Nationality: Cuban. Born: Havana, 1919. Education: University of Havana; Columbia University, New York. Career: After revolution, served as vice president of newly formed Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficas (ICAIC), 1959; director of the Latin American ICAIC newsreel, from 1960. Died: 20 May, 1998, in Havana, Cuba, of parkinson's disease.
Films as Director:
Un año de libertad (co-d)
Escambray; Muerte al invasor (co-d)
Forjadores de la paz; Cumplimos; Crisis en el Caribe
Ciclon; El Barbaro del Ritmo; Fidel en la URSS
Via libre a la zafra del '64; Primeros Juegos Deportivos Militares
Solidaridad Cuba y Vietnam; Cuba dos de enero; Pedales sobra Cuba; Now; Segunda Declaracion de la Habana; La escalada del chantaje
Abril de Giron; Cerro Pelado; Año Siete; Ocho años de Revolucion
La guerra olvidados (Laos, the Forgotten War); Hasta la victoria siempre (Till Victory Always); Golpeando en la selva; Hanoi, martes 13
Amarrando el Cordon; L.B.J.
Despegue a la 18.00; 79 Primaveras (79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh)
Once por cero; Piedra sobre piedra; El sueño del Pongo;Yanapanacuna
Quemando tradiciones; Como, por qué y para qué asesina a un general?; La estampida; El pájaro del faro
De America soy hijo . . . y a ella me debo
Y el cielo fue tomado por asalto; El tigre salto y mato . . . pero morira . . . morira (The Tiger Leaped and Killed, But He Will Die, He Will Die)
60 Minutos con el primer mundial de boxeo amateur; Rescate;Los cuatro puentes
Abril de Vietnam en el año del gato; El primer delegado
El Tiempo es el viento; El sol no se puede tapar con un dedo;Luanda ya no es de San Pablo; Morir por la patria es vivir;Maputo; Meridiano Novo; Los Dragones de Ha-Long
Mi Hermano Fidel; El Octubre de todos
Sobre el problema fronterizo entre Kampuchea y Vietnam; . . . y la noche se hizo arcoiris
El Gran salto al vacio; Tengo fe en ti; La cumbre que nos une;El desafio
Celia, imagen del pueblo; Marcha del pueblo combatiente; El mayo de las tres banderas; Un Amazonus de pueblo embravecido; Lo que el viento se llevó; La guerra necessaria
La importancia universal del hueco; Tiempo libre a la roca;Comenzo a retumbar el Momtombo; 26 es también 19;Mazazo macizo; Contrapunto
Nova sinfonia; A galope sobre la historia; Operación abril del Caribe
Los refugiados de la Cueva del Muertro (+ sc); Biografía de un carnaval; Las campanas tambien pueden doblar mañana
Gracias Santiago; Dos rostros y una sola imagen; El soñador del Kremlin; Por primera vez elecciones libres
Taller de la vida; La soledad de los dioses; Reencuentro
Las antípodas de la victoria; Aires de renovación en el meridiano 37; Memorias de un reencuentro
Concierto por la vida; Concierto mayor
By ALVAREZ: book—
Santiago Alvarez: Cronista del tercer mundo, edited by Edmundo Aray, Caracas, 1983.
By ALVAREZ: articles—
"Santiago Alvarez habla de su cine," in Hablemos de Cine (Lima), July/August 1970.
Interview in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 4, 1975.
"El Periodismo cinematografico," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 94, 1979.
"Cinema and Revolution: Talking with Santiago Alvarez," in Issues:A Monthly Review of International Affairs (London), May 1980.
Interview with M. Pereira, in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 104, 1983.
Interview with C. Galiano and R. Chavez, in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 107, 1984.
"Now," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 110, 1984.
"Hablar de estas fotos: Conversación con Santiago Alvarez," in Revolución y Cultura (Havana), November 1986.
"Entretien avec Santiago Alvarez," interview with Marcel Jean, in 24 Images (Montreal), November-December 1989.
On ALVAREZ: books—
Nelson, L., Cuba: The Measure of a Revolution, Minneapolis, 1972.
Myerson, Michael, Memories of Underdevelopment: The Revolutionary Films of Cuba, New York, 1973.
Chanan, Michael, editor, Santiago Alvarez, London, 1982.
Waugh, Thomas, editor, "Show Us Life": Toward a History andAesthetics of the Committed Documentary, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.
Chanan, Michael, The Cuban Image: Cinema and Cultural Politics inCuba, London, 1985.
On ALVAREZ: articles—
Sutherland, Elizabeth, "Cinema of Revolution—90 Miles from Home," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1961/62.
Douglas, M.E., "The Cuban Cinema," in Take One (Montreal), July/August 1968.
Adler, Renata, in New York Times, 10, 11, and 12 February 1969.
