By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Sugar Curtain,” First Run/Icarus Films, 2007]
“The Sugar Curtain” opens with a shot of a hand holding a photograph of a building. Then the hand lowers and we see the same building behind the photograph, now decades older and in disrepair. This first shot sets the tone for this absorbing documentary, which uses many old photographs and the recollections of the Cuban people to paint a picture of a happier time in the country that exists now only in memory.
Camila Guzmán Urzúa, the film’s producer, director, and cinematographer grew up in Cuba during what she calls the “golden years” of the Revolution. She returns to her former homeland after 15 years in Europe and finds a place immeasurably different than the one in her mother’s old black and white snapshots. The fall of the Soviet Union devastated Cuba’s economy. “We were totally dependent on Russia,” one woman tells Urzúa. “That was a mistake.” With supplies from the East suddenly cut off, the socialist bounty of Urzúa’s youth dried up, and with it, the happy world in her memory.
This intimate cinematic essay finds Urzúa quite literally visiting old haunts; places that once housed camps for children and now sit derelict, rotting in the Caribbean sun. After its prominent cameo in Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” where it’s portrayed as a sort of oasis of amazing healthcare, it’s illuminating to see this side of Cuba, the side of crumbling buildings, underfunded public transportation and government pay and food programs so inadequate that people are forced to steal from their employers to survive. No doubt the scenes in Moore’s film were accurate, but “The Sugar Curtain” makes it clear that there is more to the story.
Ironically, I found myself wishing Urzúa’s film was a bit more like another Moore movie his 1989 debut, “Roger & Me.” Both deal with artists struggling to cope with the decay of their homes and its accompanying way of life. In Moore’s film, he is onscreen, and we can see his reaction to the horrors he is recording. Since Urzúa operates her own camera she can’t be in front of it as well, which is a shame. Some of these empty spaces cry out for any human presence to grapple with them. Still, there are a few inventive solutions to this problem; the film’s very best scene finds Urzúa confronting her mother about their lives in Cuba. The scene is staged in front of a mirror so that we can see both participants and watch as they meet and avoid each other’s gaze.
Mostly, I walked away from “The Sugar Curtain” comparing the images from Urzúa’s footage of sad, hungry people who’ve watched nearly everyone they know and love move away in search of a better standard of living and those of the old photographs, young people happy and tan, laying on the beach or standing in a field. I suppose everyone looks happy in photographs, but those smiles don’t look faked or posed. The saddest part about “The Sugar Curtain” is that Urzúa’s interview subjects don’t seem fake or posed either.
“The Sugar Curtain” opens in New York on July 25th (official site).