Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 07, 2017 8:22 pm 
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Cuban gadfly who vexes powers that be

San Francisco based filmmaker Lynn Hershmann Leeson is a nominee for the the San Francisco film festival's Persistence of Vision Award, presented annually to honor the lifetime achievement of a filmmaker whose work is crafting documentaries. Leeson's work has frequently combined art with social commentary, particularly on the relationship between people and technology. Her new film Tania Libre is an empathic documentation of a series of counseling sessions with Tania Bruguera, one of Cuba's most famous performance artists, by Dr. Frank Ochberg, a specialist in post traumatic stress disorder, conducted when Bruguera was released following her arrest, revocation of passport, and eight months of house arrest in Cuba to prevent a work of protest art.

Discussions between Tania and the doctor in the film reveal something about artistic and political repression in Cuba, and (briefly) Bruguera's fraught relationship with her own family, itself tainted by the Cuban system of state repression. She had learned her own father was a government spy. Perhaps partly as a result of her therapy, Bruguera has declared she intends to run for president of Cuba in 2018, when Raúl Castro is scheduled to step down, though this is not mentioned in the film.

The film is largely a static combination of talking heads, Dr. Ochberg's and Bruguera's, but there are some clips of Bruguera artworks, to which she refers. These include "Tatlin's Whisper #6 (Havana Version)" of 2009 at the Wilfredo Lam Center. This, as glimpsed briefly, appears to involve dramatic declarations by other Cubans about their experiences of being repressed, with release of doves. She' was allowed to do another performance/event at Tate Modern later about controlling passage into and out of a country. But later, she learned she was not going to be given permission to do another work in Cuba, due to the 2009 one. (Perhaps in an effort not to break the spell of the one-on-one conversation, the videos and these titles of works appear so briefly on the screen that you have to be quick to catch them.) She goes back to "Tatlin's Whisper #5, Tate Modern 2008." In the Havana version, Cubans got an opportunity to speak out about repression, and be photographed doing it as a record. (A Walker Art Center publication explains this work was so controversial because of its link between "art" protest and political dissent: dissenting art by itself, uninvolved with political activity per se, had been tolerated all along in Cuba.)

Rather out of the blue, Dr. Ochberg talks about his role as a consultant and expert on the Stockholm Syndrome in the case of Ariel Castro in Chicago (no relation to Fidel!), the man who kept three women prisoner for many years. (A clip and a clipping are shown to show the doctor speaking in court.) He suggests this syndrome relates to the behavior of Cubans to Castro or to people oppressing them, such as security officers interrogating Bruguera in the past.

Though they are being filmed, Dr. Ochberg and Bruguera do seem relaxed, both used to performing in public, and seem to communicate well. Isn't this film one of her performances, and the good doctor and the filmmaker her willing collaborators?

As the Cuban government has been, it turns out. The performance artist can bend anything to her needs. For example, June 7, 2015, trying to prevent her from disrupting the Havana Biennial exhibition of art with a 24-hour-long public loudspeaker-broadcasted reading of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism from her doorway (not exactly a subtle gesture), a spectacle the government felt was too hot to handle, they tore up just the block of her old town house with rock drills for one week to drown out the sound. She was able to read a key part during the workers' lunch hour, an opportunity she describes as "the most beautiful thing for me."

At the start and end, the film is bookended by statements about "art" by Bruguera read by Tilda Swinton in her quiet, high-toned voice. These statements are valid for engagé, political artists. "Artists have the right to disagree with power." Of course they do. Everybody does. But it's not the main concern of every artist to disagree with power. It is Tania Bruguera's.

What emerges from this film, though of course it's only one artist and one psychiatrist, is that at least with an artist as political and as provocative as Bruguera, the Cuban regime has been very heavy handed. Nevertheless the scope of the film feels narrow, and it could have told more about this artist and her work. Though Bruguera agrees with the doctor that humor is necessary to mental health and says she takes care of that need, her work would appear to leave little room for lightheartedness. Her father was an associate of Fidel; but despite the parting of ways, she says he respected her for her courage.

Tania Libre, 71 mins., debuted at the Berlinale 14 Feb. 2017, and is also shown at the SFIFF, and as part of the latter was screened for this review.
SFIFF showtime and award: April 11, 2017 at 7:30 pm at Yerba Buena Center Theater.

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