The Media of Care: Repair, Improvisation, and the Rural Cuban Projectionist
Nicholas Balaisis, University of Waterloo
One of the challenging aspects of doing research in Cuba is gaining access to archives where film prints and historical documents are often stored. On numerous occasions, I have visited ICAIC in order to browse for film prints only to be told that the person I needed to see for permission was not available that day and I should try again the following week (usually after my scheduled plane ride home). As a result of missed opportunities at state institutions like ICAIC, I have relied on the generosity of an informal network of scholars, filmmakers, and curators in Cuba for access to Cuban films and archival material. It was through a friend of mine working at the Ludwig Foundation in Havana that I came across a burned DVD copy of Como por primera vez, an homage to Cortázar’s 1967 documentary that was produced through Televisión Serrana in 2002 and directed by Waldo Ramirez and Luis A. Guevara. My discovery of this film, however, came during revisions of my article for Cinema Journal and I was only able to make brief mention of it in the piece. During the few years between submission and publication, this more lengthy study of rural film exhibition in Cuba has enriched my understanding of the original documentary and has also prompted new research into Cuban media and material culture since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
One of the notable differences between the two documentaries is a shift in focus from the rural spectators seeing films for the first time to the projectionists who continue to exhibit films in the remote parts of the Sierra Maestra. While Como por primera vez chronicles the ongoing reach of the mobile cinema campaign to both old and young film viewers, the dominant focus of the film is the labor and work that the projectionists do to make the exhibitions possible for rural viewers. What stands out prominently in comparing the two films is the lack of improvement in transportation and film technology between 1967 and 2002. Indeed, the film hints at the fact that the means of transportation and exhibition have remained stagnant since the original film was produced in the late 1960s, and in some cases, have even devolved. For instance, early sequences in the film highlight the various improvised forms of transit employed by the projectionists to transport their films to rural viewers. One projectionist uses two donkeys to transport himself and the film equipment, while a second projectionist struggles to climb a hill by pushing what seems to be a self-made grocery cart with the film equipment tucked awkwardly inside. (Fig. 1) A third projectionist is filmed pushing a wheelbarrow through a small village with the large projection screen flanked horizontally across the top. Finally, the most dramatic example of contemporary mobile cinema transportation shows a projectionist in a homemade go-cart, which he steers precariously down a rocky incline, the film equipment carted in the back of the vehicle. These modes of transport stand in sharp contrast to the relatively modern jeep used by the projectionists in Cortázar’s documentary.
In filmed interviews with the projectionists, many of them stress the logistics of carrying out their duties despite the limited resources at their disposal and the persistent material decay of the films under their care. Since most projectionists work by themselves, they must often repair projection equipment and films in the middle of a screening. The act of spontaneous repair is reported in an interview with one projectionist who describes an experience where the projection bulb burned out and he quickly decided to replace it with a battery from his car. “Since we lacked spare parts, I had to adapt a car 24 volt light battery to the projector because it needs a 28 volt lamp.” In another sequence, an older projectionist recalls struggling to repair his film projector in the dark, while a restless group of spectators grew increasingly frustrated. In addition to technical challenges facing contemporary mobile cinema exhibition, the projectionists also discuss curatorial challenges as a result of an increasingly limited range of films fit for exhibition. One projectionist notes that he has often had to screen the same feature film twice in a row because there simply wasn’t another film to show for an outdoor double feature. As he put it: “There’s no other film? Then I have to play this again.” Another projectionist discusses a similarly embarrassing situation where he had to announce his limited film options to an audience and try to manage their disappointment: “You all know you are going to see the same film you saw yesterday. If you don’t like it, don’t make any trouble here. Take your chair and go home.”
There is an ironic symmetry between this film and Cortázar’s original documentary, which focused largely on the excitement and anticipation of film’s arrival in these small villages. In Cortázar’s film, the projectionists are portrayed much differently as exemplary, quasi-macho figures, proudly showing off their mobile cinema truck and extolling their efforts as rural projectionists. The confident swagger of the projectionists in Por primera vez has been replaced in the latter film by the slightly weary attitude of the projectionists in 2002. However, despite their serious technical obstacles, they remain committed to their duties in the service of the film experience. Indeed, the film seems to document the altered role of the job: from heady rural explorers wielding “new” film technology to on-the-fly mechanics, improvisers, and crowd managers. In spite of their challenges, and possibly because of them, the film paints a warm depiction of the men who continue to perform an increasingly challenging task in order to preserve the spirit of the original campaign. This is reflected in the concluding remarks of an interviewee who describes the still magical moment of film exhibition that they are privileged to witness:
I think that people concentrate on what is happening, and believe they are living the moment they are seeing. I myself sometimes while I’m screening a film I got lost because I’m seeing a scene and feel like living what is happening.
A Nation of “Hackers”: Material Improvisation in Modern Cuba
This thematic shift in emphasis - from spectators to projectionists – reflects the altered economic and symbolic landscape in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of what was originally called “The Special Period.” Within this period of severe economic crisis, Cubans were encouraged to make-do, improvise and invent new uses for existing limited resources in order to persist as a revolutionary nation. The attention paid in Como por primera vez to the travel, labor and creativity of the projectionists in this film maps out this post-Soviet revolutionary subject: the revolutionary as improviser and master of Do-It-Yourself repair. Where revolutionary subjectivity seemed more prominently symbolized in the faces of the rural spectators in Por primera vez, in the latter film, it is within the persistence and ingenuity of the projectionists, who manage to make do and persist in the face of severe material and infrastructural challenges.
This attention to material innovation and creativity in Como por primera vez has prompted new research into vernacular architecture and design in contemporary Cuba. Motivated in part by the persistent innovations expressed by the projectionists, I have begun to map other forms of material innovation and creativity in more everyday forms of technological design in Cuba. Indeed, it has led me to the work of Cuban architect and theorist Ernesto Oroza, who has theorized that these practices constitute forms of “technological disobedience.” For Oroza, the rural projectionists shown in the recent film embody an improvisational practice evident in a number of Cuban vernacular design practices: the fashioning of an outdoor stove out of a discarded lawn chair, for example, or transforming an iron into a stove top for brewing coffee (Fig. 2). These practices, he argues, emerge out of a context in the 1990s where the state officially encouraged repair and invention as revolutionary tenets in the post-Soviet period (Fig. 3). As he notes in a filmed interview:
As the crisis [of the Special Period] grew more severe, people’s creativity grew more powerful and everywhere you looked you saw solutions to the needs that people faced all the time, in every aspect of life: transportation, children’s toys, food, clothing. Everything was replaced with substitutes produced by the people.
The care and inventions demonstrated by the projectionists in Como por primera vez thus express the creativity and invention necessary for technological persistence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this way, the materialities of film and media only subtly alluded to in Cortázar’s documentary -- the weak physical infrastructure such as roads that kept films beyond the reach of rural viewers – become the central focus in the 2002 homage, where media materiality and the creative solutions to material decay and shortages assume prominence.
 YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-XS4aueDUg.