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jueves, 23 de septiembre 2021
23/09/2021
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The "Small Revolution" in the Cinema of Sergio Cabrera

By: Ronal Castañeda Tabares

On June 26, Universidad Antioquia paid tribute to Antioquian director Sergio Cabrera as part of the First National Meeting of Actors, Directors and Trainers. On this occasion, we talked to Sergio about his career, his youth in China, his time in the ranks of the EPL guerrillas and Colombian cinema.

 

The film and television director from Antioquia (1950) currently resides in Madrid, Spain. The tribute was held on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

At the age of 11, Sergio Cabrera knew he wanted to be a film director. His father, Fausto Cabrera, a renowned Spanish actor and film, theater and television director, somehow connected him to the boards, but it wasn't the only thing that interested him. Two years earlier, his aunt Inés Amelia had died and, before she passed away, she gave away some of her treasures. She gave Sergio a camera, with which he began to record his emotions through the small celluloid rectangle. That is how the fortunate epiphany happened: The boy wanted to make movies because it brought together photography and theater.

He still had that desire years later when he finished his high school studies in China (see box). At the age of 18, he was going to enter a film school in that Eastern country, but Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) began, and all universities and schools were closed. Influenced by the ideas of socialism in the East, he joined the guerrilla People's Liberation Army (EPL) in Colombia without giving up his dream of one day becoming a film director. He knew it was a way to say what he thought. "I have always been a quiet person. Film has helped me to express my emotions," said the 71-year-old filmmaker to the newspaper Alma Mater. 

One of the films that summed up these emotions was The Strategy of the Snail (1994). "If you look at it coldly, it is a small revolution. The tenants of the house follow all the protocols used in the revolutionary world to overthrow a power. That film is like an account of my life and my father's in another way." 

From his house in Madrid, Spain, Antioquian director Sergio Cabrera spoke about those experiences that have nurtured, emotionally and ideologically, his life and filmography. 

40 Years of Career

Sergio Cabrera Cárdenas (1950) was born in San Vicente de Paúl Hospital, Medellín, where he spent the first 10 years of his life. At that age, following his father's militancy, he moved to China with his family. There, he studied high school and learned the first ideas of socialism, which would mark him for life. Upon his return, he enlisted in the ranks of the People's Liberation Army (EPL). He studied cinema in London in the 1970s. His filmography, which spans more than 40 years, includes feature films, dozens of short films and documentaries, and hundreds of commercials. Among his best-known films are The Strategy of the Snail (1993), Time Out (1998) and The Art of Losing (2004). He has also directed Colombian TV series such as La Pola (2014) and Garzón vive (2017), as well as Fugitiva (2018), a Spanish production. 

Your films cannot be understood without knowing your past, your father's influence, your political militancy and your trip to China. How do you remember those moments?

I had the privilege of growing up in a family where art and literature were very important, and from a very young age, I entered the world that interested me. As a child, my parents went to live in China when it was still a very poor and backward country. Somehow, arriving in that country opened my eyes, made me look at the Colombian reality from another point of view. I think that nourishes the imagination a lot. I was also lucky enough to be in Paris at the beginning of the May 68 movement. When I returned to Colombia, very much influenced by Maoist ideas and my revolutionary education in China, I felt that the natural thing to do was to defend my ideas. For that reason, I ended up being part of a guerrilla group. 

Why did you join and then withdraw from the People's Liberation Army?

Since I was 13 years old, even before going to China, I lived in a family with very strong leftist thinking. The arrival in that socialist country had a great impact on me. Class differences were not felt as much as in Colombia. When we arrived, we entered a Chinese school. At that time, their education was very politicized. I grew up learning to love all those socialist values and believing that it was very important to change the world and seek a more just society. 

What happened when you arrived in Colombia?

I encountered a country as unfair as it is. All those ideas, somehow, were reinforced in me. I joined the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. One thing led to another, and at the age of 19, I was already in a guerrilla movement out of conviction and because I thought it was what I should do. It was not an easy decision. It was a sacrifice; I did it because I believed in my ideas, and the reason I left was the same. While I was inside, I realized that my ideas did not really agree with those of the guerrilla movement. I felt that by doing good I was doing bad. I asked for authorization to leave, which is what finally happened.

Sergio Cabrera with actors Daniel Giménez Cacho and Luis Fernando Múnera during the shooting of the film The Art of Losing (2004). Photo: Family archive

You once said that your father's concern about your love of cinema was that it would keep you away from militancy. How was that transition?

