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Juan Carlos Cremata: An irreverent genius

Juan Carlos Cremata: An irreverent genius

“This isn’t my home,” he says opening the door of the house on 28th St. in the Nuevo Vedado district in Havana, “my home is the other one.” The one, he tells us, that could not resist the effect of time and deterioration, and collapsed while he was away and his mother was hanging the washing out in the backyard. Luckily no one was hurt. At least, physically. The collapse, however, appears to have left its mark in the heart of the artist. When we ask him to take us to the place in the house where he works, he refuses to do so for a very simple reason: “I do everything in my bed,” he explains. And it is clear to us that such an intimate place is not suitable for public showings.

Despite Cremata’s alleged detachment from his new environment, the living room where we settle ourselves seems to deny this. On the wall hangs a picture with the family’s coat of arms along with an interesting explanation of the possible Italian and Spanish origins of the name. Other spaces in the room are taken up by books on cinema, theater, dance and painting; ornaments and mementoes from his many travels; a frog—fake, of course—that croaks at regular intervals in perfect imitation of the real thing.

When he first greets us at the door, hatless and without glasses, I don’t recognize him immediately. Accustomed as I am to the image he has created for himself, he seems all too human. Then, getting ready for the interview, he dons his hat and glasses and he’s his old self again. Or at least the Cremata we are used to seeing.

That art runs in Cremata’s family is no secret. His mother gave birth to three sons and Juan Carlos tells us that in each case, labor pains surprised her inside a television studio. And the first place she went to after checking out of the maternity hospital was a television studio. It was a time when television was booming in Cuba, when there were many good domestically made shows. “It was ‘cardboard’ television, as people now say, but it was done from the heart,” says the filmmaker. “I remember the smell coming out of the crates from the prop department, which was a very important department at the time. It was the smell of all things wonderful.”

His mom, who had run a dance academy before the Revolution, became a choreographer for television. His dad, who worked for Cubana de Aviación airlines and was killed in the terrorist attack on a Cuban plane off the shores of Barbados in 1976, was not professionally connected to art, but was a natural actor and directed plays at amateur theatrical groups. The crime left a deep mark on the family, but part of his father’s legacy included not storing grudges, and making the most of each day, which seems to be a constant feature in the life of Juan Carlos Cremata. His aunt on his mother’s side, also a famous TV actress who was married to a no less famous actor, complete the picture of the environment in which Juan Carlos grew. Television provided him with his first taste of audiovisual creation. He reminisces about his childhood days when he used to go to the matinees in a neighborhood movie theater and sneaked in without paying or painted a faint mustache trying to look older to see films not suitable for under-12s.

It seems almost unbelievable that this man, who raises a flag of irreverence in every sentence, had once conformed to the rigid military life. Yet Cremata was what in Cuba is called a “Camilito,” that is, junior high and high school students who study at the Camilo Cienfuegos Military Academy. Unlike most of his schoolmates, he did not pursue a military career but went on to study at the University of Havana, where he was a history major for two years, waiting for a scholarship to study film directing in the Soviet Union. He had already recognized this as his true vocation. However, “the scholarship never came.” So he decided to study theater and playwriting at the Arts University as well as ballet criticism. “I never wrote a single review,” he says mockingly. “Oh, well, yes, I did write one, but it was never published.”

Right after graduation, he enrolled in the newly-created International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños, thus becoming a first-generation student. “It was like being born again,” he confides, “being there all the time just studying and doing what I liked to do the most: making films.” From this period remains his graduation thesis Oscuros rinocerontes enjaulados [Dark Caged Rhinoceros], an experimental short film that went around the world and earned him, among others, the Grand Prize at the Eisenstein International Film Festival in Wilhelmshaven, Germany in 1992. In 1996, this film became part of the film collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Upon his graduation from the film school, Cremata spent much time outside of Cuba. He traveled all over Europe, mainly in Germany, although he moved around a lot, going from one festival to another.

Back in Cuba in 1993, he found that the nation was going through the so-called Special Period, a time of severe social and economic crisis that began in the 1990s as a result of the fall of the socialist bloc, especially the dissolution of the USSR. “I couldn’t deal with that. I’m sorry to say this because I know it marked this country, but I just couldn’t.” So, taking advantage of a film festival in Chile, Juan Carlos took off again, this time to South America.

