‘Codigo Color’ at SF Black Film Fest: Cuban doc explores colorism and cultural ignorance on the island
by The Minister of Information JR
The island most intriguing to the imagination of the U.S. currently is the Caribbean nation of Cuba, which fought and won a revolution in 1959 against the U.S. puppet regime of Batista and has since endured the imperialist yoke of an embargo that has been trying to starve the revolutionary islanders into a submission of ideals and resources. Just this year Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit to the island since the time that the revolution took root. His trip symbolized the easing of some of the restriction of the embargo while keeping others in place.
This year at the San Francisco Black Film Festival, “Codigo Color, Memorias” is one of the internationally made jewels that will be exposing the Bay Area to the issue of colorism in Cuba as well as young people’s intellectual laziness on the island when it comes to learning the history of those before them who fought so they could enjoy the luxuries that they have today.
“Codigo Color, Memorias” will screen on Saturday, June 18, 4-6 p.m., at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St. I sat down with the filmmaker, William Sabourin, for an exclusive Q&A about his informative and perfectly timed film. Check him out in his own words.
M.O.I. JR: While living in Cuba, what inspired you to want to become a filmmaker?
William Sabourin: Ever since I was a little boy, I always had a fascination for images, colors and stories. I used to have my own fantasy world, as most kids. Mine, though, manifested into whole cities and landscapes that I would actually draw with my index finger in the air.
I would spend hours doing that crazy stuff. I remember my mom calling me out and asking me to play with real toys. I would pretend for a while but eventually would comeback to my “unfinished piece” and keep working on it.
After starting going to school and getting teased for my drawing habits, I figured I had to do something else. I remember I would gather my friends and I would make up tales and stories then would give everyone lines to learn, rehearse. When I thought it was ready – usually about ten minutes later – we’d perform and record our silly voices on a cassette tape. Then we would all listen to ourselves talking and laughing about our own stories.
It was very amusing to hear our little voices imitating sounds and often impersonating adults and other kids. At the time, it was hard to find an audio cassette recorder in Cuba, but my family was fortunate enough to have one, so I would often get big crowds – kids and adults alike – to listen to the recordings.
The crowds in my mom’s living room grew so large and loud with laughter that she eventually got tired and put an end to it. So I guess that was when I realized that I could entertain and get people’s attention to focus on a story I wanted to tell.
M.O.I. JR: What inspired the making of “Codigo Color, Memorias”?
William Sabourin: Alberto Lescay, a friend, teacher and mentor, approached me in late 2014. He was very frustrated about a conversation he had with his younger son Alejandro, who was 24 at the time. Alejandro and his friends were complaining about racial discrimination they had experienced and seen in Cuba, claiming it was horrible and that something had to be done about that.
His father tried to tell him that, although he recognized that there was still racism in Cuba, it used to be far worse before the revolution, especially in Santiago de Cuba, the city they call home and one of the Blackest in Cuba. After a discussion, Alberto was disturbed to find out his son and friends knew nothing about the history of racial relationships in Cuba before 1959. They’d heard all the slogans – racial discrimination being abolished – and all the rhetoric about Cuba becoming an equalitarian society and so forth but apparently had never heard real anecdotes told by real people who lived in pre-revolution Cuba.
Then Alberto persuaded me to make a film to address the subject. After a little bit of consideration, I agreed and then he decided to get the foundation that he directs to help with the funding for the film. I wrote the script in a couple of months, put a team together and started shooting in April 2015.
M.O.I. JR: Do you fear that the Cuban government will see this film as counter-revolutionary because of its criticism of racism in Cuban culture?
William Sabourin: No, I don’t think so. The film made its world premiere in the International Film Festival in Havana last December and since then has had multiple screenings in events and festivals throughout the Island. On top of it all, just last Saturday, “Codigo” was broadcast in national Cuban TV – on prime time!
It’s no secret Cuba’s government has been known for its censorship of works of art and expressions critical of the state’s agenda and for a lack of tolerance on criticism and dissent. To my immense pleasure, it looks like there is a small opening; an evolution is taking place. The fact that this film is being well received speaks of the absolute need for the conversation to continue and the desire of the Cuban people to have a dialogue about the disturbing racist tendencies most humans manifest.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about the history of Mayor Arnez of Santiago and his effect on Cuban culture and image and his son’s effect on Cuban culture and image with his American TV show?
William Sabourin: The truth is that Desiderio Arnaz remains very irrelevant and forgotten in the memory of most Cubans.
