Volume 20 Issue 10 | July 20 - 26, 2007

Pulling back the Sugar Curtain

Courtesy First Run/Icarus Films

The Sugar Curtain
A documentary directed by Camila Guzmán Urzúa
Through Tuesday, July 31
Pioneer Theater
East 3rd St. near Ave. A

By Steven Snyder

There’s a sequence in Michael Moore’s latest documentary “Sicko,” that has been widely discussed, but primarily for the wrong reasons. Taking a handful of Sept. 11 responders off the shores of America and across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba, many pundits have decried Moore’s violation of the United States travel ban, which prevents American citizens from visiting or trading with the communist nation.

But far more interesting than his superficial visit to a Cuba hospital is what happens shortly after his arrival on the island, as “Sicko” pauses to look around and drive through this foreign land — to simply take in the sights of our supposed enemy’s territory. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve seen any modern footage of Cuba, and for most of America, the present and the past of Cuba is something shrouded in mystery — something we are not to consider, regard or question. They are communists, the people who aimed missiles at us in the 1960s; a culture not to be trusted.

It’s primarily due to that knowledge gap that “The Sugar Curtain” is able to cross the gulf from a collection of home movies to an important, and revealing artistic document, shedding light on a world that has been closed off for decades.

At the outset, “Sugar Curtain” starts as the story of one woman’s journey back into her past. As a child, Camila Guzmán Urzúa grew up in Cuba and, during the 1970s and ‘80s, found herself immersed in a culture that was looking toward the future with immense hope. In those days, she and her classmates were considered the “pioneers” who would help to develop a new society — a wealthy society funded in large part by the Soviet Union.

Urzúa recalls how Cuba seemed like a paradise through those young eyes, the state providing everything from healthcare to education, from housing to employment. As a child living under a system that embraced equality and community, she says, there was the notion that anything was possible. But then the wall fell, the U.S.S.R. crumbled, and Cuba’s economic life support was shut off. What ensued, through the ’90s and up to this day, is the obliteration of the Cuban economy and the quality of life of its citizens.

In many ways “The Sugar Curtain” gives her the chance to reexamine that time in her life and reconnect with those other pioneers who once shared her optimistic vision of a future Cuba. She tracks down and interviews her old classmates — many of whom, like her, have abandoned their homeland — and attempts to build a bridge between the modern view of Cuba and the promising place it once was. In the process she helps those of us in America see the nation she once knew and loved.

Given how polarizing a topic Cuba has become, particularly for those still determined to stamp out any sign of communism remaining in the world and for those who see Fidel Castro as an evil world figure, what’s most remarkable about “The Sugar Curtain” is how effectively it cuts through the rhetoric to unearth a story that is universal in its themes: A land that was once thriving is now dying, and a whole generation has fled from its shores, leaving its future in doubt. All politics aside, this is a compelling human drama, and in the many conversations she has, the reality emerges face by face.

In one of the documentary’s opening sequences, we see Urzúa holding a photograph of her old school from her childhood, and then pulling down the photograph to reveal the same identical school, spread out in front of her amid her return visit. In Urzúa’s mind, this is still the place she loved, the place that inspired her to think and dream big. But in so many ways, this place has evolved into a universe that is foreign to her, not just devoid of the prosperity she once knew, but also of the pioneers who were meant to guide the nation forward into a new and shining era. This is no superficial rendering of Cuba — as either a haven of empathy, as Michael Moore would say, or as a den of evil, as his detractors would assure us. It’s something far more complicated, far more beautiful and haunting, than we’ve been led to believe.

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