When I was 22 or 23 years old, I realized that I could not devote myself to indulging the wishes of my father, who would have wanted me to stay closer to militancy. I must say, though, that, in a way, he has continued my mental militancy. I always gauge how far I can give in on certain things in my films, writings and even some television projects. I am still a leftist who still thinks that Colombia is an unjust country. I still think that society must be changed to better redistribute wealth, protect human rights, provide education and culture for all.

I am not conservative at all. On the contrary, I appreciate people who work for progress and development. I am not a militant, but I still have those ideas that excited me so much when I came to China. 

These ideas are seen in The Strategy of the Snail, perhaps your best-remembered film. How did that story come about?

The original idea came from an old Chinese fable called “The Old Fool Who Moved the Mountain.” It is the story of a man who one day went out into the country with picks, shovels and buckets, and started digging a mountain. A neighbor comes out and says, "Hey, old fool, what are you doing?". To which he replies, "This mountain prevents the sun from entering my plot, so I'm going to remove it." The wise old man replies, "No wonder they call you an old fool. You'll never achieve that." To which the old fool replies, "I probably won’t achieve it myself, but there are my children; then, my grandchildren, and then, my grandchildren's children. If we all insist, someday the mountain will disappear and the sun will reach my crops." 
This fable was used by Mao Tse Tung at the time of the Cultural Revolution as an example of what China had to do to move forward, and indeed it worked for them. Look where they are today. 

I had that fable engraved in my mind because we read it every day of the year. Then, I went to London to study cinema. From there, I asked my family to send me newspapers to see if I could find something that would inspire me to write a script. One day, on the last page of El Tiempo, I read a news item, "Tenement house in El Cartucho vanishes." It was about how a judge had gone to carry out an eviction, and when he arrived, the house did not exist. It had been ransacked. It occurred to me that these two stories, the one about the old fool who moved the mountain and the news item, could be worked a bit in the style of Italian neorealism scripts, which are inspired by everyday life and real actions. 

How was the writing of the script?

I wrote a short film but quickly realized it wasn't the format for such a complex story. One day when I went to New York, I met Ramón Jimeno and told him I was looking to team up with a journalist to help me give the tone to this story. We started writing it that night. It took us about three years to complete the script. When we finished it, I still felt it was a very difficult text for my first film, so I wrote Details of a Duel. In the meantime, we sent the script of The Strategy of the Snail to the national contest organized by the Compañía para el Fomento Cinematográfico, at that time, Focine. It won first prize, which entailed producing the film. Then, I realized that it could be further improved, and I asked Humberto Dorado to make a creative revision of the text before shooting. 

Why do you think The Strategy of the Snail is still so well remembered?

It is a script that places great emphasis on solidarity, which has always been a suspicious virtue and does not arouse sympathy among the powerful. There must have been a moment in the history of humanity when it was time to choose between solidarity and justice, and justice, which is much stricter, was chosen. A story about solidarity and the struggle for dignity in a group of people who feel they have the right to rebel and protest generates a lot of empathy. It also speaks to something that has not been said before: Through collective action, a group of people regains their self-esteem and dignity. I also think the actors are very good. 

When this film was released (1993), there were two or three productions a year in the country. What do you think of the current moment when an average of 40 feature films is being released?

Cinema, in a way, has its own ecology. For good cinema to exist, there must be bad cinema, which is the fertilizer for good cinema. No country makes only good films. In the Colombian case, as everywhere else, this happens. If you want my opinion, it happens much less than in Spain, France or Italy, whose cinematography I know quite well. Most Colombian films are good. There are very bold directors, producers, actors and writers. We know that people prefer comedies, and still, if you look at the Colombian cinema of the last 20 years, you realize that dramas, tragedies, the look at our conflicts, failures and internal dramas prevail by far. There is also comedy; there must be that harmony. It is nice that there is a bit of everything. 

You finished the Colombian series Garzón in 2017, and then, co-directed Fugitiva (2018) in Spain. What are you working on now?

I’m writing. After I finished Fugitiva, the pandemic broke out. The audiovisual world has just begun to work again. I have three projects; I really like especially two. I am working on them. There's no need to be in a hurry. Over the years, I've realized that it's very important to mature the scripts and try to get the most out of them. 

Mature...You have been making films for over 40 years. Do you think it has become easier or more difficult to write, produce and direct?

More difficult. I mean, it is easier because you know more, but you’re also more self-critical on a cinematographic, emotional and political level because whatever attitude you take, even if it is apolitical, means you’re taking a stand. Intellectuals, in general, don’t have any tools to change anything, let alone filmmakers. A film can't change the world or anything, but it can get people thinking about problems and push them to find ways or leaders to solve those conflicts.

 
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