In Conversation with Jorge Yglesias

 

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Jorge Yglesias is a poet, writer, literary translator, film critic, and a much loved friend. He’s the head of the Chair of Humanities and professor of Film History and Aesthetics of Documentary in the International School of Cinema and TV (EICTV) of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. He was awarded the National Prize for Film Criticism (1998, 1999, 2003), the National Prize for Literary Translation (1998), the Unesco Prize for the Best Translation of Pushkin (1999), the Austrian Literary Translation Prize (2000), and the Literary Translation Prize of the College International des Traducteurs Littéraires de Arles (2002).

In this podcast, which is in Spanish, we talk specifically about his development as a cinephile and his work as a teacher at EICTV. THE EICTV does not offer a film studies degree. Its role is to develop professional filmmakers. So, how and why does he choose the films to be screened? What kinds of film cultures does he defend and try to propagate? His programming for the annual ´Rare and Damned´cycle of screenings has become legendary. How did that develop and what is the rationale behind his choices. All that and more is the subject of this conversation, in Spanish.

For those of you who don´t speak Spanish, I´ve translated the bulk of the conversation as follows:

Jorge Yglesias did not take to the cinema immediately. The first few times, he had to be taken out crying. The violence scared him or made him cry. It was only at the age of ten, at the beginning of the sixties, that he became captivated,  and he remembers screenings of  a Tarzan film and Huckleberry film with pleasure. He loved action/adventure. Later, as a teenager, when he began to be interested in culture more broadly, he discovered another cinema. He attempted to learn, with friends, began to read some books and started going to the Cuban Cinematheque in Havana.

 

The cinematheque then screened lots of silent films. There were even films from the first two decades of cinema. He went every day. In the context of its resources, it was a superb programme. He was  lucky in that, a year after he started attending,  they undertook a two-year cycle, programming a history of cinema from Meliès to Godard. They´ve never repeated it since. But for him it was a chance to see classic films in chronological order. And the basis of his knowledge of cinema started there.

 

It was a type of learning that was individual and collective. Dozens of people  got to know each other, others he only knew by sight. But they formed a clan. They thought of the cinematheque not only as a place to develop a hobby but as a kind of  temple. And they also passed around copies of books by Bazin, Sarris, Lotte Eisner. There weren´t many books.  Certain magazines started circulating. His formation started there. And, always very important, the basis of knowledge, was an interchange of ideas, interpretations, even basic information, amongst the friends he made at the Cinematheque and beyond.

 

Alongst with visits to the Cinematheque, Yglesias started writing, translating, listening to Classical music, all of that forms a conjunction of elements in his development. He began writing late. Firstly he wrote a few things to read amongst friends; then,  after the age of thirty, he published film criticism in Revoluccion y cultura, eventually being given his own weekly column. But that didn´t last long. He hasn´t written much on film. He would have liked to have had time only for that. But, he says, he only likes writing about things he likes. If he´s bored, he gets blocked and traumatised. What he´s too modest to mention, but which is stated above, is that he nonetheless won the National Prize for Film Criticism three times.

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In the late 80s and early 90s Yglesias started attending the Film Conferences at  Camaguay, where he began meeting many other  writers on film. One day,  at  EICTV, which he had visited a few times earlier to take out the odd film or see friends he met with Jorge Molina, head of what was then named the cultural section of EICTV, who organised and taught classes on the history of cinema, Latin American Cinema, etc. They were waiting for a professor who was going to arrive late and Molina offered the classes to him. The professor in fact never arrived so Yglesias stayed. He ended up giving  classes for various month, part time. His situation remained like that for two years. The school is a practical filmmaking school. But he started a branch of theory, he started giving classes on film history. Four or five years later. They offered him the post as Head of the Humanities section of the school, where he´s now been for almost twenty years, teaching History, Criticism, Theory.

 

He had little to no experience teaching. He had to learn. He aimed to find a way of teaching that could be attractive but very rigorous. He began trying to expand and understand with greater depth some filmmakers, some cinemas and also in some sectors that are not so visible. There are many any parallel lines in film history that don´t cross each other. He begins to be interested in that cinema that isn´t a commercial cinema. One characterised by its creators constructing something distinct in terms of style or a cinematic world. With this in mind, he begins programming his ´Raro y Maldito´/Rare and Damned’ cycle. The first film he programmed was Werner Herzong´s  Even Dwarves started Small,  very anguished view of the world. The cycle became very popular. He began creening films not too well known in Cuba such as Bella Tarr´s or that of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer.

