The Presentations (6) – Geoff Gardner introduces Jacques Rivette’s THE NUN/LA RELIGIEUSE

Geoff Gardner introduces The Nun/La religieuse

Good afternoon

I’m Geoff Gardner and I’m here to do the introduction for one of the films that, as soon as it appeared at Cannes Classics last year, we knew we wanted for Cinema Reborn 2019.

But first I would also like to explain that these introductions are another small part of the attempt by the Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn to copy the way the mother ship of our festival, the event that takes place in Bologna each year called Il Cinema Ritrovato, present their films.

I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the stage where the likes of Martin Scorsese or Richard Lester can attract a crowd of 5000 or more in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore to hear them introduce a restored classic but you have to dream

So… in the meantime it falls to a group of very dedicated mainly Sydney-based locals to try and set the scene for the film you are about to see. I know the presenters take it very seriously and put some really hard work into just what they say to you, so on my own and your behalf let me thank this year’s group Peter, Jason, Margot, Mark, Quentin, Sylvie, Rod, Susan, Jane and another Peter for all their efforts.

Now… to La Religieuse or the less poetic The Nun

Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette occupied a central place in French film culture for close to sixty years.

By the early fifties Rivette had already shot his first short film and he moved to Paris to pursue his career. The story is well–known – frequenting Henri Langlois‘ Cinémathèque Française and other ciné-clubsmaking the acquaintance with François TruffautJean-Luc GodardÉric RohmerClaude Chabrol and other future members of the New Wave. Rivette began writing film criticism, and was hired by André Bazin for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1953.

I think it’s worth noting this because Cahiers and the other great French magazine Positif have always had an agenda setting role and for much of the time over the many decades Rivette remained firmly ensconced in fashioning editorial policy for Cahiers.

Back in 2004 when I was staying in Paris for a long vacation of a few months, my late departed friend Pierre Rissient noticed my willingness to buy Cahiers and Positif the moment they appeared on the newsstands. Pierre was a man whom I freely admit could be the holder of some strong opinions and occasionally a degree of exaggeration but he said on one occasion that even then, fifty years after Rivette was first hired by Bazin, Rivette still had a hand in the selection of the Cahiers editor. As I said its important because unlike the way critics and cinephiles and scholars in Australia might read Cahiers, in Paris you read it because it provides a guide to cinephile life – identifying the best new films of the month, pointing out new talent, helping guide your viewing path fvor the next thirty days, discussing the issues affecting the French cinema and French production at that very minute.

Rivette’s first film Paris Nous Appartient seemed to set the pattern for his commercial film-making career. It was years in the making, struggled to get attention but then slowly assumed the position of a classic. That film began a long commercial film-making career that eventually produced over twenty productions – gathering up low budget features, literary adaptations, strong dramas utilising the best talents of the French cinema, one dearly loved film Celine and Julie Go Boating which is generally seen as the director’s greatest work, other experimental narratives and two monumental works made for television, seemingly extemporised through the use of theatre production as an extended metaphor for the state of French society post 1968.

Fortunately, virtually all of Rivette’s work has in recent years become available via very dedicated DVD and Blu-ray distribution and much work was done to bring back to life films that now seem iconic not merely in Rivette’s career but in the grand sweep of the French Cinema.

If you take the trouble to buy the massive Brit DVD box set from some years ago you start to comprehend a broad sweep but also some very narrow concerns. First you get to understand the role that classical French literature, most especially the work of Honore De Balzac, has played in developing Rivette’s work and the themes he pursued.

Second you get to see just how much Rivette, in the footsteps of Balzac, was fascinated by conspiracy of the state and its institutions and how the establishment, much of which conducted itself through secret societies, large and small, has operated above the law in French society. Third I think, and this brings us gently to today’s film, Rivette was a champion of individual freedom.