Engel, Andi, "Solidarity and Violence," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1969.
Rubenstein, Lenny, "79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh," in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1970/71.
Sauvage, P., "Cine Cubano," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1972.
Chávez, R., "El internaciolalismo en el obra de Santiago Alvarez," in Cine Cubano (Havana), March 1978.
Burton, Julianne, "Introduction to Revolutionary Cuban Cinema," in Jump Cut (Chicago), December 1978.
Hood, Stuart, "Murder on the Way: Santiago Alvarez Season at NFT," in New Statesman (London), April 1980.
Piedra, M., "Un hombre mas joven 30 anos despues," in CineCubano (Havana), vol. 125, 1989.
Mraz, John, "Santiago Alvarez: From Dramatic Form to Direct Cinema," in Documentary Strategies: Society/Ideology/Historyin Latin American Documentary, 1950–1985, Pittsburgh, 1990.
Labaki, A., "Santiago Alvarez, l'urgence cinema," in Bref (Paris), no. 31, Winter 1996/97.
* * *
Predominantly associated with the educational or the exotic in the United States, the documentary film occupies a very different place in the cinema of revolutionary Cuba. Between 90 and 95 percent of the films produced under the revolution have been documentaries, and the man most responsible for the international stature of Cuban documentary cinema is Santiago Alvarez.
As the director of the weekly "Latin American Newsreel" produced by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), Alvarez directed an enormous number of newsreels as well as many other short and feature-length documentaries. Never having formally studied cinema, he became a filmmaker by "handling millions of feet of film." Alvarez felt himself to be a journalist, but believed that cinematic journalism should have a permanence beyond simple reportage. To achieve such transcendency, Alvarez's newsreels are typically monothematic and integrated, with the result that they appear more like individual documentary films than the sort of generalized news reporting normally associated with newsreels.
The dominant characteristic of Alvarez's style is the extraordinarily rhythmic blend of visual and audio forms. Alvarez utilized everything at hand to convey his message: live and historical documentary footage, still photos, bits from TV programs and fiction films, animation, and an incredible range of audio accompaniment. Believing that "50 percent of the value of a film is in the soundtrack," Alvarez mixed rock, classical, and tropical music, sound effects, participant narration—even silence—into the furious pace of his visual images. For Alvarez, cinema had its own language, different from that of television or of radio, and the essence of this language is montage.
Alvarez's documentaries focus on both national and international themes. For example, Ciclon is an early newsreel on the effects of hurricane Flora in Cuba. Although it lacks the elaborate visual montage for which Alvarez later became famous, the film shows great skill in the use of sound. There is no verbal narration, and the track is limited to the source sound of trucks and helicopters, and the organ music which eerily punctuates the scenes of caring for the wounded and burying the dead.
Now, a short dealing with racism in the United States and edited to the rhythm of Lena Horne's song, shows the master at his best in working with still photographs. Particularly effective is a sequence in which Alvarez cuts between the chained hands of arrested blacks and the linked hands of protestors to suggest a dynamic of collective struggle in which people are seen not only as products of their circumstances, but as historical actors capable of changing their circumstances. Here, Alvarez fuses ideology and art by making graphic the third of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach." Alvarez's tribute to Che Guevara, Hasta la victoria siempre, deals with much the same concept. He begins with a series of beautifully shot stills of poverty in the Altiplano. Then, following footage of Che speaking in the Sierra Maestra of Cuba, he dissolves a still of Che into a still of a Gulf Oil Company camp in Bolivia. Through this technique he links the earlier struggle in Cuba with the later guerrilla war in the Andes.
One of the finest examples of Alvarez's work is 79 Springtimes, a beautifully controlled montage on Ho Chi Minh's life and death. He opens the short by ironically mixing elapsed-time photography of flowers opening with slow-motion footage of bombs falling from United States planes. He goes on to cut between scenes of United States atrocities in Vietnam and protest marches in the U.S., visually depicting the position that the real enemy is not the people of the U.S., but the ruling class and its mercenaries. In the final sequence, Alvarez uses what seems to be every available visual effect—torn and burned strips of film, film frames, bits of paper—to create an incredible animated montage. The soundtrack underscores the visual dynamic with music and poems by Ho Chi Minh and Jose Martí.
Even since his death in 1998, Alvarez continues to be thought of as one of the foremost documentary filmmakers in Latin America, although some consider his earlier short films to be superior to the later and longer works. This may result from the fact that in the earlier films the line between heroes (Che, Ho Chi Minh) and villains (U.S. imperialism and racism) was more clearly drawn, while his later works reflected the international compromises with the Soviet Union and reformist Latin American governments that have been required of the Cuban revolution. Nonetheless, Alvarez persisted in his indefatigable quest for an "audacious and constantly renewed optic."