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“CALLE CERO”

“CALLE CERO”


“Si, ciento diez es aquí.”
I try recalling the tone of Alea’s voice on the phone when he gave me this address. No residue of mocking there that I can remember, no elusive mischief come in handy to dissuade filmmakers bearing compliments from abroad. I can only recall his friendly tone and the appointment we had made for one.

“I live in a two story house, by the way, with our part upstairs.”
I have a sick feeling as I scan this neighborhood of mostly two-story houses. The prospect of molesting Habanians during the lunch hour for directions is not a thrilling option at this point. The driver grows impatient looking for a house that clearly doesn’t exist. I pay him the three-dollar fare.

The scarred white box I’ve hauled from California to Miami to Havana to Santiago and back to Havana digs deep into my shoulder as I watch his Fiat haul ass back towards Quinta Avenida. This could be the end of my hopes of meeting the most internationally celebrated of Cuba’s many fine film directors.

If you stand in the middle of Calle Cero as I am now, you will see an eerily quiet neighborhood. Though densely packed with houses, there are very few people about. It is mid-day and hot, a time to seek the shelter of rooms cooled by tree cover, if you’re lucky, and many different-sized electric fans going at once. This part of Miramar bears with pride the telltale imprint of this city’s momentous place in history. Ending at the shoreline of the Caleta de San Lázaro, Calle Cero retains a faded middle-class tranquility of decades long gone by.

I look around for an open face to bail me out here. A tall man walks a wiry black dog, shakes his head at my rudimentary query. 

“Dónde está la casa del Señor Tomás Gutiérrez Alea?”
Another man on a balcony ignores me altogether. All at once a man emerges from behind a section of rusted fence. He’s carrying an armload of huge dead banana leaves, nods vigorously when I ask him for Señor Alea’s house. He points me directly across the street from where I’ve been standing all this time. 

“Se acabó aquí!”
The house is black and white, with the most manicured shrubbery on the block, and the number 105 prominently displayed on the front wall. Moving through a wrought-iron gate, I head up the glossy painted stairs, come face to face with a startled housekeeper mopping the foyer. 

“Disculpe, señora. Mi nombre es Lorenzo DeStefano. Yo tengo una cita con Señor Alea. Está aqui?” 
She smiles at the tongue-tied visitor. 

“El Señor Alea no está. Pero, pase, por favor.”
The housekeeper walks ahead, motions towards a table. I set the heavy box down. She leads me towards a veranda shaded by a massive rubber tree and some plumeria. The scent of this flower, as seductive and plentiful in Cuba as in my native Hawai’i, is the latest of the many sensorial links I’ve been experiencing on this, my first trip to this compelling island. The housekeeper returns to la cocina. I sit at a small table, a clear view of the home’s interior before me.

The living room is immaculate but well lived-in. I notice some very fine abstract paintings and a modernist floor sculpture made of mother of pearl. Family photographs hang on the walls behind smoky convex glass. A caustic breeze lacerates the dwelling from front to back, strangely uncooled by its proximity to the Straits of Florida.

I hear a man’s voice, look towards the front door. All I see is the latter half of someone who’s already entered. I hear him speaking in the kitchen with the housekeeper, the sound of packages being turned over to her. Emerging from another door, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea smiles as he approaches the veranda, his hand outstretched.

“Mr. Lorenzo, hello.” 
His accent is as genteel as his appearance. I stand as he approaches.

“A great pleasure to meet you, Señor Alea.” 
He pulls up a chair beside me. He is a dignified and strikingly handsome man in his mid-sixties. His hair is gray and close-cropped. His khaki slacks and white cotton shirt are neatly pressed despite the stifling heat. His black Reeboks float in their own shadows on the polished tile floor, make him look frail in the intense fragmented light. During the slightly awkward silence that often accompanies first meetings, Mirtha Ibarra enters from another room. Her smile as welcoming as her husband’s, she gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“Bienvenido, DeStefano. Welcome to Havana.”
Mirtha wears her hair in wild brown ringlets, her arms kinetic forces of nature. The serene features of her beautiful face stand out from across the room, familiar to me from her roles in her husband’s films. Mirtha Ibarra has a way of occupying a space and making it her own. She does this not with any hint of theatricality but with a realness that has made her one of Cuba’s most respected stage and screen actors.

I pass on greetings to them from their close friend, the American film director Randa Haines. A fellow member of the Director’s Guild of America, and a recent visitor to Cuba, Randa has kindly sent, a few weeks back, a letter of introduction on my behalf to Titón and Mirtha.

“Ah, Randa.” Titón beams. She is a fine director, and a beautiful person.” 
Mirtha moves towards a cabinet, returns with a framed color 3×5 of herself with Randa and another American friend. She looks at it for some time as Titón and I keep talking. ”Titón” is what Randa said everyone here calls the filmmaker. Though clearly affectionate, I have not asked her or anyone else exactly what it means. Based on the four films of his that I’ve seen it could mean clever dissembler, savage humorist or fierce visionary.