La Religieuse2A key recurrent theme was the oppression of the individual by the institution and how this operated almost in plain sight. The Nun looks at one of the most oppressive institutions of all, The Catholic Church in one of the most oppressive times of all when that same Church was the main generator of authority not just of the Church and its followers but of the state which bowed to the church.

The full story of the film’s troubled life back in the 60s, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and re-appearance at Cannes last year is told in our catalogue in some wonderful program notes specially written for Cinema Reborn by our expat critic, the ever enthusiastic Adrian Martin. Click here to read the notes.

I can only agree with Adrian when he concludes “it is only now that the film is reborn in a carefully restored version, over fifty years after its sign-off date, that we are able to truly appreciate its greatness.”

Adrian’s notes are so acute that I was tempted to read a much longer passage as a summation of this introduction. But on re-reading it I decided it was too acute, too ferocious perhaps to be put in your mind before the film.  But do read the notes in the catalogue or go on to the Cinema Reborn website once you’ve seen the film.

I hope you enjoy what may possibly be the only public Sydney screening of this restored copy of Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse.

Thank you

SYDNEY, 5 May 2019

Geoff Gardner is the Chair of the Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn

The Presentations (5) – Susan Potter on Chantal Akerman’s GOLDEN EIGHTIES

“The Akerman We Love: (Golden Eighties, Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium/Switzerland, 1986)”

For Cinema Reborn, Sunday 5 May 2019

Susan Potter introduces Golden Eighties  at Cinema Reborn

I am here as a fan of Chantal Akerman’s work, more than a deeply informed expert. The Akerman I love is the fearless and committed documentary filmmaker who can open her 2015 documentary No Home Movie with a near four-minute shot of a tree being battered by an unrelenting desert wind, a mesmerising audiovisual image of endurance. It’s the young, experimental filmmaker who, 40 years earlier, in 1975 in Je tu il elle has the audacity not only to end her film with an extended, at times awkward and unnerving sex scene between two women, but to act in it herself. And it is of course the brilliant director of the feminist durational masterpiece of the same year, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles.

How do I reconcile that Akerman, the one that I already know and love, with the Akerman who made Golden Eighties (Window Shopping)? Like me, some of you no doubt have already encountered the sense of incredulity that marks some of the promotional material for the film, a sense of bewilderment almost, that Akerman not only made—but was even interested in making—a musical.

Chantal Akerman

From the late 70s Akerman herself was looking for ways to escape the burden of Jeanne Dielman. In a 2012 interview with Nicole Brenez she recalls: “They kept wanting me to remake Jeanne Dielman, but I wanted to spurn everything—spurnmy father’s name, not repeat myself.”[1]In this on-going moment of reflection and re-evaluation since Akerman’s death, we should remember that this film is one of more than 50 works, feature films, documentaries, shorts, and installations that she made since the late 1960s. Yet it remains in some ways a hard film to place in thinking about her diverse body of work, and partly this is to do with the genre of popular entertainment it deploys, one that critics find hard to take seriously.

Some critics hate Golden Eighties. Robert Koehler in a now notorious survey essay published in Cineastein 2016 described it as “dated and silly, a stiff copy of a Sondheim Golden-EIghties-1musical with soupcons of [Jacques] Demy, amusing but empty.”[2]Gwendolyn Audrey Foster—cited in Angelica Waite’s great program note—implies an instrumental motivation, suggesting that she turned to conventional forms and their promise of commercial success to fund her more avant-garde projects. Even those critics who argue brilliantly about Akerman’s work, don’t love this film or don’t think that it can sustain much critical attention on its own. Ivone Margulies in her book Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham: Duke University, 1996) only devotes around two pages to the film, reading it in relation to its companion film made three years earlier, Années  (The Eighties), an experimental musical that is often understood as a precursor or even preview that documents preparation for filming the final version.[3]

