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Rough Cut: Cuba: The Art Revolution
Interview With the Filmmaker

Natasha Del Toro talks about what sets Cuban art and artists apart and some of the difficulties of filming in Castro's Cuba.

How did you first come across Los Carpinteros and what did you make of their work?
I met Dago [Rodriguez] in the winter of 2004 while he was doing an art residency in Tampa. He was charming, handsome, well dressed and wildly talented. He was creating quite a stir in the art scene in Tampa. I started to do some research on Los Carpinteros -- Marco [Castillo] and Dago. These guys came from very humble backgrounds. They were trained in the best art schools. They had adopted the blue-collar moniker their classmates assigned them -- Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) -- because of their wood and craftwork. They were so poor that they had to use recycled and found materials. But they created this conceptual, ironic art loaded with political overtones. I remember seeing one of their pieces, this absurdly large wooden structure with drawers. It's called "Jewelry Box." Marco once told me during an interview that he is fascinated by how the pursuit of wealth and fine things has been a major cause of violence in history. It sheds a new light on the work.

Natasha Del Toro.

Reporter, Natasha Del Toro.

What do you think sets Cuban art apart?
A number of things, really. First, the political situation in Cuba forces artists to come up with subtle ways to critique the system. Because of censorship, they must be very clever in their approach. A curator once joked that skirting government censors in Cuba provided far better training than any top-notch M.F.A. program. The result is highly sophisticated work that is often imbued with veiled political meanings. Second, Cuban artists make exceptional Cuban art because of their education. From the time they are young, Cubans with artistic talent are handpicked and sent to extremely rigorous schools that are fully subsidized by the Cuban government. Only the best make it to graduation. But even those who don't make it through get a solid -- and free -- art education along the way, which is probably why you find such good street art in Cuba. Third, although there are great artists throughout Latin America, the travel embargo makes Cuban art scarce and consequently more exotic. This drives up demand -- at least for Americans.

Los Carpinteros installation.

Los Carpinteros' installation.

What made you decide to do this particular story?
I went to Cuba for the first time in 2003, and it was impossible to miss how art permeates society. You can even see it in the rhythmic way people walk along the Malecon. I wanted to figure out if it was something innate in the culture. Cubans also just spend their time differently. They only get four television channels, which show either art programs or Fidel Castro giving five-hour speeches. And they don't have techie toys like Nintendo Gameboys or I-Pods. The arts are a major way of passing the time.

Despite the socialist system Castro has imposed, has a kind of elite society developed around the more successful artists?
On the business side of the arts, there is definitely an economic discrepancy between artists and other people on the island. Artists invite foreigners into their homes and sell work privately, often earning more with just one painting than most Cubans earn in a year. The average Cuban simply does not have access to disposable income.

Cuba is off limits to most Americans. What sort of hoops did you have to go through to film there?
To go legally, I had to get freelance journalist licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department for myself and my cameraman. This can take a couple of months, so you have to leave yourself plenty of time before your trip. I got notice that my license had been approved only two days before I traveled.

Dagoberto Rodriguez.

Los Carpinteros artist, Dagoberto Rodriguez.

When I arrived in Cuba, I found out that I also needed a journalist's license from the Cuban government, which is also a lot of paperwork and time. Fortunately, I did most of the interviews and shooting on my tourist visa. Even with a journalist's visa, you don't necessarily get free access. And you may be followed. The Cubans really mistrust U.S. journalists. And the First Amendment does not apply in Cuba.

Were people open and willing to talk to you?
Yes and no. There are lots of cultural sensitivities around reporting in Cuba. Certain words can literally shut down a conversation. When I was asking about the opening up of the art market, it was far better to ask about "commercialization" of art rather than budding "capitalism." Also, the word "communism" is a harsh one for most Cubans to hear. They'd rather you refer to their system as socialism.

After more than four decades of censorship and a repressive government, Cubans have learned to communicate in a sort of code, with expressions and gestures referring to "El Comandante." Self-censorship is a big problem there and has been one of the most effective tools for keeping Castro in power for so long. Many people were willing to talk, but they grew visibly uncomfortable when I turned on the camera. They'd immediately soften their position from the one they'd held minutes earlier.

Marco Castillo.

Los Carpinteros artist, Marco Castillo.

Los Carpinteros have gained international acclaim. Do they have any idea what Castro thinks of their art?
I don't know if they have ever dealt with Castro directly. I am sure Castro would be extremely proud of them. Even if their work critiques the system, they are a great example of what the revolution has produced.

I noticed there were no female Cuban artists represented in your film. Is there a reason for that?
There is a wonderful pool of women artists from Cuba -- Elsa Mora, Tania Bruguera, Liset Castillo, Lidzie Alvisa and many others. Some have moved to the United States or other places and travel back when they can. I didn't focus on them for this documentary, but I think it would be very interesting to do a piece about them, as they've also had huge success on the international art market.

Is it possible to live in Florida and not have an opinion about Cuba?
Not everyone in Florida cares about Cuba. Passions run high mostly in south Florida and Tampa Bay, where Cubans settled to create a cigar industry long before Miami served its first cafe con leche. But you would be surprised. Many second- and third-generation Cuban Americans don't share the same feelings or experiences of their grandparents or parents. Many of them just want to go back and visit the island and reconnect with their culture and their relatives. But the Cuba problem lies more in electoral politics. A small constituency of influential anti-Castro residents -- people who fled Cuba after Castro took over in 1959 -- are the ones who largely determine policy against Cuba.

Tourists surrounded by colorful canvases.

Tourists shop at the art market in Havana.

How do you think Cuba will look 10 years from now?
I've asked this question of many people. And whether they live on the island or off, no one can hazard a guess because no one has a firm handle on what the political situation will be tomorrow, much less in 10 years. I wish more Americans could visit Cuba. But it would be sad if the island were to become overrun with McDonald's, Starbucks and other chain stores. If the island does become capitalist, I think artists in Cuba may find themselves on par with other artists in Latin America. I think that's one reason why artists say they are trying to make good universal art that will outlast politics. But the political situation is part of what makes Cuban art so different.

I can only hope the Cuban government will continue to subsidize art education. But if you listen to some art critics, the effects of the market have already diluted some of the art because artists have started creating work for certain tastes. Whatever happens, I believe changes will come more slowly than many Americans think. Maybe it will take a full generation after Castro to really notice a difference in the arts and in the society in general.