The Sugar Curtain (Spain/Cuba/France, director Camila Guzmán Urzúa): Strangely and almost unintentionally apolitical, this film is a personal remembrance of growing up in the 70s and 80s in Cuba. The director seems to have shot all of the footage herself, making it more like a home movie. And it’s incredibly nostalgic, with lots of comparisons of old photos with the present. But the film’s thesis, if I can use a word that strong, is impossible to prove in this context, even if it’s correct. The director seems to be saying that life in Cuba in her childhood was good, that Castro’s revolution was achieving positive results and that the end of the Cold War was disastrous for Cuba. But this is pretty self-evident. We see a lot of run-down or abandoned buildings that were in good repair thirty years ago. We hear interviews with her classmates who agree that things aren’t as good anymore. I don’t want to sound facetious, but I could probably make a pretty similar film about my own childhood.
When she talks to students at her old high school, about the only privation she can uncover is that they no longer get snacks. In the director’s childhood, they got chocolate biscuits and fizzy drinks. But in a society where the government provided so much (and still does, compared with the rest of the world), these examples seem a bit forced. I’m sure life in Cuba is difficult for many, but from the evidence of the film, it still seems to be doing pretty well. For a society that has withstood a trade embargo from the world’s richest nation for more than fifty years, and whose biggest benefactor cut it off more than fifteen years ago, it’s doing remarkably well. Its children are literate and fed, and it seems to have avoided the extremes of poverty seen in many parts of the Caribbean and Latin America.
Unfortunately, I think the director’s complaints are fairly universal. The idealism we feel in our youth turns into disillusionment as we age. The forces of globalization and capitalism are affecting Cuba, even as Castro tries to hold them at bay. The fact that the director and many of her classmates left Cuba in the 1990s (during the “Special Period” that followed the end of the Cold War, a time of tremendous economic hardship for Cubans) also clouds the picture. How does her memory of Cuba as a socialist paradise differ from the memories of the anti-Castro crowd in Miami, who remember pre-revolutionary Cuba as a different kind of paradise? Both are unreliable and nostalgic.
While the film was enjoyable as a window into one person’s experience, and it was great to see the modern footage of life on the island, overall I found it unsatisfying.