William & Mary

Taking Stock of Cuba's transformation through film

  • The Cuba only she knows
    The Cuba only she knows  Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film and Media Studies Ann Marie Stock offered the Tack Faculty Lecture on her more than three decades studying Cuban films and those who make them.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Ann Marie Stock has opened her heart to Cuban film, her home to Cuban filmmakers, her William & Mary students to Cuban culture and the eyes of the audience attending the recent Tack Faculty Lecture to the country she has gotten to know and love through cinema.

Endowed by Carl ’78 and Martha ’78 Tack, the ninth installment of the series – entitled Remix and Revolution in Cuba: Screening the Island’s Transformation Through Cinema – drew a large, enthusiastic crowd to Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium.

“Cuba remains an enigma,” said Stock, professor of Hispanic studies and film and media studies. “Most of us in the United States don’t know much about the country. The politics and practices of both governments have resulted in keeping us apart and both peoples in the dark for the last half-century. We tend to envision Cuba as stuck in time, a place that’s not changing, a place that’s static.”

Then Stock, who has traveled regularly to Cuba for 30 years, detailed the fault in that thinking. Cuban filmmakers, against many odds and obstacles, have eloquently depicted their changing island, she said.

History

Revolutionary cinema dates back to 1959, Stock said, and holds such an important place in Cuban life that the second decree of the new government in 1960 was the formation of the Film Institute.

“Cinema was deemed to be the foremost medium through which revolutionary ideas would be disseminated, through which Cubans would be educated and a principle mode of entertainment,” Stock said. “Through film, notions of citizenship would be defined, relationships to the state would be negotiated, and alliances would be forged. For the last 50 years, then, film in Cuba has been an arbiter of identity.”

Cuban writer Senel Paz famously wrote of the 1960s, “I went to the cinema not to see films, but to become Cuban.”

Still, Stock said, the state’s post-revolution political agenda ruled. Some films were not made because they were incompatible with that agenda, or were under-circulated or uncirculated. Cuban filmmakers reacted to such censorship by leaving the island.

Such movies became known as “ghost films.” Through the work of Stock and her students, the Earl Gregg Swem Library at W&M currently sports a student-curated exhibit of the promotional posters from these films.

The Special Period

The 1989 breakup of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War ushered in a period of economic devastation the Cubans dubbed “The Special Period.”

“It was a time of uncertainty, dislocation, darkness,” said Stock, who added that some effects are still being felt.

{{youtube:medium:center|uziKNTcYUnM, Describing the 'Special Period'}}

There were shortages of everything, even food, Stock said. She attended a stage play with the director, who carried a single light bulb in his pocket. He screwed it in, the only illumination in an otherwise dark theater.

He was afraid, he told Stock, to leave it in the socket for fear of it being stolen.

As an example of the extremes Cuban filmmakers went to stage their movies, Stock described the backstory of the film “Viva Cuba” by her friend Juan Carlos Cremata. Unable to produce even a modest payroll for professionals, Cremata enrolled his mother to produce the film, his cousin to compose the score, and his brother to train the two child actors who starred. His grandmother even played a grandmother.

“Lucky for him, he has a very talented family,” Stock deadpanned. “A new generation of very agile filmmakers emerged. They shared a desire to experiment and innovate. What they didn’t have, they invented”

The theme of the period, she said, was “Make Do.”

W&M connects with Cuba

In 1994, Cuban filmmaker Fernando Perez phoned Stock to tell her that his son, Frank Ernesto, was emigrating to the U.S. The elder Perez was devastated, Stock said, and told her the only way he could bear to see his son go was if he knew the young man was in good hands.

Stock agreed to let Frank Ernesto live with her and her husband. He stayed for three years while he learned English, worked two jobs and, as Stock said, “forged his path in the world.”

It was a turning point for her.

{{youtube:medium:center|s1sZkgj7fUA, W&M as ambassadors to Cuba}}

“It was instrumental as I was forging my path as a professional at the College,” she said. “It became clear that I would encourage creativity and foster collaboration and forge connections. I would experiment with what event to research and what event to teach students as scholars.”

To that end, Cuban directors, editors, producers, special effects technicians and designers have since come to William & Mary to interact with students.

“In most cases, their visit to William & Mary was their first visit to the United States,” she said. “From Williamsburg, they’re able to develop more contacts and get a better sense of this country. We have been important ambassadors for them.

“It’s also a way for students to be exposed to a wider circle ... material that can be used for research for a next book, or for students to create their own videos.”

In addition to the ghost posters, Stock said, William & Mary students have helped subtitle Cuban films, making them more marketable to international film festivals while assisting Stock in her DVD series entitled, “Cuban Cinema Classics.”

They have also played an integral role in the collection, inventory and organization of Cuban books, posters, handmade books and newspapers, which also are housed at Swem Library.

“We are eager to develop partnerships with a number of Cuban cultural organizations and libraries,” Stock said.

“Part of my work has been to document what’s going on in Cuba’s film world and that’s been a window to the larger world,” she said.

A window, she’s happy to say, that seems to be opening wider every day and which she and her students will be there to document.