The housekeeper enters as if on cue with a tray of chilled whiskey. The three of us sit in a semicircle around a table full of mail and magazines, toast each other’s health.

“I’m very sorry to have kept you waiting,” he says.
“Not to worry. It’s a very pleasant place to wait, your veranda. I didn’t mean to get here before you.”
Mirtha looks to Titón for help with the translation, a duty he performs quite amiably over the next two hours. 

“I had expected you to phone me at one, actually.” 
From the look on his face I must appear very confused.

“But it is perfectly alright,” he responds quickly, not wanting to offend.
“So, you arrived in Havana today?”
“At eleven.”
“And you found the house with no problem?” 
He senses my hesitation.

“No? There was a problem?”
“Actually, I thought on the phone you told me it was number 110.” 
I show him the paper I wrote his instructions on. He looks despairingly at Mirtha then back at me. 

“I am so very sorry.”
Mirtha looks more confused now than ever. He explains the situation to her in Spanish, which causes her to laugh as he turns back to me.

“Just after hanging up with you I asked myself, did I just tell DeStefano our address was #110 or #105? I remember the thought troubling me for hours after that.” 
He leans back in his chair, his fine tapered hands coming to rest on his lap. 

“You see, that number, 110, it stays with me from another time. It was the address of a professor of mine when I was young, a special person to me. Sometimes I find myself confusing this number with other numbers I encounter all these years later. Either way, we are happy you found us.”
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea has made twenty films in the past thirty-eight years, among them 1966’s La muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat), a biting satire on Cuban government bureaucracy as experienced by a young man trying to bury a dead relative. Then there is what is perhaps his most famous film, the edgy 1968 classic of the early post-Revolution era Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment),an existential masterpiece of world cinema.

Mirtha first worked with Titón in 1976 on his powerful colonial slave-era drama, La ultima cena (The Last Supper), his admitted favorite among his films, and mine as well.

Mirtha next worked with Titón in 1983 on Hasta cierto punto (Up to a Certain Point). At the time of our meeting he is deep into editing Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate), a 1993 Miramax release co-starring Mirtha, Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz. It will go on to become Cuba’s first Academy Award nominee for best foreign film. Titón lays out the basic story for me. 

“It is, how do you call it, a black comedy, about the friendship between a prostitute, a homosexual, and a young Fidel loyalist in contemporary Havana.”
Being a film editor myself, I’d hoped to watch Titón at work, but he is done for the day, and I leave for Miami at seven tomorrow morning. 

“I work in the editing room from 8:30 to 12:30 every day. The remainder of the day is taken up with my medical treatments, reading and rest.” 
Out of politeness I do not inquire further about whatever condition he may have. It is only later that I find out that Titón, because of the cancer he’s been battling, is working with a co-director, the fine Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabio on what will turn out to be Titón’s second to the last film.

I see him looking at the white box I have brought. I pull out a pen knife and open it up. 

“There’s some 16mm editing equipment in here, splicers and rewinds and batteries, a bunch of other things from a list faxed to me by ICAIC.” 
Titón’s arms rise in graceful unison. 

“Thank you so much. Our film institute needs many things like these. They will be put to good use, I assure you.” 
I hand Mirtha a smaller box wedged inside the gear.

“This one’s for both of you.” 
Mirtha, obviously pleased, discovers the yellow notepads, pens, pencils, blank audio and videocassettes I and others have put together for them.

“I’ve also brought some tapes of films of mine, as film editor and director.” 
Titón scans each title with great interest. 

“You arrive so prepared, Señor Lorenzo. Are all Americans this prepared?”
Heading deeper into the box, Titón and Mirtha unearth staples, paper clips, #10 rubber bands and other basics required for literary creation. By the look on their faces they haven’t seen this much scotch tape in years.

Mirtha pours more whiskey for each of us. We toast again, this time with the kind of quietness that close friends do. These two fine artists have made me feel instantly at home. Mirtha gently rests her hand on her husband’s. 

“Twenty years we have been together.” 
She casts an impatient look his way. 

“And my first film with him comes eight long years after we met.”
She seems proud of herself for having stuck it out so long. Waiting eight years for her man to find the role most suited to her could not have been easy. Maybe he was afraid to expose someone he loved to the terrible difficulty of making films in the current economic climate of Cuba.

“My budgets are usually around $300,000 for a feature. $500,000 would be a great epic here. Since there is no hard currency in Cuba now for films, foreign co-productions are essential. My latest film is financed by Spain and Mexico, with Cuban equipment and personnel. This is how it is.”
The housekeeper calls us to lunch. Mirtha touches the back of one of the chairs in the bright, modestly appointed kitchen.

