Inside an Alienated World

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Miguel Coyula, 27, comes from a generation of emerging Cuban filmmakers who are working outside of the state-run film industry in Cuba and embracing the low-budget banner of independent filmmaking. The fact that Coyula can work on a meager budget with a digital camera has allowed him to indulge his penchant for surreal backdrops and science fiction narratives, a mere dream in the mainstream world of film in Latin America because of limited financial resources. “You make up for your lack of money with time,†says Coyula, who spent a year filming his latest release, Red Cockroaches, and another year alone editing the film in his apartment. Altogether, it cost a mere $2,000 to produce. The film, which had its U.S. premiere in Austin at the Cine Las Americas film festival this spring, portrays an alienated world where people stay indoors for fear of acid rain and relationships are twisted by genetic manipulation. Shot in a mini DV format, it occasionally suffers from an overly ambitious narrative, but overall is a testament to Coyula’s artistic vision, which has produced a poetic montage of imagery that is captivating and never boring. After the film’s premiere, Coyula sat down with the Texas Observer to talk about the trials of making low-budget movies and the state of cinema today in Cuba. Unfortunately, he may be one of the last Cuban artists to visit the United States for some time since the United States is no longer granting visas for cultural exchange.

Texas Observer: How did you end up in New York making Red Cockroaches?

Miguel Coyula: I was invited to show one of my films at the Providence Latino Film Festival, after that I went to visit a friend in New York where I met Anna Strasberg of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. She invited me to a party at her house, which turned out to be a birthday party for the actor Al Pacino. I actually didn’t recognize him because people look different on the screen. I shook his hand and then realized a few minutes later that it was him. Pacino was interested in Cuba’s film industry and how films were distributed there. I always carry a copy of my film, you never know… So I screened my tape right there and Anna Strasberg ended up offering me a scholarship which resulted in the making of Red Cockroaches.

The plot about the brother and sister was based on a real story that I heard in Havana, so when I came to New York I adapted it to New York. I think it’s a story that can be told in any country in any culture. I spiced it up with science fiction, surreal elements.

TO: The film was shot on a very low budget. Can you talk about how you accomplished so much with so little?

MC: Well, I think growing up in Cuba is definitely good training. I mean, I had the camera already (an old Canon GL-1) so you only need to spend the money to buy tapes (for the mini DV) and a couple of lights and that’s it. If you have good friends that will lend you the locations and actors willing to work for free, you can basically do anything, because afterwards in the computer you can create anything you want—backgrounds, effects, et cetera. Overall was less than two thousand dollars because I shot the film myself and I edited it myself, so I didn’t have a crew. I was a one-man crew, I was doing the sound also myself and I did the music as well. We were shooting mostly on weekends depending on the availability of the actors, because they had paid jobs during the weekdays so usually on the weekends, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. What I realized here is that making the film is not the problem, but the amount of money you have to put in afterwards, that’s the real budget: Festival, submission fees, transfers, blow-up to 35mm, sound-mix to Dolby, publicists. It’s crazy.

TO: Red Cockroaches has a strange unsettling atmosphere to it. How did you create the mood in the film?

MC: Well, I did a lot of color correction to achieve the right mood in each scene. Also, with the soundtrack I did a lot of subtle sound design to achieve a mood where you don’t know exactly what is going on. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s my goal. To be escalating, little by little, to the climax at the end. Since I was a kid I have been obsessed by science fiction, and Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky is my favorite film. In the editing, I didn’t want to cut back to a shot I used before because it gives it a bit of a TV-like feel. Every time I would make a cut, I wanted it to be a new shot. I also alternated sequences that were very short, very fast shots and then sequences that had very long shots. So, in theory it’s a mix between Sergei Eisenstein and Tarkovsky.

TO: Is the science fiction genre in film growing in Latin America?

MC: No, there is no great movement for science fiction film in Latin America. There have been some cases where somebody does an independent film here or there, but there’s not a movement of science fiction. When you are a filmmaker from Cuba or Latin America people expect it to be a political film, not a science fiction film. Somebody asked me the other day whether Red Cockroaches had something to do with Communism because they are red and I am from Cuba (laughs). I put them in there just because I liked red cockroaches.

TO: What is the state of filmmaking these days in Cuba?

MC: Well, the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Artes e Industría Cinematográficos) which is the film industry, unfortunately is not making a lot of films now because there is no money. They release two or three features a year. And the problem that they have after Strawberry and Chocolate, (released in 1994) is that wants this kind of comedy that sort of shows the reality in Cuba, the problems, but in a funny way. But there have been some good films like Suite Habana lately. It’s an amazing film and it’s very sincere and honest. There’s also a film, Nada, by Juan Carlos Cremata, . He’s from a new generation of filmmakers, and he has a whole new approach to filmmaking.

TO: Does the government play any part in what you can and cannot show in your films?

MC: No, as long as it’s not political. You don’t have any kind of trouble. I’m not interested in politics, so I’m fine.

TO: What about the distribution of films in Cuba? Do your films get shown in many of the theaters there?

MC: Well, I do work that is non-political, but is, like I say, weird science fiction. It gets exhibited. It’s not like 20 years ago when anything that was a little weird would be censored. Red Cockroaches was shown in Cuba in February and then from theater to theater every week, which is great because the people can go see it. I don’t get a penny from it—I do commercials for a living—but it’s great. What I wanted to do was to share it with an audience. What I’ve seen here is that if you don’t make a film that has some kind of commercial appeal, you just don’t exist as an artist because the film doesn’t get exhibited except in a few film festivals that sort of promote that kind of work. Doing films in Cuba, maybe I don’t get a penny from that, but at least they get shown in major theaters, and most of them on TV as well.

TO: I understand that Red Cockroaches will be part of a trilogy?

MC: Well, I have this dream project that is called Ocean. It’s a novel that I wrote three years ago and Red Cockroaches serves as a prequel to that. It’s a drama that takes place in the future. Or you might call it an alternative reality where there are some elements that are kind of disjointed. Basically you can say it is a love story, a very dark triangle, which will doom the protagonist. I like to create a film that has many layers so that people can build up their own interpretation in their own way.

TO: I hear you plan to go back to Cuba this summer to begin working on a big film project?

MC: Yes, I’m working now on a screenplay for Memories of Development, which is the sequel to Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), a classic Cuban film. I’m working with the writer, Edmundo Desnoes. It’s a big project. Yeah, it’s kind of scary, but I have to do it because I’m not going to miss this opportunity. The writer just finished the novel, and we get along very well so we’re going to go all the way through—even though critics and fans of the first movie will come after us like sharks. Memories of Development takes place both in Cuba and the U.S. and it’s the same character that comes to the U.S., which is a little bit like what happened to me. I can relate and I always loved the first film. I plan to shoot independently as well. I want to have freedom to shoot what I want, cause it’s such a big film. Memories of Underdevelopment—it’s Cuba’s best film, and I think that the Cuban film industry will be a little protective of that. But I want to have freedom and Edmundo Desnoes is also aware of that, so we want to have total control of the final product. We don’t want to make concessions of any kind.

TO: So you plan to take a hiatus from science fiction on this project?

MC: Yes, (laughs) well, I plan to sneak in some surreal elements. We’ll see how it goes.

Melissa Sattley frequently writes about Latin American culture. She lives in Austin.