While The Sugar Courtain (original title El Telón De Azúcar) was released in the U.S., I was lucky to have the opportunity to interview its creator Camila Guzmán Urzúa, thanks to Cinema Tropical. We had a telephone conversation between Paris and New York to talk about... Cuba.
Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Pablo Goldbarg: Tell me about the experience of making an autobiographic piece
Camila Guzmán Urzúa: I think it’s common that the first film is a very personal film. Actually, before I wanted to make the film I had an obsession trying to recuperate my childhood’s country. Then, when I decided to make a film about it, I just didn’t find any other way to make it. It was about my life, so it would have been too weird not to talk about myself, because finally I’m part of that experience too. When the subject is maybe further away from your life, or not related in a direct way, you have no need to put you on the film. But to me, it didn’t work in another way. That makes it more difficult, because at the same time you are exposed… it wasn’t easy.
P.G.: You had a challenge working in all the stages of the film. You were the writer, director, editor, cinematographer and producer…
C.G.U.: I didn’t have a choice. All the way through making the film, I always wanted to have a producer and I wanted to have somebody with me on the boat. But it wasn’t the case. I made the film completely independent. That has a lot of advantages, but also disadvantages. At some point I was on my own, just doing it. If I had known what it meant, I’m not sure I would have done it. Once I started, especially after the shooting I just couldn’t give up. The only way to go forward was doing it on my own, in my own computer at home, in my free time. So, I wouldn’t recommend it (laughs). I would definitely have a producer, at least… I hope. At some point an editor is very important. Those were the members of the crew that I missed the most: the producer and the editor. I was lucky enough to finish the film with an editor. I’m sure that helped a lot for the final structure of the film. Because at some point you’re so inside the film, and this one even more because it’s your own story that you lose perspective. Sometimes I had to stop for a few months, and then carry on, and that gives you some perspective with your head out, and then you start again. But it’s never as good as having an editor next to you. At the end of the film I worked three to four weeks with an editor. The film owes a lot to that final editing work.
P.G.: Can you please tell me about the research process to find the whereabouts of your friends in school?
C.G.U.: Almost all the people in my film are my real friends from childhood and teenager years, and I never lost contact with them. When I left Cuba, my mom and my sister were still living there for a while. So, I kept going back for holidays whenever I could, to see family and friends. I was always in touch with them. In 1999 it was the first time I went to Cuba with the idea of making the film. I spent four or five months over there. At that time I reached all the people that I usually see. There was one friend that I did look for her but I couldn’t be in touch with her. Since then I knew who would gonna be in the film, and since then I told them about it, and they liked the idea. They were my friends from life. When you make a documentary you must have people in front of the camera, you need people that express themselves in a right way. People that aren’t worried by the presence of the camera and people that aren’t shy. I had that in mind when I started deciding who would gonna be in the film and who would gonna get involved. I had some friends that were extremely shy and would never be in a film. I kind of chose those that would like to be filmed. I don’t like it (laughs). There was also one friend that was on the project and by the time I started shooting he wasn’t there anymore. And with my friend from Miami, I started filming her sister because she was already gone by the time I went to Cuba.
P.G.: When did you feel the need to make this film?
C.G.U.: It was a weird process, because when I left Cuba I didn’t know if I would come back. I left just before the crisis started. I left my childhood’s country as it was in 1990. I went back in 1991 and things haven’t changed that much. Then I went back in 1994, and I heard about the Special Period before and all that. But it’s never the same when you go there and see it personally. So in that moment was just before the crisis of “Balseros”. It was a very weird period in Habana. I was very, very shocked by the new reality at that time. And it was then when I started to have this kind of need of recuperating the country of my childhood that wasn’t there anymore and had been real. And people were beginning to forget about it, in a way. I always thought that somebody was going to make it. At that time I didn’t know that I was going to direct films. I was studying filmmaking but doing photography, and I didn’t want to direct. Time went by, and in 1999 I decided to make the film, because I realized that Cuba had completely changed. Living outside of Cuba I realized that people didn’t know about it. Everybody was surprised when I used to say that I was happy when I was in Cuba, and I had a happy childhood. For me it was important to keep that in a little box, somewhere in my heart. I had this kind of necessity. My country disappeared, and it was important not to forget it.
