THE SUGAR CURTAINNR
The Sugar Curtain is Camila Guzmán Urzúa's cinematic memoir of her childhood in Cuba. The filmmaker was born in 1971, and arrived in the island nation when she was two years old, her parents having fled Pinochet's Chile. It's a bittersweet, "personal" documentary in which Guzman Urzúa interviews her schoolmates and her mother about 1980s-era Cuba. While many of the filmmaker's friends abandoned the country--Guzman Urzúa left in 1990--her mother and several other friends remain there, unable or unwilling to leave.
Guzman Urzúa completed most of her schooling before the fall of the Soviet Union, which marked the beginning of the end of Cuba's economy. Guzman Urzúa argues that her generation saw the country at its best, when the state provided everything its citizens needed to live well. It's a story that is difficult to swallow from a historical perspective, mostly because whatever Castro has accomplished, there is no escaping the fact that he's a dictator. Even if we accept the view through Guzman Urzúa's rose-colored glasses, after 40 minutes of schoolgirl and schoolboy reminiscences, and the filmmaker's attempts to filter history through nostalgia, the documentary is about as appealing as a home movie.
What is evident in The Sugar Curtain, a debut documentary, is a filmmaker with technical expertise. Had the documentary been a short, it might have illustrated Guzman Urzúa's excellent sense of structure, her ability to move between seemingly unrelated subjects to create meaning. As it is, it's stretched thin by the filmmaker's attempts to search for too much in the words of classmates who are frankly unreflective, inarticulate, and often clearly uncomfortable with her view of the past. One exception is a doe-eyed girlfriend of Guzman Urzúa's who lives with her grandmother: Her mother emigrated to the U.S. with a younger sibling when she was 21. She expresses the ennui of all of Guzman Urzúa's former classmates who stayed in Cuba. Those with means and opportunity, like the filmmaker, went elsewhere.
Guzman Urzúa's desire to reclaim a utopia that never existed politically may appeal to Cubans of a certain generation, and of a certain class--even Guzman Urzúa admits to being privileged in that ostensibly classless society. They may share her belief that the state was mostly responsible for their idyllic childhood. One delightful, if discomfiting, outcome of Guzman Urzúa's Cuba of the Imagination is the delightful drawings by her sister which punctuate the film. Andrea's Cuba is sunny and colorful. It's a place where children are happy. Gazing at them, and remembering Guzman Urzúa's mother's remark about Cuba holding out the promise of a stable life--the family actually traded one dictator for another--there is the uncomfortable feeling that The Sugar Curtain is the story of how the prosperous (if unlucky) few cling to their delusions and pass them on to future generations.