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“The Sugar Curtain”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[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).

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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