Beyond the Photo Album: Relocating Varda’s Salut les Cubains
The English-language critical response to Agnès Varda’s Salut les Cubains, a 1963 photo-montage documentary short exploring post-revolution Cuba, has largely positioned the film as a historical stepping stone on the concurrent paths of Varda’s political engagement and filmic preoccupation with still photography. These discussions often take as their jumping-off-point Salut les Cubains’ inclusion in Cinévardaphoto (2004), a triptych of Varda’s film-photo-essays also featuring Ulysses (1982) and Ydessa, the Bears and etc. (2004). While the latter two works have been widely discussed as meditations on art, image and memory, responses to Salut les Cubains often restrict themselves to a brief mention of the film’s historical context.[i],[ii]
The short film earned praise upon its release, winning the bronze medal at the Venice Documentary Film Festival and the Silver Dove award at the Festival of Leipzig in 1964. These artistic honours suggest Salut les Cubains should hold more historical weight in Varda’s filmography, to say nothing of the fact that she was documenting one of the most influential revolutions of the 20th century. So why the contemporary neglect?
[T]he self-reflexivity of Cubains’ inaugural images marks the beginnings of a lifelong “commitment to an experimental and collaborative cinécriture,” which Varda has described as an attempt “to open the field of cinema, and not to say ‘This is that.’”
The altered political climate in present-day Cuba, North America and Europe may have contributed to recent indifference. An argument could be made that Salut les Cubains is too naive in its radicalism and formal experimentation, with its dancing photos and joyous embrace of Fidel Castro’s official narrative. It could also be said that Cuban political discourse is a subject best handled by Cuban filmmakers (for example, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment or Pastor Vega’s 1979 feminist tract Portrait of Teresa). But such arguments fail to take into account the ways in which the representational politics of Salut les Cubains engage with the overall ideological and aesthetic concerns of Varda’s filmography. It is a shame for her contribution to be relegated to an uneven footnote within this precarious cultural history, especially given that her distinct ability to explore the curiosities and intimacies of the film image is no less apparent in Salut les Cubains than in her later, more critically attended work.
In France, reports of Cuba’s radical state reformation precipitated the self-appointed intellectual expatriation of a considerable number of French thinkers and artists—including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michel Leiris, Marguerite Duras, and Chris Marker—many of whom would go on to generate personal, collaborative relationships with Cuban institutions. It was under this banner of association that Varda, invited by the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, visited Cuba in December 1962 and January 1963 with the intention of filming the defiant vibrancy of a nation three years past the fall of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Varda, using simple and lightweight equipment—Leica and Rolleiflex cameras, a Nagra tape recorder—photographed over 4000 black-and-white images, observing the energy of the young revolution: women, workers, artists, students and political revolutionaries. Over the course of six months, 1500 of these photographs were assembled alongside an original soundtrack featuring voiceover narration by Varda and actor Michel Piccoli, audio recordings of Fidel Castro, and Afro-Cuban music (in particular, songs by the great Benny Moré).
The film opens in a gallery in 1960s Paris, where the popular image of Cuba has, quite literally, been transported. Cuban musicians perform for the Parisian audience with fervour, the energetic pulse of their instruments and voices rendered culturally inextricable from the images of Fidel’s Cuba that surround them. Varda reveals the animation of a jovial Parisian audience as this negotiated moment of cultural exchange swells out onto the streets. Here, she meta-cinematically captures the other filmmakers and photographers documenting the occasion, locating herself and the likes of Alain Resnais among them. For Varda scholar Delphine Bénézet, the self-reflexivity of Cubains’ inaugural images marks the beginnings of a lifelong “commitment to an experimental and collaborative cinécriture,”[iii] which Varda has described as an attempt “to open the field of cinema, and not to say ‘This is that.’”[iv] Varda’s cooperative spirit and empathic lens consistently underlie her work’s aesthetic, but it is in the defiantly politicized subject matter of films such as Salut les Cubains where these gestures find their most striking counterpart.
The film pays joyful attention to curvatures and bends of figure—particularly those of women, but also those of labourers, those rendered by Cuba’s visual artists, those arcs of thought put to paper by Cuba’s poets—locating them as a site through which the joie de vivre of Cuba’s political moment moves.
Salut les Cubains’ documentary inclinations are suffused with this pursuit of the intimacies of cinematic language, privileging the lyrical, playful and hybrid capacities of photo-documentary praxis. Jean-Louis Comolli has written of cinema’s ability to “bring back to life (for the spectator) the ‘here and now’ of the meeting between the filmmaker and the documentary’s participants,”[v] a sentiment which echoes throughout contemporary valuations of Varda’s film-photo-essay. And rightfully so—in many ways, the Cuba of Salut les Cubains, and its culture and people, are re-figured as doubly animated subjects through Varda’s inventive use of subjectivity as formal principle. Still images are fixed within their framed spatiotemporal conditions, yet come to be undeniably recontextualized through the use of rhythmic sequencing and montage in service of what Varda has referred to as “Socialism and cha cha cha.” [vi]
The film achieves an inventive exploration of form, weaving together radical modernist concerns and dynamic still and moving photography. Varda’s approach to dialogue—two voices, one male, one female—evokes a similar hybridity in the narration; placed in counterpoint to one another, the dual voices parallel the rhythmically assembled images, emphasizing what Martine Beugnet has determined to be Varda’s “capacity to weave together the sensual and the conceptual.”[vii] While this creative choice elicits important questions related to cultural autonomy and the representational politics of image-making, it is critical to note the ways in which Varda’s self-reflexivity and subjective enunciation in Salut les Cubains underlie her project of cinécriture.