I’m not going to talk much about the film now since you already have the program note, and the reference there to Stephen Shaviro’s 2007 essay “Clichés of Identity: Chantal Akerman’s Musicals,” as well as Adrian Martin’s 1989 review, which also covers the amazing production team that Akerman was able to bring together. They each reveal what’s distinctive about the film in its intensive and slightly off-kilter mobilisation of the conventions of the musical. And to say something more about this I would have to give away the ending! Rather, what I thought I’d do for the rest of this introduction is consider another way into thinking about this film in the context of Akerman’s body of work, and that is to ask what first might seems like a not-very-critical question: what or who did Akerman love? Her mother, deeply, yes, but also singing. As she said in Autoportrait en cinéaste, on shooting her 2004 film Tomorrow We Move, “I love singing. It’s what I love the most … We would sing, and then we would shoot. What a joy. Whatever happens I must not forget that. That happiness. It doesn’t happen so often. Far from it.”

Golden Eightiesx2The importance of singing, even perhaps just its presence on set, how it binds cast and crew together, is evident in Autour de Jeanne Dielman, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the film’s production edited by Agnès Ravez and Akerman in 2004, where we see Delphine Seyrig in close-up while her hair’s being done, singing with the hairdresser: “A bouquet of roses so white, For you dear Mother mine.”

But the human voice’s capacity for music and song also appears front stage in Akerman’s work. Right from the start of her filmmaking career Akerman is interested in the voice, its capacity for musical expression and personal subjectivity—think of the slightly crazy humming that comprises the soundtrack of her first black and white short in 1968, Saute ma ville(Blow up my town). Kelley Conway, writing in the recent 100th special issue of the feminist cultural and media studies journal Camera Obscura, devoted to Akerman, writes that “[she] employs songs in a range of ways, weaving them into her avant-garde and more traditional works alike while tapping into traditions of popular song, opera, and less classifiable vocal performance. … Akerman’s work is infused with the sound of the female singing voice.”[4]Think, for example, of the opera duet in Akerman’s 2000 film The Captive, or the recorded song that concludes 2004’s Tomorrow We Move.

Rather than think of Golden Eightiesas Akerman’s one-off musical then, a kind of auteur singularity, we can think of it as one extended instance of Akerman’s interest in the expressive capacities and constraints of the love song and itsgeneric variations. Songs are often the codified conduits for desires—not just sexual desires, but the desire for other kinds of relations and ways of living and being in the world—desires that cannot be expressed fully visually within the particular space or environment visible on-screen, in the case of the film you’re about to watch, the urban environment designed to orient and intensify our consumer desires, the shopping mall. Akerman understands how even the most generic of songs act as conduits for emotional experience as well as utopian desires of all kinds, even if they cannot always be realised and so inevitably sustain what Lauren Berlant would call a cruel optimism.[5]Akerman also understands how songs function as a kind of folk mnemonic device to recall up and acknowledge such feelings and desires—I guarantee that you’ll still be singing and humming some of these tune days after you watch this film! Golden Eighties might challenge the Chantal Akerman we think we know and love, but if we watch it carefully—actually if we also listen to it carefully—we’ll hear the Akerman we love while also being introduced to new facets of the Akerman we thought we knew.


[1]Original emphasis, cited by Kelley Conway, “Lyrical Akerman” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies34, no. 1 (100) (2019):152.

[2]Robert Koehler, “The Travels of Chantal Akerman,” Cineaste42, no. 1 (2016): 19.

[3]See the fragmented discussion across pages 186-188.

[4]Conway, “Lyrical Akerman,” 139-140.

[5]Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism(Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Susan Potter joined the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Sydney in July 2015. Her research concerns the intertwined histories of cinema and sexuality, including the relation of film as modern mass medium to the intensification of sexuality since the late nineteenth century, and the genres, aesthetics and ethics of sexual representation in contemporary film. She also has documentary production experience in a variety of roles, including editor, archivist, researcher, production manager, producer and director.

The Presentations (4) – Rod Bishop on IN A LONELY PLACE (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1950

Previous introductions can also be found if you click on these links on the Film Alert 101 blog.

