Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reinaldo Arenas and "Before Night Falls"

I was browsing Netflix when I came across this 2000 film, directed by Schnabel, based on Arenas' autobiography of the same name. Reinaldo Arenas, according to the blurb, was a "famed Cuban poet and novelist." The blurb continues, "[a]lthough vilified for his homosexuality in Fidel Castro's Cuba, Arenas finds success as a writer but must eventually emigrate to New York City to enjoy unfettered creative freedom."

The formula should have alerted me to the film's potential bias, but, not knowing much about Cuba, let alone the gay situation in it, any alarm bells would have been stilled by my desire to be absorbed in the movie, to abandon myself to its powers.

The movie makes much of anti-gay persecution in the form of political trials and forced confessions, labor camps, and incarceration. The harrowing scenes are reminiscent of similar ones played out in Soviet USSR, facist Germany and Maoist China. Arenas is depicted as a noble, and finally tragic, spirit who fought against oppression by insisting on his sexual and artistic freedom.

I have to confess that this standard script has a tremendous power to move me. And it did so, in "Before Night Falls," but throughout the film, I was also dissatisfied by its shapelessness despite the conventional narrative arc. The episodes do not have cumulative power. Minor characters enter and exit the film (Johnny Depp appears as both a transvestite inmate and as a warden who forces Arenas to suck his .45). Arenas remains a cipher; idealism, lust, fear and righteous anger do not a character make. There is insufficient darkness to make him believable.

Curious about the man, I read his bio at Wiki. Then found this long essay by Jon Hillson, written as a response to what he perceives as the film's distortions of the truth. According to the bio at the end of the essay, Jon Hillson (1949-2004) was a Los Angeles union and political activist, and a staunch supporter of the Cuban revolution. His poems were published in more than two dozen journals in the country.

In his essay, Hillson argues that the film is of a piece with right-wing and liberal attacks on revolutionary Cuba. It does not show the exploitation of the Batista regime which Castro overthrew, but romanticizes rural poverty as a source of Arenas' creative freedom. It does not show any of the country's achievements in human rights, especially women's rights, but homes in on the abuses. And central to Hillson's argument is the idea that the anti-gay campaign was of a historical moment, the 1960's, from which the country has moved away since. So what is portrayed in the film as the essence of Castro's regime is, according to Hillman, a bad mistake now rectified by a better understanding of homosexuality and revolutionary principles.

And he offers the following facts as proof:

--In 1975, the Cuban Supreme Court overturned Resolution Number 3 of the Council of Culture, predecessor of the Ministry of Culture. This rule had been used to implement the anti-gay declarations of the 1971 cultural congress, setting "parameters" limiting employment of homosexuals in the arts and education.

--Also in 1975, after extensive popular debate and discussion, Cuba adopted its Family Code. Among other wide-ranging changes, it called for equal sharing of child-care and other domestic responsibilities by men and women, further institutionalizing female equality as a goal of the new society

--In 1979, the new Cuban penal code decriminalized homosexuality.

--In 1981, In Defense of Love, by Dr. Sigfried Schnabl, became a bestseller in Cuba, due to its frank and honest treatment of human sexuality. Homosexuality, Schnabl wrote, "is not a sickness, but a variant of human sexuality"....Soon afterwards, Cuba's Ministry of Culture republished Schnabl's popular Man and Woman in Intimacy, which devoted an entire chapter to homosexuality.

--In 1987, a new police directive forbade harassment of people based on appearance or clothing, which had been carried out under statutes against "ostentatious" behavior.

--In 1992, Fidel Castro responded to several questions on sexual issues posed by former Sandinista Nicaraguan government official Tomás Borge in A Grain of Corn. The volume, which covers a range of topics, was published in Havana. Like many books in Cuba, this work enjoyed brief and brisk sales, then became unavailable. Castro's remarks are even less well known outside of Cuba. They are worth quoting at length.

"You speak about sexual discrimination," the Cuban leader responded to a question by Borge. "I told you that we have eliminated sexual discrimination. More precisely, I could say that we have done everything that a government can do, that a State can do, to eradicate sexual discrimination against women.

"We could refer to a long struggle, that has been successful, that has had many great results, in the area of discrimination against women. There is still a lot of machismo in our people, I believe it's at a level that is lower that anywhere in Latin America, but there is machismo. This has formed part of what is the idiosyncrasy of our people over centuries and it has many origins, going back to the Arab influence in Spain as well as the influences of the Spaniards, because we got our machismo from the Conquistadors, just as we received other bad habits.

"It was an historical inheritance. In some countries more than in others, but in none was there more struggle than in ours and I believe that in none have there been more tangible and practical successes. This is true, something we can see, that can still be seen, and above all, can be seen in the youth. But we cannot say that there has been a total and absolute elimination of sexual discrimination, nor can we drop our guard. We have to continue struggling in this sense, because it's a historical ancestral legacy against which there has been much struggle; there have been advances and there have been results, but we must continue to struggle.

"I'm not going to deny that, at a certain point, this machista thing, influenced the approach that was taken toward homosexuality. I personally -- you are asking me my personal opinion -- do not suffer from this type of phobia against homosexuals. Truly, in my mind, that's never been there and I have never been in favor nor have I promoted it, nor have I supported it, policies against homosexuals. This is due to, I would say, a certain period and it is very due to the legacy, that thing of machismo. I try to have a more human explanation, a more scientific explanation of the problem. On many occasions this has become a tragedy, because you have to see how the parents think, there are parents who have a homosexual child, and it becomes a tragedy to them, and you can't help but feel sorry that such a thing happens and that it becomes a tragedy for the individual.

"I don't see homosexuality as a phenomenon of degeneration, but rather I see it in another way. The approach has been of another sort: a more rational approach, considering the tendencies and natural things of the human being, who simply must be respected. This is the philosophy with which I view these problems. I think that there has to be consideration shown toward the family that suffers these situations. I would hope that the families would have another mentality, that they would have another approach when something of this sort happens. I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, disdain, contempt or discrimination with respect to homosexuals. That's what I think."

Two things impress me about this speech. First, Castro acknowledges the powers and the limits of what a government can do to effect social change, an acknowledgement that does not defend the status quo but seeks to advance greater justice. Second, Castro shows human empathy for parents struggling with having a gay child, though they have no rational basis for their negative feelings; emotions cannot be explained away by reasoning.

I really don't know enough about Cuba to weigh Hillson's argument, and the value of his factual proofs. At the very least, the experience of reading his essay has shown me another way of thinking about immigrant and gay narratives.


Greg said...

Very interesting post Jee Leong - thank you. I appreciate your challenge to received ways of thinking about Cuba, & the challenge to consider how accusations of homophobia, and (perhaps) projections of homophobia away from the US in popular representations of South America & Central America, have contributed the distorted image of Cuba that's been in my mind. I wonder whether my images of other countries have been similarly distorted because of reports & stories related to their treatment of lgbt people.

Jee Leong Koh said...

At Sarah Lawrence College, I worked with a Cuban woman who hated Castro because he confiscated her family property. I am definitely more interested in visiting Cuba than before. Perhaps some day.

Anonymous said...

jee- very nice review! good job, man. i'm at work, not doign my work, but looking at yer blogg. anyway, good talking with you yesterday.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Jason. Looking forward to seeing you in Oct.

Anonymous said...

jee- i didnt know depp was in it 2 times? penn drove the donkey cart that took renoldo into the city.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Jason, yes, Depp was in it twice, both times in sexually provocative roles: a cross-dresser, and the warden who makes Reynaldo lick.

Anonymous said...