Sunday, September 30, 2012

Soaring architecture meets the "revolution" in Alysa Nahmias' & Benjamin Murray's beautiful, troubling UNFINISHED SPACES

For many of us who have long felt that, on balance, the Cuban revolution weighs in as more good than bad -- despite its troubling aspects regarding "democracy," the treatment of homosexuals, and (while admitting the great gains in education and health care) the general standard of Cuban living over more than half a century -- the new documentary UNFINISHED SPACES might very well stand as a symbol for this fractured country. The movie will make your spirits soar -- then crash -- a number of times during its more than fascinating 86 minutes.

Co-produced and co-directed by Alysa Nahmias (shown at left) and Benjamin Murray (below, right), the documentary tracks the tale of Cuba's enormously ambitious National Art Schools project, from its inception as an idea (almost immediately after the revolution's victory) to present-day. What a story!

"For Fidel, everything had to be the best in the world," recalls an architect -- a woman, too! -- of the time that Cuba's new head of state first told her what he wanted. Later, as Castro tries a game of that oh-so-bourgeois sport, golf, it was decided that the art schools would be built on the site of the former country club's golf course. That'll teach 'em! Or not.

We soon meet and hear from a parade of fine architects (the three most prominent are Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro (shown in the photo at bottom) and Vittorrio Garatti, some of whose work at the schools is shown just below) and see the work they contributed to these five schools -- Modern Dance, Plastic/
Visual Arts, Dramatic Arts, Music, and Ballet -- "I wanted my school," one of them explains, "to be open -- like the Revolution. None of the schools have a main entrance; all of them are interconnected."

Notes another: "They told me that I had built a uterus!" And damned if the roof of his work doesn't remind you of just that. From building to building this is beautiful, glorious architecture, shown below and further below, combining the best of the traditional and the contemporary. (Viewing this film made me, more than anything else I've seen, want to visit Cuba.) And then, before it was finished, it all came to a close. Suddenly, it seemed, everything new in the country had to look like the dreaded (to any real artist) utilitarian, Soviet-inspired architecture.

This happened to a huge extent because, after Castro nationalized industry in Cuba, the USA went against his revolution, boycotting and Bay-of-Pigs-ing the little country, while helping turn the western world against Cuba to the point that only Mother Russia was willing to help support the island -- which then became a pawn in the Cold War between Capitalism and Communism. (Both ideologies have now been pretty much discredited in the eyes of the thinking world, so one does wonder what, if anything, is coming next? Perhaps the new Capitalism, with Socialists in charge of it to tamp down its most aggressive, greedy and stupid tendencies.)

But back to those schools and Cuba. The film takes us through the "repressed" 70s into the more open 80s and 90s, and then that "special period" (special meaning horrible) after the collapse of the USSR and no further Soviet support. For a time the schools were even taken over for housing, and their walls turned black from the fires used for cooking. One interviewee explains that he attended the school in the 1980s, along with the Cuban students, whom, he says, did not seem to think much about why the school remained unfinished. "After all, so much else in Cuba was unfinished, too."

The schools and this documentary might stand (a bit unfairly, but still...) as a symbol for all that's wonderful and disappointing about this little country. After initiating the schools project -- and then halting it completely -- it is both bracing and annoying to hear Castro praising the school once again in our new Millennium, as the film shows us. His speech could bring tears to one's eyes -- if one weren't so angry at this pompous little dictator for his decades of stupidity -- brought on to a large extent by the attitude and actions of the USA. Well, power corrupts us all.

Says one of those fine architects currently, "Despite their deterio-ration, the schools still represent the hope for the future and what the revolution meant at its beginning." Even so, or maybe because of this -- with thanks, I suspect, to the good old USA -- when the World Monuments Fund wanted to help with the restoration of the schools, it could not do this because Cuba, being that naughty "nationalizer," was still not allowed to receive any money.

Filmmakers Nahmias and Murray have done the civilized world a great service by telling the story of Cuba's National Art Schools, and you'll get one final jolt when you see the latest update as the credits roll.  Unfinished Spaces is currently touring the U.S. at various venues. Below is the remaining schedule of performances. If you're not near one of these cities, however, be sure to catch the film's national television debut, October 12, on PBS (in bold below):

October 1, 2012 Charleston, SC: Association of Preservation Technology International Annual Conference

October 4, 2012 Miami, FL: Historic Tower Theater 

October 5, 2012 Tampa, FL: Cuban Club

October 12, 2012 New York City: Cooper Union

October 12, 2012 PBS National Broadcast: Check local listings 

October 17, 2012 New Orleans, LA: School of Architecture at Tulane University

October 17, 2012 Bristol, RI: School of Architecture at Roger Williams University

October 18, 2012 Union City, NJ: Union City Center for the Performing Arts

October 19, 2012 Athens, GA: CINÉ November 2, 2012 Ithaca, NY: Cinemopolis

November 6, 2012 Ithaca, NY: Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Film Forum, Cornell University

November 20, 2012 Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City Public Library

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