P.G.: Do you still think that a new type of society is possible in Cuba or in another country?
C.G.U.: Yes, yes. We lived that life for about twenty years, and it was a pretty good one. Comparing with the rest of the world, in Cuba we grew up in a… (whispers) very unique way. Especially with positive things, I think. I do believe that that society is possible. Then we had always the problem of economy. How we finance such a State. Then things became more complicated. But it’s possible.
P.G.: Was your film shown in Cuba? Tell me about the reactions or possible reactions to the film.
C.G.U.: Not yet, because I’m waiting now for it. We subscribed the film for the Habana International Film Festival for this year 2007. I’m still waiting for the reply. The idea is to have a screening in the festival. About the reactions… I don’t have a clue (laughs). I want it to happen because I’m very curious myself. There are big audience and enormous theaters in Habana.
P.G.: How did you get permits or support to shoot this kind of story in Habana? Did you get in touch with the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos)?
C.G.U.: The film was supported by EICTV in San Antonio de los Baños (Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV). I was able to have all the authorizations and permits to shoot the film anywhere in Habana. Actually the only “real” permission that I needed was to film in the schools, but the rest of the times when I filmed in different neighborhoods or houses or even in a protest, but nobody ever asked me. I had all the accreditations from the film school, and we were officially authorized. But at the same time I didn’t have to show anything at all in the streets. I didn’t get in touch with the ICAIC because I didn’t have any money or production structure behind me either. I decided to approach first the film school. The ICAIC, as far as I know, and maybe I’m wrong, must co-produce or you must pay a production fee. It’s more complicated, a kind of institutional thing or co-production company and all that stuff that I didn’t have. So, I had a grant here, it was more an associative thing, and not a production company at all. I went to the film school first, they supported me, and I stayed with them.
P.G.: You have a story in your family about exile when you had to leave Chile. Then, in some way you repeat the decision of leaving your home country--this time Cuba--in search of a better condition. Can you please talk about that?
C.G.U.: I never thought about exile when I was living in Cuba. My own exile began after I left Cuba, and never before. But there is no comparison at all between how my parents left Chile, and how my generation left Cuba. There are absolutely no points in common. The experience of leaving Chile was very dramatic and violent. I didn’t have that experience when I started my own exile. I was born in Chile, even though I don’t have a very strong connection with that country. So, I see my parents’ exile and my own exile quite separately.
P.G.: How did you choose the aesthetics and form of your documentary?
C.G.U.: I don’t know. I can’t tell you. When I was in film school two persons influenced me: on one side Frederick Wiseman, the American filmmaker, who started “direct cinema” in the 60’s. On the other side was, Ken Loach, the British filmmaker. Even he make fiction films, his style is very close to documentaries. But I’m not sure if my film follows their styles. They marked me a lot, especially from an ideological and moral point of view. They are such unique and extraordinary figures. But I don’t know… I used to do photography when I was younger. My camera work is much related with intuition, especially in this film. I made it unconsciously, particularly when I was shooting. There was a lot of intuition.
P.G.: Are you working on new projects or ideas in film?
C.G.U.: I have new ideas, but actually I didn’t have the time to write yet. An old filmmaker told me once that good ideas not always make good films… (laughs). So, I prefer to write it before talking about the next one, because I’m not sure yet what is gonna be.
P.G.: Thank you very much. It was a very touching story for me. I was in the Habana Film Festival last year for first time, and I didn’t know about many things of the golden era and your generation, so congratulations with the film.
C.G.U.: Thank you very much.