The Cinema of Santiago Alvarez

Santiago Alvarez was a Cuban filmmaker who began making films in his forties, so there is hope for all of us!

Born in Cuba, Havana 1919, Alvarez studied at the University of Havana and at the Columbia University, New York. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, Alvarez served as vice president of newly formed Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficas (ICAIC) and later as the director of the Latin American ICAIC newsreel, from 1960. He died in 1998 in Havana of Parkinson’s disease.

Since so much emphasis is being given to feature length documentaries recently, it would be interesting to see the work by Alvarez released just as Battle of Algiers, serving as an example of filmmakers creating a political film language for future documentary filmmakers. ‘Now’ made in 1965 is a profound document of political film making at the time.

“Not intended as a work of great subtlety, Alvarez wields other people’s images with perhaps more artistry than those who created them, and builds a remarkable piece of rhetorical cinema in the process… ‘Now!’ is strident, yes; but breathtaking” Tom Sutpen

Alvarez also produced a large number of short films which illustrated his enormous talent as a filmmaker.

I came across this excellent write up on him on from Cinema Texas Film Festival 2002, presented by Travis Wilkerson. The festival was co-sponsored by the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. The Cinema Texas presented a retrospective of Alvarez’s short film, seldom seen outside of Cuba.

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

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.

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