Skip to main content

How Cinema Is Reflecting LGBT Cubans’ New Reality

Hollywood has long either romanticized Cuba or vilified it. In a new era for the LGBT community, however, Cuban and American filmmakers are aiming for something else—authenticity.
A still from Mariela Castro’s March, which aired in late November on HBO.

A still from Mariela Castro’s March, which aired in late November on HBO.

A group of lively men are enjoying themselves at an outdoor gathering in an unassuming tropical location, with hints of palm trees just outside the shot. Two of the group, wearing the tiniest of Speedos, are happily dancing with one another, bumping and grinding in between salsa moves; one wears his shirt as a head-wrap. It could be a scene straight out of Looking, until a voice-over puts the gay revelry in sober perspective. “The crackdown began in earnest,” Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, played by Javier Bardem, says. “The horror and ugliness advanced day by day at an ever-increasing pace. But the oppression only acted as a stimulus. And sex became a way of fighting it, a weapon to use against the regime.”

Director Julian Schnabel’s 2000 film Before Night Fallsis, like Arenas’ real-life autobiography that gives it its name, both a powerful indictment of the cruel way the Cuban government treated gay men following the Cuban Revolution and a celebration of the sensuous outlaw sex that was central to Arenas’ work. The film demonstrates how Fidel Castro’s government made Cuban homosexuals pariahs in their own country, in the 1960s sending gay men to prison work camps called Military Units to Aid Production and later establishing sanitariums where Cuba’s HIV-positive population was sent to spend the rest of their lives.

Arenas’ own writings were banned on the island while they circulated widely around the world — during the Communist regime, Cuba’s gay community struggled not only to survive, but to tell its own stories.

More recently, however, the Communist country has begun making strides toward improving the lives and the legacy of the island’s LGBT community. As if following suit, the past few years has seen a number of filmmakers giving voice to this new reality for LGBT Cubans. Focusing on flamboyant drag queens, transgender protagonists, and same-sex romances, contemporary Cuban cinema is telling modern stories about Cuba’s LGBT community and pushing back against the romanticized (if ravaged) vision of the island that Hollywood has long nurtured.

American journalist Jon Alpert’s documentary Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution, which premiered on HBO in late November, takes Raúl Castro’s daughter and Fidel’s niece, an LGBT activist, as its subject. As the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual, or CENESEX), Mariela is emblematic of how the country is moving in a more equitable direction. Since 2008, the nation’s health-care system has offered free same-sex reassignment surgery, and, in 2013, just a year after Adela Hernandez became the first known transgender person to hold public office in Cuba, lawmakers passed legislation protecting gays and lesbians from workforce discrimination.

Even Fidel recognized the cultural shift in Cuba. Six years before his death in late November, the former leader took full responsibility for the country’s persecution and internment of homosexuals in an interview with La Jornada, calling it “a great injustice.”

Mariela Castro.

Mariela Castro.

The film, in part, endorses a narrative of progress for LGBT rights by focusing on the country’s annual (unofficial) pride march, which Mariela has organized since 2007. While pride marches are central to Anglo understandings of LGBT equality in the United States, they remain more transgressive in Cuba, a country with a proximate history of harsh discriminatory policies. Alpert foregrounds drag queens in glittering apparel and preening gay men proudly walking the streets alongside Mariela, engaging in open, if sometimes confrontational, dialogue with people all around the country. (It should be noted that Mariela is not without her detractors within the larger LGBT community on the island.)

And yet, several moments within the film point to the work that still needs to be done. “There’s one scene in which a young gay man who’s from that area goes up to a cowboy on horseback and is like: ‘Hey, have you ever met a gay man before? I’m gay, can I shake your hand?’” the film’s director, Alpert, says. “And the cowboy sort of doesn’t know what to do but doesn’t really offer his hand, offers his elbow instead. There’s been a penetration but there hasn’t been acceptance.” It’s one of many interactions the film depicts that show gay and straight Cubans on the cusp of an honest conversation that is never realized.

Indeed, bias against homosexuals remains widespread despite Mariela’s and CENESEX’s various programs. As Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner who runs a foundation that bears his name and who has done research on the island, put it in an email exchange: “Homophobic prejudice, discrimination and violence is no longer state sanctioned but nor does the state do enough to combat it.”

And while statistics on hate crime in Cuba are hard to come by, reports suggest that it may be relatively high. In the wake of several high-profile deaths in 2014, members of the country’s Observatorio Critico social network asserted that there had been more than 40 murders of LGBT people the previous year, a statistic backed up by an investigation by the Ibero-American and African Masculinity Network (the organization’s methods for arriving at that figure were not disclosed). In comparison, in 2013 Amo Dominicana reported that human rights organizations had counted at least 25 violent murders of gays, lesbians, and trans people since 2006 in the Dominican Republic; this year, LGBT activists in Bolivia cited over 60 incidents in the South American country over the past five years. The population of Cuba is less than one million citizens more than both countries.

Other crimes, meanwhile, may go unreported. Reporting on the question of hate crimes in Cuba, journalist Ivet González noted in 2015 that “violent crime is generally surrounded by silence in this island nation of 11.2 million people, and killings of LGBT individuals are no exception.”

