If you love a good independent film, if you’re a fan of Latin American movies, if you’re fascinated with Cuba, if you think you know something about exile and alienation – whatever you have to do today, get over to the Landmark Cinema, 2828 N. Clark, for a special super secret 4 p.m. screening of Miguel Coyula’s “Memories of Overdevelopment.”
The showing, part of this year’s sensational Chicago Latino Film Festival, is a last minute add-on and does not appear on any of the event or theater schedules. “Memories of Overdevelopment” has won honors at Sundance, at the New Media Film Festival, at New York’s Havana Film Festival, at the Cine Las Americas and the ACE Awards, among others.
“Memories of Overdevelopment” (the sequel to the classic “Memories of Underdevelopment”) is a Cuban film but a Cuban film of a different pedigree. Director, writer and editor Coyula is part of a wave of young, independent filmmakers who came up in the 1990s, when Cuba was suffering its worst economic times and official cultural production had come almost to a halt.
Young artists such as Coyula, 34, restless for their turn to express themselves, turned away from the state and to emerging technologies, such as video and Pro Tools (most not technically legally available on the island to Cubans) to create shorts and the occasional feature via their own means. This allowed them their own art without institutional or ideological interference – infusing the matter of life in Cuba with a fresh and personal perspective.
Still, it takes a lot of chutzpah to decide to film the sequel to what is arguably the island’s most revered and popular film – especially when it’s only your second feature (and especially considering that your first was the $2,000 budget “Red Cockroaches,” a surreal comic book of a movie that has little in common with the new film).
Coyula's move was particularly ballsy – almost sacrilegious, really – because it’s nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of the original “Memories of Underdevelopment” in Latin America and, particularly, in Cuba. The b&w story, frequently mentioned on top ten, top 100, and best of lists of 20th century film, was a pioneering fusion of narrative and documentary footage, a cosmopolitan third world film unafraid and unashamed of its debt to Western film while deeply rooted in a new revolutionary philosophy.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Edmundo Desnoes about an alienated bourgeoisie intellectual during the early years of the Cuban Revolution, the film is arguably Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s most enduring work: an international sensation when released in the magical year of 1968, an epoch-marking classic now. (Most Americans know Alea for “Strawberries & Chocolate” but that’s a “Friends” episode by comparison.) Author Desnoes co-wrote the original film’s script, makes a brief appearance, and allows a self-named minor character to be the object of some ironic commentary by the film’s protagonist, the dissatisfied and blithely beautiful Sergio.
“I first met Edmundo in 2004,” says Coyula, 34. “He told me he’d written the sequel, ‘Memories of Overdevelopment’, and I asked him for the rights right away. The funny thing is, I’d always wanted to do a sequel but didn’t have a clue Edmundo was writing it.”
The sequel, which was eventually published by a small publishing house in Spain, is also highly autobiographical: It follows Desnoes’ alter ego into exile, settling in New York and going through various problematic, often misogynistic, relationships while looking to find meaning in his life now that the revolution has proved a disillusionment. The problem for Sergio, though, is that nothing in his life has ever been as much of a passion to him – or likely ever will – as the Cuban Revolution.
“When I started the script,” says Coyula, who went at it solo, “it hewed very closely to the book. But I don’t work very linearly – I write, film and edit all at the same time, which fragments my view of the story and gives me insight to create new scenes, some of which weren’t in the book.”
In fact, that approach parallels both the original film and its sequel: like memories themselves, one thing sparks another, without regard to chronology.
“The biggest problem for me with Edmund’s new book was that it was about an eighty year-old man and the process of aging,” says Coyula. “But I changed that. In the book, he leaves Cuba in 1979, just like Edmundo, but I needed him to see the 90s, so I made him younger, and I had him leave later. In the original film, Sergio is a petit bourgeoisie who can’t adapt to the revolution. But in my film he’s really a critical person who doesn’t fit anywhere. The debt is more to Dostoevsky and Camus.”
Like the original, “Memories of Overdevelopment” features documentary footage but in a completely different way. Rather than let the newsreel footage stand as iconic or fact, Coyula manipulates, animates and riffs with the images. In addition, the film is filled with collages made by Desnoes, now attributed to Sergio, that deftly note his state of mind, his anxiety and regrets.
“His alienation only works if you understand Sergio’s historical context,” says Coyula.
But, in fact, Coyula manipulates every single scene in the movie, even the most mundane. To prove his point, he sent along a reel, included below, which demonstrates what he did.
“In the end, it’s a very different aesthetic than ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’, in which the fictional elements have more to do with naturalism, with French New Wave or the English Free Cinema,” says Coyula. “In my film, there’s nothing in a pure state. Everything’s a collage.”
Coyula is Cuban by birth, by residence and citizenship, and trained at Cuba’s famed International Film School at San Antonio de los Baños (the one founded by Gabriel García Márquez), but “Memories of Overdevelopment” is shot mostly out of Cuba (in New York, Tokyo and Shanghai, among other locations) and independently financed. The total budget was $50,000, which came mostly from Coyula’s Guggenheim and other grants.
This genesis seems to perplex film festival organizers. At the festival here, it’s correctly listed as a US/Cuba production but only in the US section of the program. At the Latin American Film Festival in Havana – the largest and arguably most prestigious film festival in Latin America – organizers last December were too uncertain to let it compete for honors as a Cuban film. It wound up in a weird category called “Pan-American Panorama.”
At the film’s debut in Havana, during a scene in which Sergio addresses a walking cane with a dog’s head he found on the beach – and to which he has started to talk as if it were Fidel Castro – he says, “Lie to me some more, because your evil ways make happy” which caused the overwhelmingly Cuban audience to stand up and hoot and clap.
“It was a very revelatory moment,” says Coyula, the relatively privileged son of the world-renowned Cuban architect whose name he carries. “It blew my mind, really.”