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SANTIAGO ALVAREZ RETROSPECTIVE
HE WHO HITS FIRST, HITS TWICE: THE URGENT CINEMA OF SANTIAGO ALVAREZ


Screening:
Sept. 20 | 8:30pm | Texas Union (downstairs theatre)
Sept. 22 | 1:30pm | The Hideout (upstairs cabaret)

Presented by Travis Wilkerson

Co-sponsored by the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.



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The films of Cuban director Santiago Alvarez are inextricably linked to the United States, and nearly all of his key works concern some matter of American history: the civil rights movement, the wars in South-East Asia, U.S. interventions in the Americas. They exist as a kind of fractured mirror to the last 40 years of American history—a subversive, alternate history. Alvarez’s first exposure to radical politics came while he worked briefly as an immigrant coal miner in Pennsylvania in the 1940s (with the outbreak of war, he returned to Cuba). He didn’t produce his first film until he was in his forties, but the indefatigable Cuban director more than compensated for lost time. In a film career which began with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and continued until his death in 1998 at the age of 79, he directed nearly 700 films. Lacking formal training, Alvarez was tapped to direct the Cuban Film Institute’s (ICAIC) newsreel division Noticiero ICAIC. The choice was one of political utility and little artistic ability was expected from the novice director. Yet over the next 30 years, Alvarez supervised the production of nearly 1500 weekly newsreels and in the process transformed a banal and wholly utilitarian genre into a veritable laboratory of radical innovation.


Although he produced works of nearly every conceivable length, it is surely in the short film that his audacious talent is most impressively manifest. His mastery of this form is a product of the unique circumstances of his film education at ICAIC. Working under extremely tight temporal and material constraints, Alvarez became a master of improvisation. He combined the use of limited found materials—archival footage and photographs—with a dynamic graphic sensibility, bold and unexpected music-image pairings, and a highly contemporary use of rapidly paced editing. Fusing the avant-garde with popular culture, he sought to synthesize a filmic style as revolutionary as the changes then sweeping his society. As Alvarez moved from the highly condensed newsreel into longer documentaries, he would only deepen his exploration of radically motivated experimentation. The resulting films were always political, often didactic. They could be playful or deadly serious. They were borne of rage, bitter irony and an almost limitless solidarity. They could be raucous or silent, brief or monumental, laconic or verbose. They were prone to tangents, but could be as eloquent as poetry. They never sought perfection. They were never made with posterity in mind. They were made for the here and the now. They showed the world to be forever changing and changeable.


What is striking, even today, is the manner with which they successfully balance goals we tend to regard as irreconcilable. They are at once highly experimental, yet completely accessible. They were produced by a state-financed collective, yet register an unmistakably personal vision. They were produced without regard to posterity, yet they reverberate with a timeless vitality. And Alvarez used every means at his disposal, which meant that frequently the films were made with next to nothing at all. "Give me two photos, music and a moviola..." he said, "and I'll give you a movie." And what a movie it would be.


For more information on Santiago Alvarez, visit extremelowfrequency.com


Now | 6 min. | 1965.
“Using a Lena Horne song that was banned in the United States, Alvarez constructs a powerful montage on racial discrimination in the USA…. The film is impressive not only for the resourcefulness with which it uses its found materials, including pirated newsreels, but also for the syncopation of the editing, which intensifies the insistence of the song itself.”


Cerro Pelado | 34 min. | 1966.
“The film takes as its title the name of the boat that carried the Cuban sports team to the 10th Central American and Caribbean Games, which in 1966 were held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the United States attempted to prevent Cuban participation. By now, Alvarez has developed the principal characteristics of his style. The film is constructed in the form of a chronological visual narration of the sequence of events, with minimal verbal commentary, interspersed with sections using montage and captions to expound the political background to the central events. Music is used in place of commentary to narrate the film.”


Hanoi Martes 13 (Hanoi Tuesday the 13th) | 38 min. | 1967.
Filmed in Hanoi on December 13, 1966, this documentary records the lives of people in the Vietnam capital and surrounding countryside at the height of U.S. bombing. “One of Alvarez’s indisputable masterpieces, this is a film of great sensitivity. It also displays the greatest integrity and is constructed with the greatest economy of means…. Although the means are of the simplest, the editing is exceedingly subtle. The narrative line is there, yet it’s anything but linear. The result is that the film informs in a way quite alien to what documentary orthodoxy has taught us to expect.”


LBJ | 18 min. | 1968.
“LBJ is deservedly one of Alvarez’s best known shorts, a stunning piece of visual and musical montage using found materials, reaching a high pitch of satire Alvarez seems to have reserved for President Johnson. The film contains three main sections, with a prologue and an epilogue. The sections correspond to the three letters of Johnson’s initials. Alvarez uses them to stand for Luther as in Martin Luther King, Bob as in Robert Kennedy, and Jack or John, his brother. It’s a bold play on the strange coincidence that the corpses of these three men littered Johnson’s ascent. The film steers pretty close to libel, so to speak, in linking Johnson to the assassinations, but this is not the point…. What Alvarez does is to portray Johnson’s presidency as the culmination of a whole history of socio-political corruption, not of individual presidential corruption of a kind that was yet to come.”






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