“I stayed in Chile for two months and then I went to Argentina, where I taught at three different film universities.” There, he applied for and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in the United States. I spent a year in New York creating my own study material, eating different foods from different countries every day, watching six films a day, Broadway shows, visiting museums and galleries… And every morning I’d film something. It was like a sabbatical year for me. New York is special because so many different things happen there. I could enjoy a performance by the Spanish National Ballet or the aquatic puppet show from Vietnam, or a concert by Pavarotti, or a performance in the middle of the street, which was more interesting than Pavarotti.”

But no matter how enriching the New York experience was, Cremata needed to make movies in Cuba. As soon as he returned to the island, he began to prepare his first film called Nada [Nothing]. Feeling frustrated trying to turn Nada into the first independent Cuban film at a time when filmmaking in Cuba outside ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry) was much more difficult than today, and after waiting for two solid years, Nada finally went to movie theaters. It had been conceived as the first part of a trilogy—Nada, Nunca and Nadie [Nothing, Never and Nobody] but was not completed because, Cremata explains, “We never found anyone to finance the second and third parts. Nada did well internationally, but here at home, it wasn’t liked by ICAIC. And what had made me known as a filmmaker in Cuba and abroad, caused at the same time many doors to be shut.” Nonetheless, the film won the Coral for Best First Work at the 23rd Havana International Film Festival, plus the Vesubio Award at the Naples Film Festival and Best Full-Length Fiction Film at the Miami International Film Festival, among others.

Disappointed with ICAIC, Cremata decided to shoot a film “that would make ICAIC regret not having made it themselves.”

He realized that in the entire history of Cuban cinema, never had a film been shot with children. That is how Viva Cuba was born. “The film is very Cuban,” he says. “It’s about Cuba, but it’s a French production.”

The film attained instant success and went on to win 34 national and international awards. It was the first Cuban film ever to be awarded the Grand Prix Écrans Juniors for children’s cinema at the 2005 Cannes International Film Festival. “With Viva Cuba,” he says, “I toured 45 countries. And it marked a kind of reconciliation with ICAIC. It’s a film which I am very grateful for. In fact, I believe that I’m alive thanks to Viva Cuba.”

During the shooting of Viva Cuba, Cremata took up his theatrical career and created El Ingenio, a theater company that has staged several plays, at times controversial, like the most recent one, The Stepdaughter. The company is also the production company for Cremata’s films. “The truth is, I’m El Ingenio.” Regarding the name (which means both inventiveness, wit, and sugar mills), he explains: “I named it El Ingenio not only after the sugar mills that were the hub of Cuban sugar economy, but also for the inventiveness you need in order to overcome so many difficulties.”

While in Paris, at the height of Viva Cuba’s success, Cremata suffered a severe bronchopneumonia which put him on the point of death. “I was making my farewell to this world. But no, I didn’t leave. Looks like the devil looks after his own,” he laughs. Here I am in this kind of bonus track that life has given me every day trying to do more than I can cope with.”

Viva Cuba was followed by Chamaco, a 90-minute feature film, El Premio Flaco [The Skimpy Prize] and Contigo pan y cebolla [All I need Is You], the latter two based on plays of the same name by the late Cuban playwright Hector Quintero.

“I am an advocate of difference, both in life and in art. That’s why I don’t like to repeat myself. I always say that my job is to open doors and not to close them. Apart from that, life deals unexpected blows you couldn’t even imagine. Like the collapse of my house, or the death of my partner six years ago and having to take care of his daughter; being a parent, all of a sudden, of a little girl who is not only my child but the sunshine of my life. I fear frustration, so I try to live every day to the fullest and feel satisfied with what I do,” he tells us when our conversation is nearing the end. His very tight schedule does not allow him more than an hour with us. Cremata doesn’t like interviews, but he considers they’re part of the job. “I would prefer the quiet solitude of the artisan.”

When at last I said goodbye to Juan Carlos Cremata, I had that feeling that I’ve experienced at other interviews, but this time it was particularly strong—a kind of nostalgia caused by the rupture of the fleeting intimacy that unites interviewer and interviewee in the short period of their relationship. As to Cremata, he did not feel the “usual torture of perspiring in front of a camera” and confessed that he had felt very comfortable telling us, not everything that he is or would like to be, but many of the things that he has done and will do.
Cremata at work films by cremata
  April 2013

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