Juan Antonio García Borrero

The first version of the “Cuban Audiovisual Encyclopedia” is now ready. At the moment of my writing, it includes 1310 pages, which allow us to not only consult a great number of technical files, synopses, and critiques of fiction works, documentaries, cartoons, etc., produced during the silent period up through the present. The encyclopedia also includes information about books published on Cuban cinema, technologies used in filmmaking, movie theaters as a space of sociability, and cinematographic events and festivals as a mechanism for generating consensus as well as physical and imaginary communities.

Conceived as a Wiki publication that uses free software, the Cuban Audiovisual Encyclopedia will allow for interactive knowledge building in accordance with the most modern forms of communication. This means that in addition to having an “Author” who decides the final form in which the book will be available to readers, we would also have a main Editor who (helped by other editors and experts) would facilitate the circulation of ideas around a certain concept (in our case the Cuban audiovisual, much broader than Cuban film), which could then be examined from various angles according to the paradigm proposed by the film Rashomon (or would it be better to invoke Borges’ Aleph?).

The Cuban Audiovisual Encyclopedia champions this encompassing vision. But it should be understood that this goal of a “comprehensive history” of the Cuban audiovisual, moving beyond cold data points, will be more than a simple summation of facts, synopses, or statistics. In other words, if I, as the author of the “Guía crítica del cine cubano de ficción” (“Critical Guide to Cuban Non-Documentary Film”), was able to compile a broad base of information about silent film, pre-revolutionary film with sound, revolutionary film (primarily represented by ICAIC productions), “buried” works (production centers that were hardly visible in official history, such as the Estudios Cinematográficos de la Televisión (“Television Film Studios”) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces), or film clubs, the novelty of this Encyclopedia would not be in its incorporation of new information (which it has), but rather in its defense of collaborative writing.

To talk about a “new history of the Cuban audiovisual” can sound rather pretentious; I will try to describe what this Copernican shift, the use of this tool, has meant for me as a researcher. For this, I will go back to my beginnings as a student of Cuban film, the moment I decided to write the “Critical Guide” in 1996.

At that time, we were on the eve of celebrating the centenary of the arrival of film to the island. Today, the catalogue of books addressing the evolution of Cuban film is extensive. But back then there were many limitations to gaining access to such information, especially if you lived in the provinces where there was no informational center (Centro de Documentación) or film archive (Cinemateca) to assist you.

Furthermore, there was interest in discussing a history of Cuban film separate from the history of ICAIC (the famous “ICAIC-centrism” we continue to question today). Rather, it would be a history of practices generated around the moving image (regardless of where it came from or what kind of medium hosts it), which would lead us to talk not only about films, but also about cinemas as spaces of social exchange and cultural consumption as a way of establishing shared identities.

Still today, the information about these spheres of the Cuban audiovisual remain insufficient, a scarcity that will continue to grow as the digital turn democratizes film production. In spite of a researcher’s best intentions, as individuals, we will always be limited.

I remember my agonizing trips to the capital to explore the chaotic archives of the Estudios Cinematográficos de la Televisión, or the interviews with filmmakers like Tomás Piard and Jorge Luis Sánchez, trying to recontruct the history of amateur film from 1979 onwards or the film workshops of the Asociación de Hermanos Saíz (AHS, “Saíz Brothers Association”) by means of yellowed documents and the memory of these two men.

The “Critical Guide” allowed me to glimpse the obscure cultural terrain that remained (and still remains) in the dark. From there, a little later on came the book Rehenes de la sombra (“Hostages of the Shadow”), which investigates what happened in those “other” audiovisual production centers that were not managed by ICAIC, and therefore, were not visible in the official history. Later, I prepared the collective volume, Cine cubano. Nación, diáspora e identidad (“Cuban Film: Nation, Diaspora and Identity”), which deals with audiovisual material produced by Cuban living outside of the island.

Each of these books (together with the other ten I have written) tries to restore the fragments to the invisible magnet that unites them: the audiovisual representation of Cuban-ness, even outside of the island. The good, the normal, the bad, those books are there, taking up space on the bookshelf of someone who once acquired them. However, these books live disconnected from one another, each on its own, without receiving much academic attention, and in many cases, never making it into the hands of the researchers who could debate them.

Now imagine that all of this information that lies scattered in hundreds of books were contained in a single digital platform that one could access and contribute to from any part of the planet (we already know how scattered Cubans are) through a computer, a laptop, or whatever device (tablet, phone, etc.) that connects to the Internet. The Cuban Audiovisual Encyclopedia would also enjoy the additional advantage of being accessible offline, to be downloaded, consulted, and debated.

A history of the Cuban audiovisual written in this manner would evolve quickly from a History-story (an individual narration from a chronicler who organizes the facts in a linear fashion) to a History-problem. Here, we will not only describe events, but also put them into critical perspective using methodologies deployed by historians.

Furthermore, taking the Cuban audiovisual as a sort of bank of questions instead of a prayer book to bow down to, we can avoid the harsh reproach once issued by Michèle Lagny, who wrote that a history of film “written by cinephiles, is often little more than a hallowed story.”[1]

Certainly, if we want the history of the Cuban audiovisual to overcome the inevitable biases of those who love it with a great passion and can only see the virtues or flaws that motivated us to write about it, if we want it to achieve a scientific rigor that would explain a body of work without grounding it in a forced unity or teleological, exalting vision--and would thus examines its contradictions and ambiguities--it will only be necessary to appeal to the plural gaze of multidisciplinary teams.  

From there, the possibility of constructing a “new history of the Cuban audiovisual” will not depend so much on the vast amount of information we now have within reach thanks to new technologies, but rather in the construction of a new methodology capable of connecting all of these scenes that at first glance appear distant and foreign.

In this sense, the Cuban Audiovisual Encyclopedia can function as a repository, but above all as a collaborative research space where ideas and debates flow through technological interactions, allowing us to move through space and time in dynamic and unpredictable ways. Just like life itself.


A version of this essay was previously published in Cuba Posible [https://cubaposible.com/una-nueva-historia-del-audiovisual-cubano/].

[1] Lagny, M. (1992). De l'histoire du cinéma. París: Armand Colin.

Translated by Lily Hartmann