My experience showing the film in Cuba is that almost 100 percent of the audience finds out about Arnaz, his actions and his son’s success in the U.S. for the first time while watching the film.
Part of the explanation is that those Cubans who could afford having a TV set in the ‘50’s when “I Love Lucy” first aired were the upper middle class, and the majority of those people left Cuba for good in the first years after the revolution in 1959. So the Cubans who remained in the island didn’t watch or hear about Desi Arnaz. By the time they had a TV, we didn’t get American TV shows or American nothing for that matter. The cold war was into a full rage mode.
M.O.I. JR: Why did “Codigo Color, Memorias” see it as a problem that the youth of Cuba are not into their history? In your opinion, what does that spell for the future of Cuba?
William Sabourin: Young people in Cuba are not really that different from young people in any other country. They have just tuned deaf to 58 years of the same voice and the same message. They don’t want to hear the same rhetoric and speech about how bad it was decades before they were born and how grateful they should be now that things are much better.
No, they want and expect more. Internet access, instant access to music, social media and latest technology is what they dream of, and they don’t have that. So for the most part they have become indifferent to politics, ideology and even history.
It worries me to see that, of course, especially the history part, and that’s the main reason I made the movie with such an unusual visual style, narrative and sound design. I wanted to connect to the youngsters out there right away. I knew making a “traditional” historical documentary on race with the same “visual and narrative codes” wouldn’t stand a chance; I knew kids in Cuba would not watch it.
I wanted them to not lose interest in the history lesson and to learn a couple of things in 31 minutes. I took a gamble with the style I presented. Incredibly, I think it has worked.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell the history that is contained in the film about how one of Batista’s Black officers could have captured Fidel and his whole July 26th movement, but let them go?
William Sabourin: Sarria Tartabu was a Black officer who, ironically, had been promoted by Batista when he implemented the tactic to Blacken his army. He wanted more and more Blacks to participate in the extermination of the mostly white upperclass revolutionary movement led by Castro.
After Castro and a group of his men were captured following a failed attack on Batista’s second military fortress, one of Sarria’s soldiers put a gun to Fidel’s head ready to execute him. Indeed, that was the modus operandi at the time: If you got caught, you got executed, sometimes tortured first, then executed. It was well known, and of course many revolutionaries, if caught, preferred to be executed right away.
Apparently Sarria felt differently about Batista’s orders and stopped his soldier from executing Fidel and his mates. Allegedly he calmly said: “Don’t shoot! You can’t kill ideas!” Later that day, instead of taking prisoner Castro to the Garrison – where the torture was for sure awaiting – he took him instead, against his boss’s orders, to a place similar to a townhall, where all the national and international journalists were present, reporting and covering the bloody events of the days.
Once the journalists saw the men arrive, they took pictures of the prisoners and published them in newspapers. Batista knew he could not torture or execute Castro, thus Fidel Castro went to trial and eventually to forced exile in Mexico in ‘56.
Three years later, when Castro and his rebel army won, Sarria joined Fidel’s side and became part of his earliest elite secret service squad.
M.O.I. JR: How were Blacks generally viewed during the start of the Cuban Revolution?
William Sabourin: It’s a difficult question to answer, I guess it depends on what side you are asking about. The white rich Cubans that left for South Florida early on saw Blacks in Cuba as a bunch of indoctrinated Communist ignorant bastards who were supporting a crazy murderer and they were eventually going to pay a price for that.
Then there were white Cubans who decided to stay in the island, by far the majority. They bought into Castro’s experiment and supported his dream for an equal society, free of gambling, vice, racism, illiteracy and poverty. So, despite having racial prejudices against Blacks, fomented by years of slavery, colonialism and inequality, these white Cubans were willing to start anew, following Castro’s persuasive message and undisputed leadership. Apparently just the willingness wasn’t enough.
M.O.I. JR: Do you think that Cuba’s lack and the Caribbean’s lack of a “Black is Beautiful Black Power Movement” has contributed negatively or positively to the self-esteem of Blacks on the island? Why or why not?
William Sabourin: Thankfully, the Black Beauty Movement has started to get some traction in Cuba, especially in the big cities. Hopefully with the opening of relations, more Black brothers and sisters from the U.S. get the chance to visit Cuba and exchange experience that undoubtedly will benefit and spiritually enrich both sides.
M.O.I. JR: What do you want people to get out of this film?
William Sabourin: I just want people to watch and feel – then listen and listen and then talk.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’“ and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2“ and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe“ and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.