Cremata Expresses an Artist’s Bellyful Against Cultural Repression

El rey se muere. (Martinoticias)
Exit the King. (Martinoticias)

“What right does anyone have to rule over everyone’s thoughts?” The question, deeply subversive towards the Cuban reality, is at the heart of the open letter that artist Juan Carlos Cremata recently sent to an unknown Culture officer by the name of Andy Arencibia Concepción after a commission of the National Council of Theatre Arts (CNAE) suspended the theatre season which, under Cremata’s direction, was presenting the play The King is Dying*, the work of Eugene Ionesco, at the Tito Junco Auditorium of the Bertolt Brecht Cultural Center. After only two shows – Saturday, July 4th and Sunday, July 5th — the play was abruptly suspended by art officials.

Cremata’s letter, harsh and unadorned, was sent via e-mail to several friends and to 14ymedio for wider dissemination, in a gesture that calls to mind the phenomenon that took place more than eight years ago, termed “the little war of the e-mails” or “intellectual debate” initiated by a spontaneous reaction of artists and intellectuals to the introduction on national television program of the notorious censor-author “Papito” Serguera’s process of “ parametración” that ostracized dozens of artists, writers and other creators.  

On that occasion, the mere presence of that media commissioner set off alarms in the actors guild, especially in the surviving victims of the ill-fated Quinquenio Gris [The Five Grey Years], leading to the first open and uncontrolled intellectual debate, which took place on the emerging e-mail cyberspace, and came to question the cultural policy of the Revolution, outlined by Fidel Castro in his menacing and infamous speech known as Palabras a los Intelectuales [Words to Intellectuals].

In 2007, the “little war of emails” made clear the fissure in the traditional pact of submissiveness of the artistic-intellectual sector to the cultural policy of the Government

Finally, after weeks of e-mails exchanged in ever escalating tones of criticism, the controversy was sealed in a closed-door meeting held at the House of the Americas, led by the then minister of culture, Abel Prieto, and a select group of participants of the peculiar debate. The protesting voices were silenced with some minor concessions to the better-known figures, and the frantic exchange of e-mails ended as suddenly as it had begun.

However, the “little war of e-mails” managed to set one important precedent, among others, because of two essential factors: it made clear the fissure of the traditional pact of submissiveness of the artistic-intellectual sector to the cultural policy of the Government, and new information technologies and communications were used for the benefit of free thought for the first time in Cuba, circumventing government censorship. It is not coincidental that shortly afterwards, in 2007, an emergence of true freedom of expression took place with the emergence of the first independent blogs that have caused so many headaches to the repressors.

Juan Carlos Cremata, the controversial director of film and theater, has already experienced the pressure of censorship from the commissioners of official art before, due to his strong preference for uncomfortable topics of the Cuban reality, and his incisive and direct manner in addressing them. Since his directorial debut with the film Nada [Nothing] (1995), where he successfully used comedy as means to deal with the drama of emigration, the intransigence of a female official, and the love of a young couple in the midst of the shortages of the economic crisis of the 90’s, he won the approval of the national public to such an extent that, since that time, he has carried on with close ties with film and theatre as well as with the attention of the ideological inquisitors.

Cremata has already experienced the pressure of censorship of the commissioners of official art before, due to his strong preference for uncomfortable topics of the Cuban reality

Despite this, Nada won the Premio Coral de Opera Prima at the 23rd International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in 2001, in addition to other international awards.

After that, there were other movies, among them, the renown feature film Viva Cuba, also the recipient of international awards, and several other short films denoting the caustic and questioning style ascribed to this filmmaker by the preference of the Cuban public and by the hostility the censors.

Crematorium 1 at Last… Evil, stands out among these works: a synthetic portrait of contemporary Cuba through an acid and biting satire of the rigidity and hypocrisy of the ideological dogmas imposed on society whose script, from start to finish, explicitly questions the loss of social values and the spuriousness of the moral foundations of the system. Crematorium has never aired on TV or been on film circuits billboards, but it has circulated widely among Cuba’s public through informal distribution networks, largely thanks to the interest that the forbidden often arouses.

Cremata has already experienced the pressure of censorship of the commissioners of official art before, due to his strong preference for uncomfortable topics of the Cuban reality

On the other hand, Cremata’s performance as a theater director has also had its obstacles. According to his own account, four years ago, in the same Tito Junco Auditorium, the play La Hijastra [The Stepdaughter], a work he directed, was interrupted, that season after 14 shows.

There have been allusions to excessive, unnecessary vulgarity on stage. In fact, Cremata supports the use of “foul language that is, excessive, irreverent (which is not the same as disrespectful), iconoclastic, rebellious and sometimes vulgar or profane.”

However, this argument could be put forward as the cause of censorship, particularly when vulgarity is a credential letter of the system and is legitimized by cultural officials, as demonstrated abroad in gross acts of repudiation against the representatives of Cuba’s independent civil society, orchestrated and directed during the last Summit of the Americas in Panama by many of those same jealous caretakers of the “national culture,” including the former minister of culture, Abel Prieto, the pseudo-intellectual Miguel Barnet (a so-called “anthropologist”) and the president of the Hermanos Saíz Association, such a grayish character that I could not even remember his name.

Paradoxically, the current instance of censorship against The King is Dying merely reinforces the message it is trying to invalidate, by identifying the play’s main character, King Eggplant the First, with the Cuban ex-president — they are both decadent, willful, exhausting and obsolete — even more so when the president of Cuban Theater Arts, Gisela Gonzalez, described the staging in terms of “treason” or “political lampoon”.

How could we ignore the many “cultural events” that are based on similar acts of repudiation against Cuba’s peaceful opposition in which certain art instructors even enroll primary school children? Can we possibly imagine greater vulgarity than what is being promoted by the administrations of our cultural institutions? Is there greater vulgarity than the censorship itself of freedom of creation and of thought?

A discrete, though growing transition has begun to take place in the consciousness of our best artists and creative individuals, and it is a contagious pandemic

The truth is that, when he directed this theatrical season with the intention of “talking about resistance to change,” Cremata ended up surpassing the uncomfortable subject category and reaching that of intolerable creator in the taxonomy of the cultural curator, one that is, precisely, the entrenched forefront of that resistance.

Cremata states: “I defend, above all, a plurality of readings in what I pursue or dream about, because, in some way, it encourages and obsesses me as artist, thinker and human being.” A principle that completely denies the exclusionary nature of a system that has imposed what the artist ironically defined as “limited independence”, “ration-book freedom” and other epithets. But it clearly defines, at the same time, the fascist nature of the official censorship.

When he warns his (our) censors that these are times when “a pandemic of freedom is flooding our senses” Cremata states what many of us have been suspecting all along: a discrete, though growing transition has begun to take place in the consciousness of our best artists and creative individuals, and it is a contagious pandemic, especially because it flows from voices that can exert a greater and deeper influence over society than any program or opposition march. Thus, the actions of the repressors become more visible and self-defeating.

Now we’ll just have to wait and see if Cremata’s letter becomes the trigger for the demands that our best Cuban creative artists have been making in the last few years, and whether it will unleash another debate involving these and other rights, or if another deep silence will turn it in an epilogue of what could have been the beginnings of a new intellectual polemic.

*Translator’s note: The play has been staged in the United States under the title “Exit the King”

Translated by Norma Whiting

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