Basque-born director Olatz López Garmendia singles out this specter of hate-motivated violence in her 2016 documentary (produced by Schnabel) Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death. Audiences meet Valery, a young trans woman who details her life as a former sex worker and who admits that, “if things were to change tomorrow,” she “would leave the day after,” and other members of the LGBT community, whose combined testimonies point to a real fear of hate crimes in the community.

One of the most powerful images in Alpert’s documentary, meanwhile, is a shot of a trans woman who lost one eye after an acid attack on the street. It serves as a reminder that, while the marches (which have yet to be televised in the island) suggest progress, discrimination and hate crime incidents still haunt Cuba’s LGBT community.

Of course, Schnabel’s, Garmendia’s, and Alpert’s films are all directed by foreigners. Historically, Cuba has existed as a screen fantasy in the American imaginary: From the Carmen Miranda 1941 musical, Week-End in Havana, to the glamorous trappings of 2002’s opener to Die Another Day, the island remains a place full of vibrant colors that seduces visitors with its emotional excess and its radical sunny optimism.

More recently, international films have painted a very dour vision of the gay Cuban experience. This what film scholar B. Ruby Rich singles out as the “paradox of queer film in Cuba” in her 2013 book New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. These films, she argued, suggest that producing an affecting gay story on the island would be a dangerous provocation for Cuban filmmakers — further silencing their own efforts.

A still from Viva.

A still from Viva.

And yet, the more lighthearted spirit of one of Cuba’s earliest native LGBT films is present in the latest Cuban-set film to deal directly with the island’s gay nightlife: Viva. The film, directed by Irish director Paddy Breathnach, follows a young gay man in Havana drawn to the drag queen scene in the city even as his father, just released from prison, disapproves of his nighttime excursions (they eventually mend their differences). In the early 1990s, the state-run Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) funded its very first LGBT-themed film, Strawberry and Chocolate, which set up a similarly conciliatory friendship. Rich wrote that it was “fundamentally for Cuba and Cubans, not for international gay or lesbian publics.” (Breathnach has explained that he was receptive to local input; production even reached out to Strawberry and Chocolate’s lead actor Jorge Perugorría to capture the authenticity he sought.)

And there’s reason to hope there may be more films from Cubans coming soon. While native Cuban cinema remains tied closely to ICAIC, a rise in independent filmmaking, newer technologies, and several international co-production partnerships has led to more experimental and irreverent projects tackling controversial or taboo themes that would otherwise have not made it to state-funded features — including films about the gay experience.

“It’s very hard to land a good distribution deal with anybody.”

Enrique Pineda Barnet’s 2012 Verde verde, a psychological thriller funded by ICAIC, for example, centered on the gay flirtation between a navy nurse and a computer technician, while the more recent Carlos Lechuga’s Santa y Andrés(2016), which played at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, focused on the friendship between a dissident gay novelist and the government watcher assigned to keep an eye on him. Both used their central coupling to stage conversations about homosexuality and homophobia in the island.

Jesus Hernandez, a Cuban filmmaker now based in New York, cites films like Caballos(a black-and-white, Robert Mapplethorpe-inspired feature), Fatima o el Parque de la Fraternidad(about a sex worker who feels herself trapped in a man’s body), Vestido de Novia(a drama starring a trans actress based on a true story), and La Partida(about an unlikely same-sex romance between two soccer buddies) as evidence of the island’s resurgent LGBT cinema. Produced within the last five years, these varied films haven’t quite had the crossover onto American screens as Schnabel’s or Breathnach’s films. “They don’t really get seen if they don’t get picked up, or unless the director puts in a lot of effort to find places that exhibit them, such as film festivals,” Hernandez says, “but it’s very hard to land a good distribution deal with anybody.”

Following president Barack Obama’s announcement in December of 2014 of the changing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, much has been made of how American productions shot in the country might benefit. Already, several films (including Bob Yari’s Papa Hemingway in Cubaand Ben Chace’s Sin Alas) have claimed for themselves the title of “first American fiction film shot in Cuba since the 1960s.” Hollywood productions like Fast 8and directors like Ethan Hawke hope to finally use Havana as filmic backdrop. Now that the country’s longtime leader, Fidel, is gone, and America’s president-elect is already threatening the fragile detente, however, realizing those hopes may be more complicated.

Meanwhile, the future of Cuban-native films remains uncertain. Asked how changing U.S.-Cuban relations would affect Cuban film distribution, Diana Vargas, the artistic director and programmer of the Havana Film Festival New York reminded Filmmaker magazine that, until 2015, “it has only been through film festivals and third-party intermediaries that U.S. audiences have been able to watch Cuban films.” Indeed, while both Schnabel’s and Breathnach’s films opened in limited release in the U.S., the films mentioned by Hernandez have only played at select film festivals around the U.S., rarely screening beyond Cuba or LGBT-centered programs.

The U.S.’s and Cuba’s potential new kinship may give rise to more fruitful collaborations between Hollywood and the Cuban national film industry, ones that would allow Americans to see more realistic and empathetic portrayals of the island. It may be, at last, a chance to see Cuba through Cuba’s eyes — though, ultimately, the ball may be in distributors’, as well as politicians’, courts.