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He basically screens the type of cinema that most interests him, that he defends, one that makes demands on the viewer. He says that even students who want to go into commercial cinema will benefit, and he tells of a screening of Natural Born Killer (Oliver Stone, USA, 1994) where an American teacher leading a workshop at EICTV said, ´if you know experimental cinema you will recognise these two elements´´that are used to resolved a narrative problem. It´s a tool. Musn´t be disdained. One must know it. Documentary Film Students get a workshop on experimental cinema. And this takes place during the Havana Film Festival and most students prefer to forego it and  attend the workshop. Yglesias sees himself as a bridge to ideas and chooses to programme films that offer a life experience to spectators as well as students.

 

I ask him what he considers essential for students learn. He begins with his own experience. A film like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941). He knew it was one of the most important films in film history, he liked the story. But he didn´t really understand why it was so important. If you don’t know film history, if you have´t read on narrative, form, style, then you don´t know´,´he says.. It was a cinephile, a little older than he, who explained it to him. You always need someone to explain things to you. He recounts the experience of watching Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1959) for the first time. There were cine-clubs everywhere then, even in factories, and he ended up travelling quite far in order to see it. But he thought Imitation ridiculous. How do you know that Douglas Sirk is who he is without someone showing you? What are the tools, the key?. It´s important that someone be a guide. It might not be essential but it certainly quickens understanding. Expressionism, the Swedes, Silent cinema, that was a very useful base, a path. ´I´ve tried doing a history without chronology but I´ve never quite cracked it,´he says..

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His programming choices are highly deliberate, and he often spend hours discussing what to show. Screening a  film for educational purposes is different than to merely screen commercially or even to screen for a cinematheque. Student are in a process of discovery, and are often less prepared than even  a cinematheque´s audience. He likes to show films like Resnais´Providence (France, 1977) or Last Year at Marienbad (France, 1961) as a way of discussing memory, time, imagination. Students come with other experiences of seeing, often not the most beneficial, lots of series, and they´re often captives of those experiences, He likes going from a classic to contemporary. But what is a classic now? Those things have changed from the time he started. Antonioni is now a classic.  Films from the nineties. That form of categorising changes a lot.  Yglesias also likes to programme  the films most discussed the previous year. ´We´re very lucky in the school to have access to them and often able to screen them before they´re officially released.

 

´My impression is that there are fewer places today where a programme that could serve as a teaching tool that reflects film history exist. There are not too many spaces for showing or for writing. Often, even the journalism is very poor, Cuban journalism at the moment is poor, it´s harder to achieve a formation now than when I was a teenager. The cinematheque isn´t what it was, the audience has changed. It´s difficult to create spaces and nourish audiences. We´re living through a  transitional moment with lots of problems. The school is different: the best cinema in the world is exhibited here, and I´m proud of it. Students have won prizes in Rotterdam and so on and they ask for their film to be exhibited here, and of course we do it.´ It´s an honour for me to show the film here,´ say students. Yglesias, modest as he is, is very proud of that.

‘Over the years, this programming accumulates  a weight, is acknowledged. A program like this would be of great value if it could be shown elsewhere in Cuba’.

´One doesn´t do something just to do it. One does it because it has sense and purpose. There´s a desired effect. ´Rarors y malditos´/ Rare and Damned’ screens only once every two weeks but has had  a huge impact. For me it was a test in how a complex cinema, not easy, could fill the auditorium’.

‘Students want the films to hook them. The film didn´t hook me, they say. But you can´t wait to be seduced by the film. You have to force yourself to participate, to engage with it. You have to hook it. I´m not saying that film is a punishment. But you have to learn. You haven´t been forced to be here. This is not a labour camp. You chose to be here, you applied, you were selected, you have to synchronise yourself to the culture. ´

A much shorter conversation than I would have liked,

José Arroyo

 

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