Politics & Policy

Notes on a Movie

Last week, I went to see a movie called Una Noche — a movie about Cuba. I never would have seen it, but Charles Lane wrote about it, in an article titled “Cuba’s hard truths exposed.” Then Ron Radosh told me about it. (He would write about it here.) So I went.

I regard it as a bit of a miracle — a movie that portrays Communist Cuba realistically. All of my life, I have seen movies whitewash Cuba. Indeed, whitewashing Cuba is one of Hollywood’s minor specialties. I blinked in amazement at seeing Una Noche.

(We had a similar experience in 2000, with Before Night Falls.)

‐Ever since Castro seized power in 1959, really, the weight of American culture has been in favor of the dictatorship. Journalistically, academically, cinematically — the weight has been on the dictatorship’s side.

I think of Herbert Matthews, the New York Timesman who did for Castro something like what his forebear, Walter Duranty, did for Stalin. In more recent times, I think of CNN’s Anita Snow and the AP’s Lucia Newman. Those names are bitter in the mouths of Cuban democrats.

Academia? Well, let me quickly tell a story I have told before. When I was in grad school, they invited Armando Valladares to speak (which was a bit of a miracle). He was known as the Cuban Solzhenitsyn, for he was a writer who had spent 22 years in the gulag and lived to tell about it (in Against All Hope).

But the university would not let him appear alone — would not let him speak to the kids alone. They had to pair him with a professor, to give the pro-Castro side (i.e., to whitewash).

And who, would you say, is the most frequently quoted professor in articles about Cuba? I’d say Wayne Smith, by miles. It has been that way for, what? Twenty years? Supporters of the democratic opposition get much less ink.

The parade of Hollywood figures who have trooped to Havana to sit at Fidel’s feet — and then promoted him and defended him around the world — is too long to detail. I’ll toss out a few names: Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss — all the beautiful people.

You remember what Carole King did, right? She sang to Castro “You’ve Got a Friend.” He sure does, countless of them, in free countries, especially in the United States.

Obviously, the hard Left has given the dictatorship its full-blown support. But the soft Left has done its part too. I mean people like the editors of the New York Times and Barbara Walters. They count more than some political-science prof at Bennington or wherever.

‐One of the reasons Una Noche amazed me is that I saw it shortly after the death of Saul Landau — the American leftist who made films glorifying and lying about Castro. If you want to know more about Landau, see what Ron Radosh wrote about him, here. (The two knew each other.)

Obits about Landau, of course, whitewashed his beliefs and his career. The headline in the Times was “Saul Landau, Maker of Films with Leftist Edge, Dies at 77.” Leftist edge! Priceless! “Leni Riefenstahl, Maker of Films with . . .”

Landau, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore — these are the kind of people who make movies about Cuba. They have covered up the reality of Castro’s island for years.

‐Bizarrely enough, Una Noche was shown in Havana. Someone in some ministry must have made a horrible mistake. The people went nuts for the movie. Then it was banned.

‐The movie was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Again bizarrely, the Cuban government let the actors in the movie (young Cubans) travel to the festival. Two of them defected during the stopover in Miami.

I’ve often wondered why the dictatorship lets people go, ever. Baseball players, ballerinas, singers — whenever they have a chance, they defect (many of them). Maybe the regime figures they’re more trouble at home than in exile.

‐In Una Noche, life in Cuba is depicted as nasty, grim, and hopeless. Is it even worse than depicted? Oh, sure, for a great many. I am reminded of The Lives of Others, that masterpiece of a movie, which appeared in 2006. It is about East Germany and the Stasi. When I wrote about the movie, I heard from former East Germans who said, “Life in our country was worse — a lot worse — than what that movie portrays.” I mentioned this to the maker of the film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. He said essentially this: “They’re right. But good luck finding a movie that’s closer to the reality.”

The same is true of Una Noche, probably.

‐The film is sickening in the depravity of the life it portrays. I was reminded of something a Cuban American once told me. I have never forgotten her words. This is close to verbatim:

“It takes a martyr-level courage to live even as a decent human being in Cuba. Not to be on a block committee. Not to spy or inform on your neighbors. Not to lie or steal. Not to sell your body or buy somebody else’s.”

A martyr-level courage to live even as a decent human being. I was reminded of those words when watching Una Noche.

‐As someone who was steeped in the media during the last stage of the Cold War, I am amazed to read about the Cold War — about formerly Communist countries — now. The other day, I was reading an article about Katarina Witt, the figure skater from East Germany. (I was in love with her, like everybody else was.) The article appeared on ESPN’s website.

The writer said that Witt “became the first East German athlete . . . to persuade the totalitarian government to let her turn pro.”

Totalitarian government. Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t tell you how amazing it is for someone like me to read something like that. When East Germany was actually up and running, the American media would never have been so candid about it. Ever. Journalists would not have wanted to give aid and comfort to the anti-Communists. They would not have wanted — this was a big phrase at the time — to “poison the atmosphere of détente.”

People often defended and hailed East Germany — or “the German Democratic Republic,” as they called it. (The GDR, baby.) They said that East Germany had found a balance between two extremes: capitalism and Communism.

I heard it a thousand times: In the West, we have “political rights,” meaning the rights to speech, worship, assembly, and so on. But in the East, they have “economic rights,” meaning the rights to food, shelter, employment, health care . . . (Of course, people in Communist countries were as deprived materially as they were in other ways.)

For some, Erich Honecker’s Germany was a kind of ideal. Bob Novak used to needle Al Hunt by saying, “East Germany’s your favorite country.”

My question: After the Castros fall, will the media and our cultural elites at large speak honestly about Communist Cuba? Will they speak about Cuba the way our ESPN writer spoke about East Germany? I doubt it. They have too much invested in the myths about Cuba: the glories of its health care, literacy, and racial enlightenment.

Una Noche was made by a British director named Lucy Mulloy. (I believe she is British.) When people sympathize with the Cuban people, rather than the dictatorship, I often wonder why this is so. A basic humanity? Some special angle?

Googling around about Mulloy, I see that she is the daughter of two people who work in animation: Phil Mulloy and Vera Neubauer. The latter is Czech-born. There has long been an affinity between the Czechs and the Cubans (as there tends to be between peoples that have labored under dictatorship). I wrote about this many years ago now, in a piece called “Solidarity, Exemplified.”

Maybe the Mulloy children were taught about tyranny? Anyway, this is probably irrelevant. But not uninteresting, I think.

I’m sure I’m doing Lucy Mulloy no favors by praising and thanking her. Praise and thanks from conservative magazines are not a big help in her milieu. But I praise and thank her anyway. I will end the way I began: Una Noche is something of a miracle, a blow against deception and for honesty.


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