger work about the issue of racism because it is an issue that has barely been dealt with in the realm of the Cuban documentary. But my thesis gave me the opportunity to explore the terrain, to examine how projects on race were being received within ISA’s Department of Media and within the genre of the Cuban documentary more broadly.

When I talk about the issue of race, I am referring specifically to work that deals with racial discrimination because the phrase has also been used in other ways. Recognized and talented filmmakers and documentary makers like Sara Gómez, Nicolás Guillén Landrián, and Sergio Giral always reflected the cultural values and conflicts of Afro-Cuban people in their work, but they did not deal specifically with the issue of racial discrimination, which has been scarcely addressed in documentary film produced on the island. So my idea for this project began as a dream even before I began my studies at the Department of Film and Television. This happens to be an issue that I hold close and I felt that there was very little, timid discussion about discrimination within the issue of race.

How was the experience of producing your first documentary? What challenges did you face in the process?

I had studied audiovisual editing, and for my thesis I proposed a film project in which the department would allow me to direct. Although what I ultimately created was not what I wanted, the version I made did begin to explore my ideas. I produced my thesis project with another classmate from my department, a photography student. We made the film with our own resources, our own cameras,  sound equipment, and the assistance of our colleagues There was no budget at all nor material support of any kind. The department only provided us with the letters needed to access authorization requests to film in certain spaces.

It was complicated to make the documentary that I had planned because I realized that racial discrimination still continues to be a complex issue to take on in Cuba. When the interviewees do not know who you are, they assume a protective attitude, acting carefully and with some trepidation. For example, I found it impossible to interview the women I had previously selected, women whom I consider to be essential leaders in dealing with the issue of racial discrimination. In regards to the issue of race, I believe that women, not only in Cuba but in the entire world, are at the forefront when it comes to leading the movement and bringing emancipatory projects to life. Reasons enough for these women to be at the top of my list of interviews. I realized that there was a certain sense of fear, as if they thought, “I do not know who he is or what he could do with the information from this interview.” But later on, when I explained who I am and what I was doing, many opened their doors and now I am working with these same women on new projects I have in the works.

In the end, for On the Ropes, I was forced to restructure my initial idea after not being able to interview the women I had selected and only having five weeks to prepare my thesis project.

So I presented a work that starred only men, including activist Tato Quiñones, researcher Esteban Morales, writer Reynaldo González, investigator and professor Tomás Fernández Robaina (José Martí National Library and University of Havana), Harvard scholar Alejandro de la Fuente, actor and activist Danny Glover, and Professor of Heritage Julio Morasén Naranjo.

In On the Ropes, how do you treat the issue of racial discrimination in Cuba?

The documentary takes as its starting point a racial debate initiated by Fidel Castro himself in 1959 that soon vanished from discussion in the same moment it was beginning to become public. I use this debate about racism and anti-racism as a way to discuss the racial problem that has persisted in Cuba from the triumph of the Revolution until today.

The documentary follows two narrative arcs. The first traces the history of Cuba’s racial problem up to today, citing relevant events as they happened. The other is an atemporal narrative composed of the interviewees’ reflections and more philosophical considerations, as they speak about what it means to have an enduring racial problem that has not yet been resolved.

What has been the audience's response to this documentary?

Something great happened during the discussion of the thesis; a debate broke out about race relations after the film was shown. It pains me that I didn’t bring my camera that day because I would have had a good story. But this documentary is a little bit difficult to show in Cuba. I could do it in a few closed spaces, but to do so in public one must go through certain channels, which for a subject that critiques a certain situation within society becomes complicated. A documentary like this one is rejected out of a persisting fear to speak openly about racial discrimination. Many believe it is a divisive topic, but it is not all; it’s an issue we have to deal with. In the documentary, the issue of race is not dealt with in an anti-systemic way; my only intention was to contribute a grain of sand to the improvement of the society in which I live.

How did it happen that you had the opportunity to show your documentary in the United States?