“You sit here please.”
She ladles tangy black bean soup into a bowl for me. Besides a large plate of rice there are salted plantain chips, three strips of marinated flank steak with grilled onions, and a basket of bread. Titón takes half a handful of tablets from several prescription bottles on a table behind him. Gorda, their small white dog, waits devotedly at his feet as he carefully swallows these.
A middle-aged man emerges from inside the house as we’re eating, begins a rapid-fire exchange with Titón. Judging from the frequent use of the word “capacitor” I figure the general subject of discussion must relate to something electrical. My tin-ear Spanish picks up that whatever device they’re talking about is either a partial or a total loss. The man kisses Mirtha on the cheek, shakes my hand without being introduced, and leaves on a trail of promises to come back soon. Titón explains.

“He is a friend of ours, an excellent mechanic. You see, the air conditioner in my office has gone out of order and there are absolutely no parts to be found to repair it.”
“Can’t you buy a new one?” 
Titón translates my naïve inquiry for Mirtha. She laughs again. He smiles benevolently.

“No. I’m afraid that is not possible here.”
“Then what’ll you do?”
He flings one arm in the vague direction of the Gulf.

“The Sierra Maestra Hotel is being completely renovated, all new central air conditioning is going in. There is a great pile of the old window units there, which this man will go and search for a functioning one, or one for parts.”
He utters this with a mix of resignation and national pride in the resourcefulness of the Cuban people, still getting things done despite decades of adversity.
By the time I finish my bowl of cherry Jell-O with pineapple and orange wedges, I can see that my host is getting tired. I get ready to say good-bye, ask first to take a photograph of them, for me and for Randa.

I’m looking at this picture now, nearly twenty-two years after that visit in 1993. Soon it will be April 16, 2015, the 19th anniversary of Titón’s death.
I received a call from Randa Haines on the morning of that day in 1996, the kind of call you know is coming but have no wish to receive.

“Titón died this morning around four a.m. our time.” 
I had known for the past several months that he had been gravely ill, his cancer relentlessly on the march. The last time Randa and I had seen him was in Los Angeles in the spring of ’94, when we’d hosted he and Mirtha on their trip to that year’s Academy Awards, where Fresa y Chocolate was the first Cuban film ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

Two weeks before Titón’s death I’d finally reached him by phone after several frustrating attempts. I listened in anticipation to the double rings, separated by heavy static. Mirtha finally answered just before I was going to hang it up. It was good to hear her voice, though she seemed tired, worn down. She passed the phone to Titón. His voice was noticeably weaker but still quite like itself. 

“Good to hear from you, Lorenzo. I am not so well right now. I have to be in this wheelchair. Mirtha and I are writing a script together, though, which keeps me busy.” 
I asked if there was anything I could do, though we both knew there was not. I found myself getting very emotional as I listened to him speak the last words I was likely to hear from him. All I could think to tell him was how much understanding I felt he’d brought to the world through his films. There is this great love and tolerance for people shining through them, the same love that’s coming back to him now in spades. He seemed to like that thought. Maybe he was just being polite. We said good-bye and I hung up first. No need for him to hear me cry.
Randa barely keeps it together on the phone as she shares a letter with me, to be read at Titón’s funeral in Havana in two days.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,
“We grieve with the family of the brilliant Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and all the people of Cuba at the loss of such an esteemed artist, excellent friend and unforgettable comrade. Titón will remain alive and present for everyone in the endless wealth of ideas that flow from each one of the images he created. In Titón’s life is the truth of Jose Marti’s saying,
‘Death is not real if one has accomplished his life’s work well.’ ”

Thinking now of meeting Titón and Mirtha those many years ago, I realize that the visceral impact Cuba and its people had on me has never faded. Back into the routines of my own life and work, familiar landscapes quiver with a kind of vague impermanence. As I’m driving on the freeways of California, the sun bursts from behind a building, marks me in its rays, rays not half as intense as those that shine on lovely Miramar. Pulled back to that Caribbean whiteness, I recall being surprised when Titón offered to walk me down at the end of our visit. He seemed weaker than he was a mere two hours ago. Waiting on the still deserted street, he let Gorda off her leash, kept himself turned away from the sun.

“It is not so good for me anymore,” he’d lamented.
We both heard the taxi before we saw it approaching.

“Thank you for coming all this way to see me, DeStefano, and for all the beautiful things you have brought to us today.”
“I appreciate you and Mirtha taking the time to meet me.”
“Perhaps you will return in December for the Film Festival?”
“I’d really like to try. Thank you very much.”
He shook my hand, waved to me once before turning away.

“Until December then, Lorenzo.”
The cab arrived. I got into the same Fiat that brought me here, though the driver had changed. Pulling away, I looked through the back window, saw Titón turning towards the Sierra Maestra Hotel. He was staring at the mountainous pile of air conditioners, just waiting there. I saw his shoulders rise to their true stature for a moment, as if in expectation of the cool relief awaiting him. When he turned back towards his house his pace was slow but absolutely sure. As my ride neared the intersection of Quinta Avenida, the last image I had of Titón was of him climbing the painted concrete stairs to número 105, Calle Cero, Gorda trailing awkwardly behind him.
April 2015 This article formed part of the March 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.


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