Margot Nash on WANDA




Rod Bishop introduces In A Lonely Place

I want to talk about my Dad…and In A Lonely Place.

Thirty years ago, I was in America when Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opened. I went to a suburban cinema to see the first session on the first day. There were only about a dozen of us in the audience. We were all single males and all spread around a very large cinema.

Everyone else was my Dad’s age – they were Second World War veterans or perhaps men who had lost loved ones in the war.

I’ve always been interested in Second World War veterans in Film Noir.

Dixon Steele, played by Humphry Bogart inthis film, is a Hollywood scriptwriter and a Second World War veteran.

By the time In A Lonely Place was released in 1950, there had been five years of veterans in Film Noir.

They were a given, so we only learn of Dix’s wartime service in a couple of throwaway lines.

In the Second World War, my father had served in Palestine, Borneo and had been attached to the US Forces in the Solomon Islands Campaign.

The war was the undoubted highpoint of Dad’s life. He had about 20 rules that ran his life and his children and we were subjected to a sort of military rule upbringing.

He remained detached and overwhelmingly judgmental all his life.

When he died, I was given his wallet and inside were a set of photographs of Dad and his army mates in the desert in Palestine.

I had never seen him look like that.

He looked alive and happy and contented.

I didn’t know this person.

He seemed like a complete stranger to me.

Dixon Steele, in In A Lonely Place says things like: “Are you going to arrest me for a lack of emotions?

My father could have easily have said that.

I’d love to know how Dad became so trenchantly rightwing. He even found the DLP too far to the left.

After he died, my mother said to me, when I was complaining yet again about Dad’s political hatred of all things left: “You’ll probably be surprised to know that your father voted Labor all his life”.


Mum was always prone to understatement.

And where Dixon Steele in this film clearly enjoys goading every other character into believing he is capable of murder, so my Dad obviously enjoyed making us think he was politically rightwing when he was not.

In A Lonely Place is not a typical Film Noir. There’s no expressionistic cinematography … no hard-boiled femme fatale…

Rather, as Eddie Cockrell points out in his excellent program notes, the Noir elements live mostly inside Dix’s head. (Click on this link for Eddie’s notes.)

The film is often celebrated for dismantling misogyny and while this is true of the events on-screen, it wasn’t necessarily the case with events off-screen.

At the time of production, the lead actress Gloria Grahame was married to the director Nicholas Ray.

A “Mr. and Mrs. Contract” was written between Gloria Grahame and Ray. It stipulated, and here I quote – “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours 9am to 6pm every day except Sunday, during the filming.

 I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail

Another clause forbade Grahame to: “nag, cajole, tease, or in any feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”

The executive who wrote the contract claimed it: “was based on my 25-years of experience as a married man”.

In a Lonely Place.


Rod Bishop

4 May 2019

Rod Bishop has had a long career in film as a critic, teacher, producer and administrator. His films include the Oz cult classic Body Melt (Dir: Philip Brophy). He is a former CEO of the Australian Film Television and Radio School and a founding member of the Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn



The Presentations (3) – Margot Nash introduces WANDA (Barbara Loden, USA, 1970)

This is the third transcript of the introductions given at  CINEMA REBORN. The previous posts can be found if you click on these links. 

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation upon whose ancestral lands we meet and pay my respect to Elders past and present, acknowledging them as the traditional custodians of knowledge for these lands.

Margot Nash introduces Wanda

I would also like to thank Geoff Gardner for giving me the opportunity to introduce Barbara Loden’s Wanda. The film has been described as a feminist masterpiece, but I had never seen it, so I was curious.