Well, it happened that a friend of mine saw the project and said to me, “Look, do you know that I spoke with a professor in the U.S. and they want to invite you?” But I did not have the documentary ready to show outside of the thesis presentation. It lacked certain details to be polished enough to show in a festival or other similar spaces. I had made the documentary with the intention of completing my thesis, and that was it.

A year went by and I made a few changes to the documentary, and the same friend said to me, “Amílcar, I think that it would be a great opportunity if you can come and show the film here in the U.S.” In the process of organizing a trip, I came in contact with an academic from CUNY in Havana who invited me to show the documentary in New York, and I went with the plan to only present my documentary there.

In the middle of this process, I was also looking for funds for another documentary project, but because of the blockade/embargo, Cubans cannot receive funds from any U.S. institution. In any case, I thought the idea of showing the film abroad was interesting.

Two days before I left Cuba, I received an invitation to go to Rutgers, and there I had my first showing along with a Q+A. Each screening was a really rich experience because the audiences were very interested in Cuba. I always had to explain why there were no women in the documentary, but these presentations created a good dialogue; something very rich for both sides. En CUNY, during the Q+A, there was a lot of respect for Cuba and the subject matter as well as a great desire to exchange ideas. This type of dialogue is essential for anyone that wants to work with issues that have an impact of the improvement of their society.  

What surprised your about New York or about the United States in general?

I had a very rich experience because I stayed in various neighborhoods of the city, for example, Harlem and Washington Heights, a Dominican Latino neighborhood. I stayed in an Airbnb, a new experience for a Cuban because in 2015 Airbnb had not yet arrived in Havana. Later on, I was in Brooklyn and Queens. I am not one to travel to New York in search of the flashiest places. Perhaps for this reason, Times Square and over-the-top expressions of capital were not my priority. I was more interested in spending my days getting to know people related to my profession and sharing with those I met along my stay. For example, I did an interview with a prominent film professor, Richard Peña, at Columbia and visited Ada Ferrer at New York University. I was in an academic environment and had very few moments to breathe and think, “wow, where am I?”

I found my stay in Spanish Harlem really interesting because I was close to Black Harlem, where I walked a lot, and was able to observe more closely the reality in which black people live. I saw gentrification and the way that Harlem is changing.

I also felt the warmth of the people in New York and their healthy interest in Cuba. Racial questions at that time, in 2015, instances of racial discrimination were becoming more visible in the U.S. There was also a growing interest in knowing what was happening in other places. For decades, Cuba has always been a controversial site; people want to know how the issue of race is treated on the island. In New York and wherever I showed my documentary, I had to explain that in Cuba there is racism, although it manifests differently than it does in the U.S.

Lastly, what has your first documentary and the subsequent trip to the U.S. meant to you?

I think the Contra las Cuerdas has opened doors for me in the U.S. to get to know a world that for many years, even up to today, has been in tension with the reality in which I live. There is something that is often silenced, but when you are familiar with the history of both countries, you know that there has always been a cultural connection between Cuba and the U.S. Both cultures have been quite close, and this relates, for example, to a different question: why does Cuba not have this same closeness with Caribbean nations?

As a society, one of Cuba’s peculiarities is that it maintains a certain distance from the black Caribbean. Instead, Cuba tends to look to the metropolis and to the north. When I say the north, I mean the U.S. and Europe. The Caribbean has remained a black space, and in very few instances do we look in their direction--only during the celebration of the Caribbean Festival in Santiago de Cuba and few other occasions. We, Cuba, are closer to Latin America than the Anglophone or Francophone Caribbean, but closer still to the U.S. It’s interesting. You can walk through Central Park in New York and there is a statue of José Martí, or a street in the city is named after a Cuban, and you realize that there is a far richer history of cultural relations between these two countries than you thought.


*Amílcar Ortiz Cárdenas returned to the United States in April 2017 to attend and document the meeting of activists, artists, and researchers from the Afro-descendant Movement organized by Harvard University’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute. Please visit:  http://www.afrocubaweb.com/reunion-de-harvard.html


Translation by Lily Hartmann