Varda presents us with images of the communal made individual: education, artistic expression, agriculture, labour and religion are rendered as an elemental Cuban cloth segmented into… women, men and children; black, white and mestizo; Spanish, African and French.
Enmeshed in Varda’s subjective visual project are, of course, the prerequisite images of revolutionary pride: the revolutionaries’ triumphant ride to celebrate the Day of the National Rebellion (July 26); an extended montage sequence presenting Fidel, alongside audio of his political speeches, as the sacrificial “man of the people”; passages dedicated to the educational and agricultural reformations of a Cuba shorn free of Batista. However, this sway toward historical didacticism is tempered by Varda’s attentiveness to the intimacies of taxonomy. A masculinist body politic is diffused by means of a playful survey of Cuban beards and the polymorphic, suggestive shapes of the Cuban cigar— “Here’s to seasick revolutionaries! Here’s to romantic revolutionaries!” Varda proclaims, as Michel Piccoli narrates the seeds of the revolution sown by the 26th of July Movement.
The film pays joyful attention to curvatures and bends of figure—particularly those of women, but also those of labourers, those rendered by Cuba’s visual artists, those arcs of thought put to paper by Cuba’s poets—locating them as a site through which the joie de vivre of Cuba’s political moment moves while reconstructing socialist paternalism as an unequivocally poetic form found in the everyday, the intimate, the familial, the artisanal. The liminal space between the personal and the revolutionary is laid bare as Varda presents us with images of the communal made individual: education, artistic expression, agriculture, labour and religion are rendered as an elemental Cuban cloth segmented into animal and human; women, men and children; black, white and mestizo; Spanish, African and French. For better or for worse, the revolution’s paradoxes of difference are, more often than not, collapsed into a unified, harmonious aesthetic by virtue of Varda’s curious and affective eye for cultural proximities.
Ultimately, Salut les Cubains endures as a document of Cuban political revolution recognizably transposed through the modernist leanings of the French Left and a subjectively enunciated aesthetics. Varda does not shy away from her positioning as one of many French artists and thinkers who found themselves captivated by Cuba’s socialist potential, openly offering Salut les Cubains as a retelling of the emergence of Fidel’s Cuba that is inextricable from its global sociohistorical context.[viii] Yet, even this acknowledgment fails to fully contend with the power dynamics that shape the film’s history and production: the West’s embrace of the exoticized cultural imaginary of el sabor Cubano with no regard to the racial contradictions at the heart of the Cuban Revolution and socialism more broadly; the violent and enduring histories of colonialism which have figured the Caribbean as a place to be consumed[ix] by all except those who, through forced genocide, slavery and migration, have come to call it home; the continuation of traumatic relationships formed at the axes of cosmopolitan possibility, Creolization and New World sentiment; and, of course, the cultural dispossession of Cuba in the wake of Castro’s complex political legacy. Given this, Salut les Cubains leaves much to be desired in terms of its lasting political efficacy. As a study of Varda’s filmic architectures, however, it remains a necessary example of the harmonies between political idealism and the eclectic intimacies of image-making.
[i] Examples of such responses include the A.V. Club’s 2015 review of Cinévardaphoto by Noel Murray and The New York Times’ 2015 review, “Innocence Is Deceptive in This Teddy Bear World,” by Manohla Dargis.
[ii] Likewise, frequent comparisons with the early film-photo-essays of Chris Marker, while instructive in outlining the cooperative nature of the Left Bank filmmakers, reduce Salut les Cubains to a study in Vardian aesthetics built on the irreducible ingenuity of Marker.
[iii] Bénézet, Delphine. The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism. Columbia University Press, 2014.
[iv] Ed. Jefferson Kline. Agnès Varda: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
[v] Comolli, Jean-Louis and Rancière, Jacques. Arrêt sur Histoire (Supplémentaires). Centre Georges Pompidou, 1997. As translated by Delphine Bénézet in The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism.
[vi] Ed. Jefferson Kline. Agnès Varda: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
[vii] Beugnet, Martine. “French Cinema of the Margins.” Ed. Elizabeth Ezra. European Cinema. Oxford University Press, 2004.
[viii] “We must place this documentary in the context of 1962.” Agnès Varda, Cinévardaphoto liner notes.
[ix] In spite of her aesthetic and political figurations, Varda undeniably produces a hybrid cultural imaginary by way of a quite real cultural consumption.