Wanda was finished in 1970, the same year Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch. It was a time when feminism was starting to sweep the world. It started like a match thrown out of a car in dry country or a series of spot fires spontaneously bursting into flame in remote areas.  It took many people by surprise with its ferocity and power. What it did was challenge male power and that made many people very uncomfortable. Loden’s film also makes people uncomfortable. At the time she said:

When I made Wanda, I didn’t know anything about consciousness raising or women’s liberation. That had just started when the film was finished.The picture was not about women’s liberation. It was really about the oppression of women, of people… Being a woman is unexplored territory, and we’re pioneers of a sort, discovering what it means to be a woman. [1]

Wanda - 1970
Barbara Loden (1975)

I think Loden’s film is remarkable because it explores the ‘experience’ of women’s oppression. This is what makes the film so uncomfortable and Loden’s performance as the main character, Wanda, who is pushed around by a series of men is, at times, profoundly moving for she inhabits the character entirely without judgment. Loden describes herself as growing up in a poor hillbilly town and there is an authenticity to her performance that clearly comes from her own experiences and observations.

I put off watching this film because so many people said they hadn’t liked it when it came out because the character was so passive and the film was hard going at times. It is. Yet Wanda’s internalisation of society’s judgement of women as worthless and inferior to men is what makes her passive and this is, of course, what Loden, as both writer, director and actress was trying to show. This ‘experience’ of invisibility, which Loden brings so powerfully to the screen, shows the consequences for a woman who has grown up thinking she was nothing.

British academic Laura Mulvey’s ground breaking 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema[2]used psychoanalysis and film theory to argue that the spectator in the cinema was defined as masculine, and images of women were there for the pleasure of what she called the ‘male gaze’. In 1974 John Berger’s Ways of Seeing[3]argued that images of women, in particular the nude in art history, were there not just for the pleasure of the male spectator, but to flatter him.

Wanda’s image on screen does not flatter the men she meets. Instead it reveals them at their worst. No wonder it was ignored for so many years.

It was also pretty much ignored by the early women’s liberation movement. Perhaps because women at the time desired heroic role models of remarkable women, not downtrodden images of women who were the passive victims of unremarkable men.

In the 1973 issue of Women and Film, which was published in California, an attempt was made to list all the films made by women since the beginning of cinema. The list is of course incomplete with the only Australian entry being the McDonagh sisters. I had to really search for Wandaand finally found a brief mention in a section on American ‘women who made promising starts as directors in the 60s and the first few years of the 70s. It is described in 4 just words… to set a mood (Barbara Loden’s Wanda). [4]


Barbara Loden, Wanda

Yet Wanda was the only American film accepted by the Venice Film Festival in 1970, where it won Best Foreign Film, and the only American film presented at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. At the time Marguerite Duras cited it as an inspiration, particularly Loden’s ability to inhabit her character onscreen, saying in an interview with Loden’s husband the film director Elia Kazan, “I think that there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here this distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda.”Duras described Loden’s performance of Wanda’s “demoralization” as “sacred, powerful, violent and profound.”[5]

Loden was a lifetime member of the famed Actors Studio. She married Kazan, who was 23 years her senior, in 1966 – 15 years after Kazan had directed A Streetcar Named Desire and there is, I think, a hint of Blanche in Wanda, particularly as we meet her when she is homeless and staying with her sister.  Kazan was at times condescending when speaking about Loden, but he also encouraged her to make the film and he always respected her work as an actor.

“There was always an element of improvisation, a surprise, in what she was doing. He said. The only one, a far as I know, who was like Brando when he was young. He never knew exactly what he was going to say, therefore everything would come out of his mouth very alive.”[6]

Wanda has been variously described as “an existential rumination on a poverty-stricken woman adrift in Pennsylvania coal country” and “ asemi-autobiographical – portrait of a “passive, disconnected coal miner’s wife who attaches herself to a petty crook. It was inspired by a story Loden read in a newspaper where a woman, who had been on the lam with a bank robber, thanked the judge for putting her in jail. Not surprisingly Wandawas unlike the romantic Hollywood outlaw movies of the time like Bonnie and Clyde, which Loden disliked.

She is quoted a saying: I really hate slick pictures… They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.[7]

 Wanda’s mise en scène was innovative in its cinéma véritéand improvisational style,and closer to Italian neo realism, in its use of locations and non-actors and also, of course, to the raw improvisational work of John Cassavetes.

