Cuban film maker challenges homophobia

Issue 

Strawberry and Chocolate
By Thomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio
Showing in Sydney's Mardi Gras Film Festival, February 16-26
To be followed by seasons in Sydney and Melbourne
Reviewed by Peter Boyle

Several recent movies have sought to challenge homophobia in a popular way. In Philadelphia Denzel Washington played a homophobic lawyer who defends a gay and HIV-stricken executive. In The Sum of Us true blue Aussie Jack Thompson plays a super-understanding single father of a gay son. Strawberry and Chocolate does the same thing but the difference is that it is set in socialist Cuba, and is made by leading Cuban film maker Thomas Gutierrez Alea.

While socialists around the world have recognised the Cuban government as a genuinely revolutionary power, they have been critical of the regime's backwardness on sexuality. But change is afoot in Cuba, and Strawberry and Chocolate is being pointed to as an announcement of this fact.

Strawberry and Chocolate received best screenplay award in 1992 at the 14th annual Latin America Film Festival in Havana.

Gutierrez — best known internationally for Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) and Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) — pulls no punches in a film which tells the story of the developing friendship between gay and dissident artist Diego (Jorge Perugorria) and initially homophobic David (Vladimir Cruz), a Communist Party member.

They have two problems. First, Diego is in love with David but David is straight (his reciprocated sexual interest is in Diego's neighbour, Nancy, black marketeer, prostitute and the local "vigilance officer"). Second, some of David's comrades think that gays are a threat to national security. Diego's challenges to David's faith in the authenticity of the Cuban revolution, David's struggle with his conscience and his growing affection for Diego, are portrayed dramatically and convincingly.

The unambiguous message is that anti-homosexual prejudice is an anathema to the revolution, but this has annoyed some reviewers. One long and furiously critical review by Paul Julian Smith in Sight and Sound condemned it as "heavy-handed, disingenuous and irredeemably bourgeois". He complained that there was no explicit homosexual sex scene; that Diego didn't "punch David out" for bonking Nancy; and that the film hid the structural link between homophobia and the "centrality of the value of labour to Marxist doctrine and practice". Really?

This film fully deserves its opening night slot in the Mardi Gras Film Festival and is a "must see" for socialists.

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