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Talking about Enrique Pineda Barnet (Havana, 1933) is more than talking about an eminent film director who also writes prose and poetry, someone who day after day thinks of himself as a beginner in every activity he undertakes. As he welcomes me into his cozy apartment in Vedado, I feel I am in the presence of someone who is going to be eternally young, enjoying absolute spiritual peace and tranquility as a result of having eliminated hatred from his system, as he genially confesses.
When you talk to Barnet, even for a few minutes, you cannot help but understand how much of a privilege it is to be listening to this fascinating living memory, capable of captivating us with his ingenious manner of communicating his reminiscences. Without a doubt, his vision has been enriched by many of the events that have been occurring in Cuba over more than seventy years. His childhood took place among politicians (his stepfather was a senator) and he remembers how as a small boy he would sing Cuban political songs to politicians of the ilk of Eduardo Chibás and Carlos Prío.
He says that he came into this world with one foot planted in show business; he became fascinated by the cinema at a very early age and would also go to the theater with his grandmother, attracted by the sensuous aura of these locales. He became hooked on personalities such as Rita Montaner, Toña la Negra, María Cervantes, Myriam Acevedo and her Macorina and on songs, unforgettable melodies that became a vital factor in his life. He was an insatiable consumer of all this that became the raw material for concepts that blossomed without any limits or prejudices and which continue growing even today.
He has a spectacular way of directing movies; voraciousness accompanies his remarkable gift of knowing how to make choices. I can imagine him as being constantly sleepless as he mixes up cinematic stories with real life.
In adolescence he was unstoppable; at fourteen he was visiting Havana tenement houses where he learned rumba at Yoruba celebrations and Santeria rituals. Those were the days when he danced with Josephine Baker at the Fausto Theater, uninhibited and passionate. What a way to make use of night life! He assimilated it as an element in his metabolism. Everything entered the same way: jazz, piano bars, the dance, and much more.
On his blog last August 24, Barnet contributed this self-description: “I love swimming, dancing till I drop, climbing mountains, and if I could fly or levitate, I would be the happiest being in the universe. I don’t want to ride anything on the sea, but I would be flying over it all the time. I don’t like force—energy, yes, that’s something else. Nothing strong; nothing forceful…Not even a loud voice or a forceful gesture, slamming some door or hitting a table, no lightning or strong winds, huge waves or earthquakes, volcanoes, being pummeled by the sea. But I love the sea, fire, wind, earth…”
When you get to know and immerse yourself in his films, his short stories and his plays, you can understand that his manner of thinking is very exact and it is constantly bubbling up through the different moments of his creation.
One of the principal characteristics of his filmmaking has been to carefully pay attention to all the elements making up every production, almost obsessively overseeing the sound track, the photography and the art direction.
His work is strongly connected to the visual arts; it seems that behind each of his films there are one or several paintings. This has been a constant feature right since his beginnings as a director but most noticed in films such as La Anunciación (2009)and Verde verde (2010). The former revolves around a well-known painting by Antonia Eiriz, giving it a new life in his film. The latter is based on the spirit of Rocio Garcia’s paintings, creating an environment that speaks of the amazing empathy existing between the sensibilities of the two artists.
Barnet is a filmmaker whose head is full of literature, the resukt of being such a compulsive reader—from Mark Twain to Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Walt Whitman, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Samuel Beckett, Carson McCullers, Erich Fromm, Thomas Mann and many more. The lengthy list also includes Latin American authors (Ernesto Sabato, Jorge Luis Borges, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, Juan Gelman and César Vallejo) and Cubans writers, some of whom were his colleagues and friends, such as Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera, Lydia Cabrera, Pablo de la Torriente, Enrique Serpa and Carlos Montenegro.
Saturated in knowledge and desire, he directed his first film, Giselle, in 1963 dealing with the mystery of dance from a very personal point of view. This is followed by the relationship with the playwright Virgilio Piñera in Aire Frío (1965) in which he immerses himself in a reflection on what we are.
David (1967) marks the beginning of a segment dedicated to the theme of heroism and rebelliousness; it is a hymn to clandestine struggle, powerfully poetic and showing the human dimension of the heroes. In 1975 he directed Mella continuing his journey through history, falling under the spell of that young man’s charisma and capacity for struggle as he led several revolutionary organizations in the 1920s. This cycle closed with an exquisite tribute to the role of women in the underground movements, Aquella larga noche (1979), successfully demystifying the subject.
At the beginning of the 1980s, his work underwent a noticeable change of course; his journey inwards found the ideal launch pad in Tiempo de Amar (1981). It was an essentially beautiful film supported by extraordinary photography and the unmatched freshness of a young actress at the time, Lili Renteria.
La bella del Alhambra (1989) is a very special chapter in Enrique Pineda Barnet’s life, adding a good dose of spice to his poetic vision. The film allowed him to evoke eras and characters that he had experienced intensely during his life, to take advantage of the musical film genre and to launch an actress named Beatriz Valdés to stardom. Professionally, this film has given him the greatest joys not the least of which was the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film in 1990.
In his two most recent films, La Anunciación (2009) and Verde verde (2010), he brutally reveals the labyrinth of human conduct, vertiginously suggesting hallucinatory moments. This is filmmaking at the apex of his maturity that never gives up exploring for even an instant.
His Arca, nariz, y alambre project has involved a wonderful group of artists in an impressive show of his vitality, a way of making experimental cinema that has earned its own space. We have seen the short films First (1997), La Ecuación (2000), Upstairs (2014) and End (2014) as his most ambitious projects in recent years. Now Pineda Barnet tends to be more silent, more parsimonious with language. In his 81st year, this director, winner of the 2006 National Cinema Award, continues to show us that he is one of the most restless creators in Cuba.