Gay Cuba: Sonja de Vries’ Documentary

(Docu color 16mm)

Outfest, L.A., August 14, 1996–According to Sonja de Vries’ new documentary, Gay Cuba, a rather short and a bit superficial film, there has been a substantial improvement in human rights for gays and lesbians in Cuba of the l990s. Composed of interviews with a dozen or so homosexuals, docu’s new angle is its more overt discussion of lesbians, as previous films have mostly focused on men. Playing at the Nuart in a two-day engagement, Gay Cuba should get exposure in film festivals and other venues for non-fictional works.

For decades, homosexuality was regarded in Cuba, a country still dominated by machismo culture, as a “sickness and moral abhoration.” Men whose “deviant” sexuality was disclosed not only lost their jobs but were often sent to rehabilitation camps. Rigid laws encouraged police raids of gay gathering places (such as public beaches) and discriminatory treatment by the society at large. A hairdresser-drag queen recalls how he was arrested and thrown into jail in the l970s.

Things began to change for the better in the late l980s and especially in the l990s. Interviewees, both gay and straight, talk about the movie Strawberries and Chocolate (l994) as a breakthrough experience that went beyond being a popular film. At present, there are no sodomy laws in Cuba–the only criminal violations regarding sex are those involving violence and coercion.

The National Center for Sex Education was apparently instrumental in propagating the idea that a deeper cultural transformation in the areas of gender and sexual orientation was needed to fully implement Castro’s socialist revolution. Docu includes interviews with officials of the military and the political party who express benevolent views toward homosexuality, claiming that gays could be effective union leaders and revolutionaries.

In more than a few moments, Gay Cuba comes across as a bit shallow, agenda-driven docu, one that goes out of its way to present a more positive portrait of gay life in Cuba. Indeed, as is always the case of documentaries, this film raises the issues of validity and selectivity. The interviewees, many of them women, belong to a younger generation of homosexuals, all reporting of greater acceptance of their lifestyle; there are hardly any dissenting views on display.

Lacking thematic focus and visual shapeliness, Gay Cuba gives the impression that it was made rather quickly by an outsider. But the picture that it paints is so hopeful, compared to Improper Conduct (l983) and Nobody Listened (l988), Nestor Almendros’ landmark docus on oppression and human-rights violations in Cuba, that one wants to believe its evidence is truly reflecting a new era for gays and lesbians under the old Castro regime.