Watching the film I was reminded of a 1972 Australian short called Woman in a House by the late photographer and visual artist Sue Ford. This film was very poignant in this context for me for two reasons.  The first was its content for, like Wanda, the ‘woman in the house’ is depressed and trapped in a domestic world she yearns to escape from. Wanda walks out, but the woman in the house only escapes in her imagination. Both women have few choices to survive alone and both are vulnerable to exploitation.

The second reason Woman in a House was poignant for me was because when I tracked down a clip on Sue Ford’s web site (which her son set up after she died) it was magenta. [8]Clearly it had been taken from a 16mm print that was fast turning to vinegar. I did a quick search of the NFSA web site and sadly could not find any listing for preservation materials for the film, although I did find a listing for Sue Ford – untitled film. Sue made a number of important films. It seems unthinkable that almost no preservation materials are in the archive, that her films may never be ‘reborn’.

The second film I was reminded of was the late great Agnes Varda’s 1985 feature film Vagabond starring Sandrine Bonnaire.  Like Wanda it is the story of a young woman, a vagabond, who wanders, this time through the wine country in the south of France one winter. Both women are unknowable, disconnected and at risk. They are not great heroines of the feminist revolution.  They are the reason there had to be a revolution.

I think it should be remembered here that second wave feminism set up the first women’s refuges for women. It also offered an analysis of male power for young women like myself who were often adrift, and it fought against discrimination. Loden may not have been directly influenced by women’s liberation, but she was part of a historical movement, which began to speak about the hidden lives of women and actively campaign for change.

I would like to finish with a short feminist poem, which appeared anonymously in the 1970s. When I tracked this poem down I contemplated not reading it tonight because it didn’t quite fit in with Wanda sitting outside the women’s liberation movement of the time, but perhaps it does speak to that place where Loden, Wanda and feminism intersect.

In a woman’s world of men…

Who like us free… to give in bed and… everywhere

We are ……. some of us

 dying… and… some

of us playing life. I do not mean to…

glorify…….. our plight

in your…. martyr terms

but rather to quietly.. and in a woman’s way…

tell you that this is just…

about the last time I

will say this in quite this way…from now on

you will be either with me.

Or you will be without.. me.

Barbara Loden died from breast cancer 10 years after she made Wanda.  If she had been alive today she would probably have survived due to the lobbying work done by women to raise money for breast cancer research.

I’d like to dedicate this screening to her memory.

Margot Nash  3rdMay 2019

Margot Nash is is a Freelance Screenwriter, Director and Script Editor. She is currently an Honorary Associate Teaching & Research in the School of Communications at the University of Technology Sydney.

[1]Acker, A. Reel Women – Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York 1991 pp.78-91

[2]Mulvey, L. (1975)Visual Pleasure and Narrative CinemaOriginally Published – Screen 16.3 Autumn (pp. 6-18)Oxford UK.

[3]Berger, J. (1974)Ways of Seeing Penguin, London.

[4]Smith, S. (1973)Women Who Make Movies Women and Film Vol 1, Nos. 3 & 4 Eds: Beh, S. & Salyer, S. (p. 79) Santa Monica Cal.

[5]Duras, M. and Kazan, E. (2003). “Conversation on WandaCahiers du Cinéma (excerpts from an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, December, 1980).

[6]Duras, M. and Kazan, E. (2003).

[7]Brody, R (January 26, 2010). WandaThe New Yorker.



The Presentations (2) – Sylvie Le Clézio recalls the life and work of Tomás Gutierrez Alea and his film MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Cuba, 1968)

Sylvie Le Clézio

Luciano Castille, a historian and critic who was also the director of ICAIC (Instituto Cubana del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos/ the National Institute for Cuban Cinema) speaks of  the 1968 feature Memories of Underdevelopmentas the Cathedral of Cuban cinema.  He also said that the film was one that was shot yesterday for an audience of tomorrow.

