REVIEW BY JON HILLSON
Before Night Falls
Starring Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea di Stefano, Johnny Depp and Michael Wincott
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Grandview Pictures, Fine Line Films 2000.
Those who defend the Cuban Revolution should be prepared to answer slanders aimed at it contained in the new film Before Night Falls. The movie, still in limited release in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, has been widely praised by critics across the US. It has garnered numerous awards, particularly for Javier Bardem, who plays the self-exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas.
In a phrase which captures the essence of the typical review, Newsweek's David Ansen raved that the movie is "lyrical, sensual and shattering — a devastating indictment of the Castro regime". This should alert activists as to what is coming. The purpose of this review is to sketch the political function of the film. (An extensive essay I wrote on Before Night Falls, entitled "The sexual politics of Reinaldo Arenas: fact, fiction, and the real record of the Cuban revolution" appears in the online journal Seeing Red [<www.SeeingRed.com>]. It responds in detail to a series of lies and half-truths, as well as broader questions posed in the film, using extensive Cuban primary sources and other supporting documentation.)
Before Night Falls is the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, completed just before his death in New York City in 1990, 10 years after he left Cuba during the Mariel departures. It was published in 1993 in English.
Arenas, a prize-winning poet of the younger generation in Cuba, came of age during the revolution, which he defended up until 1968. This is one of many facts he expunges from Before Night Falls, in an effort to seamlessly conform his reinvented life to the confection of defiant opponent — and escaped victim — of the "Castro dictatorship".
A gifted, talented writer lifted up and encouraged by the revolution, Arenas became embittered by abuses carried out under its banner. This set him on a lifelong trajectory that ended in the United States. Ravaged by AIDS, penniless, evicted from one apartment after another, lacking insurance, he ultimately committed suicide.
Arenas made use of policies and practices — subsequently and widely regarded as errors, mistakes, and wrongs by the Cuban leadership — once carried out in the name of the revolution, to press his charges against the government. These included the work camps set up by the government to compel "delinquents", many of them homosexual, to fulfill military obligations — the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), which lasted from 1965-67; repressive policies aimed at certain intellectuals, artists, and writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and formal discrimination against gays during that period.
Such practices flowed from a powerful combination of factors: the cultural legacy of Cuba's dependent capitalist economic and social relations, sometimes narrowly referred to as machismo; the heritage of Spanish colonialism; the impact of the Catholic Church's sexual dogma. To this was added the then-standing Soviet wisdom that homosexuality, declared legal in the earliest days of the 1917 Russian revolution, but criminalised in 1934 by the Stalin regime, was perverse, a form of "moral degeneration" and "bourgeois decadence".
The extent, depth, and scope of events based on this reactionary construct that take place in Cuba are first exaggerated by Arenas, then exploited in the memoir. Worse still, criticism and opposition to such measures, which led to their correction, have no place in the book. Before Night Falls is, instead, consumed with hatred for the socialist revolution, the undeniable accomplishments of which are never mentioned.
The director of the movie version, Julian Schnabel, goes a step further. He deliberately grafts outrageous lies, slanders, and falsifications to the half-truths, distortions, and fabrications that define the autobiography.
Two points in this regard, among many, ought to be noted. Arenas claimed that he and his circle of gay men fought repression against homosexuals by "having sex". In the book, he boasts of 5000 such encounters by the time he was 25, in 1968. This assertion, and all that it implies, is left out of the film. Irrespective of how accurate Arenas' claim is, it has got nothing to do with opposition to repression, real or imagined. But such a belief informed his life. Schnabel's profile of Arenas, however, is one of a rural innocent who becomes a liberated flirt and a writer above politics.
Arenas' own words, and the record of his deeds, prove the opposite. His last years in Cuba were marked by tirades against the revolution and collaboration with foreign governments to enable his polemics to be published abroad. In the United States, he engaged in campaigns denouncing the "Castro dictatorship", based on intellectual and literary figures wilting under Washington's pressure on Havana, and looking for a return to the arms of official culture and its rewards.
Arenas collaborated with Nestor Almendros on the 1984 "documentary" Improper Conduct, whose interviewees claim, among other things, that Cuba's policies towards gays were akin to Nazi atrocities against Jews in Auschwitz. He spoke widely against the revolution. However, to his great consternation, he was challenged by its defenders at many meetings. He dedicated his novella The Brightest Star to a friend whose failed attempt at an armed hijacking of a Cuban passenger jet resulted in arrest, trial, conviction, and execution. His "farewell" letter called for continued struggle in Cuba to overthrow the Cuban government, and blamed his miserable personal fate on Fidel Castro — an accusation erased from a reproduction of the note on the Before Night Falls web site.
