Santiago, Rebeca and Iván during filming. Photo: Rebeca Chávez

His small office is full of memories. Marked books, many photos, film cans, some with rusty covers; but what stands out is a hand grenade with its pin on the table as if waiting for an order, and a small sign with no other aim than to provoke, I read it every day as if it were the first time: “If you shut the door to all errors, truth will be shut out.” Tagore.
With that forced contrivance I intended to conduct an interview. Take notes and record. Santiago Álvarez wrecked the project in the first ten minutes. My first question took him along thousands of paths, trails, twists and turns of his memory... I let him navigate through that sea of memories and photos, such that over many afternoons we met to review the text that I was composing; a succession of images and sounds occupied that office on the third floor of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). In 1986, he was 67 years old, 27 of which devoted to film, 84 films, equivalent to two years in the production of ICAIC documentaries, 34 first international prizes. To offer just a few numbers.
“I was 40 when I started making movies. I was surprised when I made the news bulletin dedicated to Benny Moré when he died in 1963. For the first time, I saw the transfer of my sentiments and I felt that the language of cinema served me to express my emotions. I used his music with a narrative and montage intention, which I had never done before. I fixed some means or resources of the language, discovered values of the soundtrack, I realized that not only the image is important, I started to combine editing, I achieved new associations… I felt that there was something new, different, a turning point and I did it with great passion, with emotion. Emotions are not in the heart as many think. Emotions are in the brain. Reasoning without emotion is to lose emotiveness. We Cubans are emotional. To be moved is passion, and if there is no passion or emotion, can there be effective reasoning?”
How and why did Santiago Álvarez arrive at the Noticiero (news bulletin)? That question was lacking. It was there where he managed to gather all his concerns into one: documentary film. Perhaps it was that news bulletin on Benny that marked a new stage, leaving behind the weekly laboratory of Noticiero ICAIC, allowing him to practice, seek, experiment, form a very diverse creative group that placed him at the forefront of Cuban cinema.
Santiago spurned the immediacy of the news, what he sought and achieved was to link in an unprecedented and emotional way drama, politics, journalism, using all the narrative resources he knew and integrated into that discourse. After the Noticiero on Benny, he felt that he needed to adapt, to immerse himself not only in Cuban political conflicts, to unravel human behavior and its historical contexts.
An example? “Hanoi, Tuesday 13 (1967). Over two afternoons, Iván filmed under the bombs, then in the editing room I included Martí’s texts. It was my first film about Vietnam. I found an intersecting line between us. We filmed that war: 14 trips and 11 documentaries. The wisdom and incredible imagination of the Vietnamese fighters defeated the Yankees.”
His creativity was triggered by an event, a news item, a foothold: having a title (the word “Now!” and the final shots form the same idea), finding continuity. José Martí is present in El primer delegado, La guerra necesaria, De América soy hijo, Mi hermano Fidel, in all of them the proposal is visible: do not forget that nothing is isolated. He felt the active commitment, assumed the permanent condemnation, for example, of the aggressive and devastating policy of the Yankees. What is Now? (1965). He proposes that we associate those attacking Indochina with those responsible for racial discrimination, who kill Black Americans. A sort of carpe diem was revealed to him and he set it in motion. For him, nothing was isolated.
Two years later (1969) he was submerged in another war: the cane fields of Cuba’s Oriente region. The battle for the 10 million ton harvest had begun. A succession of long shots shows hundreds of men (like a new charge), machete in hand, attacking the cane fields... and in the midst of this sui generis battle scene, he placed the music of the órgano oriental (mechanical organ)! In that atmosphere of multiple confrontations, he told me: “I was filming Despegue a las 18 (...) when there were meetings, checks between leaders of various levels and journalists (...), criticisms and different positions emerged. During those days – to fix a moment – I began to become aware of the discrepancies between the roles of journalists and officials. The latter sometimes believe themselves to be all-powerful, they use their power to prevent errors that they are responsible for from being reported (...). It will be a difficult struggle; we had to be tenacious because the problems are complex.
“After that, the Noticiero bulletins that dealt with aspects of the Cuban reality of each moment began to take shape, where there were things done wrong and they made excuses. They came to see us and we argued with a lot of people. We didn’t always come out unscathed.” (…) The cultural influence and the attacks of the northern neighbor have not stopped; that forced us for years into a defensive position, which responded to the need to spread the image of the Revolution because nobody was going to do it for us. I’m not going to reveal secrets, this need went on for too long, at times becoming triumphalism. However, the situation in many aspects has been changing, other factors have also influenced. Even the technological advancement is an element that makes one meditate and change conceptions and policies.”
(Note: At that time, the digital age had not exploded, it was only in Santiago’s limitless imagination that he foresaw what we are now experiencing).
“The critics of criticism emerged at that time (...). They still maintain that criticism or denunciation of a wrong is an attack on socialism, on the Revolution (...), we have fallen into that trap and this virus can cause local epidemics, this virus sickens a work environment. It is a malignant virus, it mutates and shifts according to cases and means. Its origin and family is that of the chameleons, and it is responsible for that virosis that we suffer: that the criticism of any activity is to play with the enemy, to coincide with the enemy.
“The role of film and journalism is not to resolve problems that arise, but to contribute to knowledge of them, to help clarify and reflect. (...) It is dangerous to mistake roles, because it is an excuse to evade responsibilities.
“I say with pride that Cuban cinema has a tradition of criticism, of addressing issues of reality, and doing so critically or apologetically. We wanted to delve into reality and its complexity. Titón made La muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat) at the time of the first war against bureaucracy. That movie maintains all its political and artistic relevance now.
“Manuel Octavio Gómez made Ustedes tienen la palabra in the 70s, which showed what happened when there were no controls or demands. (...) That shows me that the problems detected are not solved because one writes a thousand articles or makes a thousand movies or newscasts. An article, a film, condemns, helps, mobilizes, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”
Intuition was his best weapon, he used it as a filter-detector of information, data or complex situations, and did so with such clairvoyance that sometimes they appear to me as revelations from who-knows-where, because he was not given to theorizing, he acted, and if it were necessary, he attacked, always head-on, directly, beyond bias. One day I read some of Dziga Vertov’s definitions, with whom I compared him, and he replied: “True. I could have said that.”
“The intellectual activity of a filmmaker is in his brain and is expressed in his constant exchange of ideas. Age is not what will determine the quality of my future work, but my inner vitality, my desire to create and my projects. To retire from intellectual activity would be to stop thinking and resign myself to an early grave. I’m not up for that.
“I was born in the Callejón de Espada, number 8A, on March 8, 1919.”
I met him at work, in the day-to-day, after so many years I think that Santiago wanted to be, and was, a storyteller across time, emphasizing the dramatic possibilities that the documentary offered him, to approach the truth in everything said by his protagonists in front of the camera. That was what mattered most to him. It was a joy to learn to fly with him.