It still resonates today.

In 1974, Memories of Underdevelopment won a National Society of Film Critics award in New York which carried a $2000 prize. A big sum in those days.  The director, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, was invited to pick up the prize but his visa application was declined and a US Treasury official advised the Critics Society that anyone who received the prize on his behalf would be arrested.  Such were the relations between Cuba and the US at the time.

Tomas Alea actually said that he thought the ban to be ironical given that one of the issues that the film confronts was the issue of disinformation between the US and Cuba.

Perhaps I could tell you a little about Tomás G. Alea, the director (below).Tomas Gutierrez Alea.

He was a friend.  I met Titón, as he was called by everyone, in the late 70’s.  I was lucky to meet him a number of times over a decade and many visits to Cuba.

After meeting him and a few other Cuban directors, I was approached to do a Cuban Film Week in Sydney.  The film week was held in 1981 at the opera House and Titon was one of two filmmakers who attended.

Titón came from a privileged family in Havana. He studied Law at Havana University.   He then decided to study cinema in Rome and was quite influenced by Roberto Rossellini.   He came back to Havana just before the revolution and was to make the very first film feature film of revolutionary Cuba – Stories of the Revolution (1960).

Before that, he had made a number of documentaries… these were the days when political documentary was at its height with filmmakers like Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, Joris Ivens, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker etc… but even then Titón was conscious of the importance of films in forming ideas and said to his colleagues  “all attempts to portray reality while avoiding judgement on it, are problematic, Sometimes this leads to half-truths, which can be more immoral than a complete lie”.

He talked about the responsibilities of the filmmaker.   He talked about creating an active audience as opposed to a passive audience and wanted cinema to be an instrument to help the audience develop a critical sense of their own reality. This objective is realised in Memories of Underdevelopmentwhich is a stylistic tour de force and a subtle and complex study of an uncommitted intellectual from a bourgeois background who is swept up in a vortex of revolutionary change during the Cuban nuclear missile crisis.

To place Titón in post-Revolutionary Cuba, Supporter but critical.

Alea was supporter of the revolution but he was also critical of the realities of post-revolutionary Cuba.  Alea always kept a balance between his dedication to the revolution and his criticism when he felt that his idealism had been betrayed.

The late 70’s and 80’s were difficult time for him. His daughter had left in the Mariel Boatlift with the hundreds of Cubans fleeing the country’s economic difficulties.   By the time Titón came to Sydney in 1981, it was difficult for him to make films via the Cuban Film institute. He said that he would have to go directly to Fidel to get the OK. He did make many acclaimed films — including the Oscar nominated Strawberries and Chocolatein 1993, three years before his death.

When in Sydney, Titon visited a number of hardware stores, and kept saying there is no reason why we can’t have this in Havana; it is just a failure of the bureaucracy. He was always pointing out the pretensions and contradictions within Cuban society. For example, Cubans’ aspirations to be like Americans.

In Havana, he would show me the long lines of people waiting for a bus, and said they thought it was beneath them to ride a bike, so they’d stand in long queues for an hour instead of taking a 10-minute bike ride.   He would also talk at length about how fabulous the medical system was, one of the very best on the world at the time, an incredible achievement of the revolution, but he would add “but when there is no toilet paper, it becomes personal”.

He was supportive whilst never averting his critical eye in the hope of promoting change.

He was a fascinating man, a totally international man despite living in a country so completely blocked off from the world.  He lived in a modest house, full of art and music, and a beautiful view.  As my friend Linda reminded me, under his balcony ran a small river which sometimes delivered gorgeous wooden ceremonial objects from a voodoo or Santeria ceremony — one of those was a wooden turtle which he had in the living room.

He was an extraordinary man, a talented, wonderful filmmaker.

I hope you enjoy the ‘Cathedral of Cuban cinema”

Sylvie Le Clézio, 4 May 2016