Schnabel's deceptive and sanitised version of Arenas serves the larger purpose of the film. He describes it as a work "against totalitarianism in any country". Of course, the country in question is Cuba, the vehicle to attack is denial of gay rights, and the film is geared to a progressive-minded audience.
Its cast includes Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson contribute music. And leading man Javier Bardem is the son of members of the Spanish Communist Party. In addition, the acting and cinematography of the film show talent and capacity.
This is not a "right-wing" movie aimed at the dwindling audience of so-called gusanos (worms). Indeed, Arenas publicly declared Miami's Cuban emigre milieu as a "caricature" of Cuban "machismo". Life in "Little Havana" for him was "purgatory" compared to the "hell" that was Cuba. His brief stay in Miami, and his view of it, are omitted from the film.
The film dovetails with Washington's cynical and unrelenting campaign against Cuba's supposed violation of human rights.
Because of the real US record of mistreatment of and discrimination against homosexuals — which creates the context for thug and police violence against gay men and lesbians — the main responsibility for scoring points against Cuba on this question has long been assumed by "volunteers". These include immigrant Cuban writers and others, and self-proclaimed, rightward-moving liberals, and former radicals who seek to "set the record straight". Together, they provide an indispensable service to the empire's long-standing anti-Cuba operation, whose big lie machine is permanently on.
Cuba has made enormous strides forward in the field of gay rights since the 1960s and 1970s.
The political polarisation that feeds the kind of anti-gay violence where homosexuals like Matthew Shepard were tortured and beaten to death in 1998 by hooligans in Wyoming does not exist in Cuba. Anti-sodomy statues like those promulgated in Nicaragua in the early 1990s, used to depose and jail a top Malaysian political leader last year, and that high courts and august judges have upheld in the United States, are absent from Cuba law.
Death squads that "cleanse" Brazilian and Colombian cities of queers and other supposed social filth, or related acts of anti-gay violence, are unknown in Cuba. Public locations where gays congregate are not subject to police harassment.
Cuban popular rap artists do not sing about killing women and "faggots". Cuban gays and lesbians both maintain custody of their biological children and adopt. The position of the country's National Centre on Sex Education is that homosexuality is a normal form of human behaviour. Books arguing for such a perspective were published as early as 1979.
These advances could only grow out of the titanic progress and achievements made by Cuban working people, particularly its female component, in the fight to emancipate Cuban women. From their incorporation into the work force and higher education — forging the entitlement of economic independence — to the legalisation of abortion, the promotion of free birth control, easy access to divorce, the availability of day care, massive female involvement in the armed forces and national defence.
Cuban women have accomplished in 40 years what the female sex in the rest of the Third World, and most "developed" countries, have yet to conquer. Thus, expressions of violence against women, based on millennia of oppression, such as rape and physical abuse, have qualitatively declined and are dramatically lower than elsewhere in the world. This reflects both concrete gains and the heightened consciousness and revolutionary attitudes held by both women and men.
This sweeping freedom in human relations, coupled with the revolutionary solidarity at the heart of Cuban Communism, has helped create the new values — and new women and men who embody them — that were central goals since the struggle began in the Sierra Maestra mountains nearly half a century ago. And this, in turn, has fostered efforts to develop impartial, scientific attitudes on sexual matters, including orientation and preference. Aspects of this evolution and progress can be seen in the 1994 documentary Gay Cuba, made by US filmmaker Sonja de Vries in collaboration with Cuban homosexuals.
None of this could have been possible without the rectification process, which began in 1986 under the leadership of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party. Its aim was "not simply to rectify errors committed in the last 10 years", Castro reiterated, "or errors committed throughout the history of the revolution. Rectification is finding the way to resolve errors that are hundreds of years old".
While addressing strategic mistakes in economic planning that evolved because of the emulation of Soviet methods, this political mobilisation spurred inquiry, debate, and discussion over a broad range of issues, creating an atmosphere in which fewer and fewer subjects were taboo or off-limits. And now, more than a decade after the collapse of the USSR, the political environment established by the rectification process sustains greater debate and discussion than at any time in decades.
Learning the truth about the trials and errors the Cuban Revolution went through to reach its current political level — and the sources of such false starts — is crucial to describing and defending what has thus far been achieved in society committed to socialism. Such an objective, historical approach is the most effective response to Before Night Falls, soon to be playing in a movie theatre near you.