The Last Match: ‘Cuba’s Brokeback Mountain’, showing at the Queer Screen Film Fest, 17-21 Sept
Queer Screen generously take it upon themselves to bookend the summer months with two outstanding film festivals – the Mardi Gras Film Festival, ending the season, and the Queer Screen Film Fest which begins this week, kicking off the next.
This year’s fest is eclectic as ever. Dandy’s picks include Appropriate Behaviour (which has been described as ‘like Girls, but more lesbian’), The Way He Looks (a touching Brazilian film, based on this short, about a blind teenager who falls for the new boy at school) and The Abominable Crime (a doco exploring Jamaica’s culture of homophobia).
And then there is The Last Match – a tender, honest, sexy film about young love and the corrupting influence of adults in contemporary Cuba. Reinier and Yosvani meet on the local soccer field. The former hustles, while the latter works for his girlfriend’s father, a black market clothes dealer and all-round thug. The two become infatuated with one another, but when Reinier starts kicking goals (literally and figuratively), Yosvani is transformed into a bewildered, obsessive, possessive lover. Like so many films featuring gay couples, one of our heroes ends up dead.
Dandy chatted with The Last Match’s Spanish director, Antonio Hens, about Cuba, the challenges of authenticity, and the innocence of teen love.
By way of background, what’s life like for young queer people in Cuba?
Cuban queers lead the same life as their equals in Southern Europe. From a moral point of view, Cuban gays are somehow accepted by their own society and regime. The public expression of their affections may not be accepted – but if that happened, they would receive no aggression, just disdain. Ever since president Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela decided to promote gay rights, it’s not illegal to be gay in Cuba. You can demonstrate in an official so-called ‘anti-homophobic parade’ every May, and the national health service may also change your sex if you ask for it.
In spite of this, after centuries of the Catholic tradition of ‘macho’ Latin lovers, many Cuban gays decide not to come out, and quite a lot do not accept their own sexuality.
Furthermore, what makes life different for Cuban gays is being extremely poor in a country which is one of the world’s destinations for homosexual tourism. Money perverts everything, even feelings. Becoming the romantic partner of a foreign tourist may transform your family from misery to success. That’s why local gays have no strength in this competition. If you are Cuban and your partner finds a tourist to be with, you have nothing left to do – you have lost your chance.
The Last Match was not filmed in Cuba. Why?
Actually, the film was shot in Cuba, but a wrong piece of information supplied by the US distributor came out and was never corrected.
I think one of the values of this film is how Cuba is portrayed. It wasn’t easy to introduce the camera to the island. We shot without permission, no special. It was a constant challenge. All the crew were Cubans, and they helped me make the film possible. They wanted their reality to be shown worldwide.
I found it hard to portray the characters’ misery, being a foreigner myself. I was so precautious to not make Cubans feel insulted. This is why I decided to use a documentary-like style: no music, shoulder held camera, no extra lightning, long shots. I wanted to create a mirror to be placed up against Cuban society.
There have been some great gay films set in Cuba – Before Night Falls (2000, dir Julian Schnabel) and Strawberry & Chocolate (1994, dir Tomás Gutiérrez Alea) come to mind. How does The Last Match move that genre – for want of a better word – along? What does it add?
The Last Match has much more to do with Strawberry & Chocolate than with Before Night Falls. The latter wasn’t shot in Cuba, the lead actor was not Cuban, and the director added his New Yorker artistic touch to the story of the exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas.
Although I am not a Cuban, I share my Spanish culture and language with Cubans. People who have seen the film think my film has been made by a fellow Cuban. This ‘local’ insight, and the fact that it is a story of homosexual love within Cuba, are the links with Strawberry & Chocolate.
But Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film was much more than a film. He was a member of the Cuban communist party, he belonged to the ‘board’, so his acceptance of homosexuality in the film meant there was a safeguard for Cuban gays. And so from 1994 on, gays who had been officially considered as ‘elements influenced by imperialistic propaganda’ began to stand up and show themselves. The film was a wake up call for many gays in Cuba, and in other parts of the world too.
But if Strawberry & Chocolate aimed to show revolutionary Cubans that gays are acceptable and suitable to form part of society, my film perhaps depicts the failure of that notion.
Critics might say this is the usual gay drama, just set in Cuba. Is the setting enough to make it unique and able to stand on its own two feet?
It is a teenage love drama between two individuals of the same sex. I primarily wanted to expose the story of a first love between two boys who live under extreme pressure, and to show how ‘pure’, innocent teen love can be perverted by adults. The label ‘gay’ is often a reductive way to put us gay filmmakers out of the scene – I tell stories about the feelings I know the most.
I reckon what makes my film able to stand on its feet is the technique, the mixing of fiction and documentary. I’m very interested in this. We filmmakers are in search of the truth, made by untruthful elements. I think the way the actors and I achieved a representation of this truth – the way they are placed in the set, in the frame – was the correct way to achieve the realism, the depth of feeling, and the tragedy that I was looking for.
And lastly, what makes The Last Match unique is the fact that it has been the first time that Cuban escorts and all the business around them have been portrayed in a film shot in the actual locations where this happens.
The film screened at the Havana film festival. What was the reaction of the Cuban audience, seeing their city portrayed through the eyes of a foreigner?
The first screening attracted more than 1,400 people, many of them gays that had been waiting for months to see the film. I was scared. I thought many people would reject this image of themselves. I also feared the official reaction to the film, which could affect the Cuban members of the crew.
After the screening most of the audience was crying – not only the gay ones! Many men told me in tears, ‘I lost my friend too, he’s living overseas now’, or ‘you’ve told my story’. You know, that was really touching. And the head of the board at the Ministry of Culture came to me, also in tears (Cubans love to cry), held me in his arms and very affectionately proclaimed “thank you – now we’ve got the Cuban Brokeback Mountain’!
The Last Match screens at 8pm on Saturday 20th September at Even Cinemas George Street. Click here to see the Queer Screen Film Fest program and to buy tickets.