Cuban Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Kiki Alvarez on Directing an Improvised Film With 3 Female Leads

A fan blows inside an empty beauty salon. Three beauticians progressively arrive for work: Mayelín shows up early but hung over, ostensibly after all-night rager; Violeta, overwrought with worry, can’t help but continuously check her cell phone; and finally, a practical and self-assured Monica pulls up on the back of her husband’s motorcycle. These are the three sirens to which filmmaker Kiki Alvarez plays conductor to an opera with no libretto titled Venecia.

Shot in La Habana, Alvarez’s Venecia presents a Cuba where nothing seems to be happening and yet, perhaps because of its inconspicuousness, it is the center of the universe. Mayelín (Marianela Pupo), Violeta (Claudia Muñiz) and Monica (Maribel García Garzón) are catalyzed into a night of adventure when they receive their monthly wages. Over the course of the night, they will grow to know each other better and collectively dream beyond their everyday reality. But these dreams will prove to be like butterflies, more resplendent in flight than in captivity.

Co-screenwriter and lead actress, Claudia Muñiz, takes much of the credit for creating this low-fi fairy tale inspired more by Cinderella’s wicked step-sisters than by the more virtuous protagonist. The film was largely improvised from a pre-conceived shot-list. All performances are full of bravery and vulnerability, displaying very specific, very detailed corners of existence within the lives of each character. In the deliberate, verité-like portrayal of constructed personalities, we’re watching people naturally be their made-up selves. The film moves languidly at the speed of Caribbean heat and warms just as intensely, with Maribel García Garzón’s Monica taking us through some provocative scenes that bring the audience to the edge of comfortability. The series of moments that make up Venecia, born out of freedom and mutual trust, evidence a production team working with the cohesion and synchronicity of a world-class symphony.

Conductor/filmmaker Alvarez has been lauded for presenting a new Cuba, one that is more interested in looking at itself than its reflection; one that is less interested in politics and instead lives defiantly within its limitations. Though the film, in its contemplative explorations of character and dream-like pacing is very much Alvarez’s, it is the women who take center stage. This is perhaps Alvarez’s greatest contribution to the film: he acts less like a director and more like a consigliere to each of these unique and talented voices. Venecia is a must-see for its well-crafted, elaborate, and yet contained vibrato.

Right off the heels of Venecia‘s world premiere, we caught up with Kiki Alvarez to talk about the benefits of improvisation, the “new” Cuba, and what it was like to direct three female protagonists.

What is the first movie memory you have, the first movie scene or dialogue than you remember? Why do you think this memory has stayed with you for so long?

My first memory of the cinema is not an image, a sequence, or the face of an actor. Rather, I see myself, small, sitting at a window, watching the same movie twice while my uncle slept next to me. That was, I think, during a very hot summer in Havana, when my “Gallego” uncle took me nearly every day to the movies so that he could have his nap in a dark room with air conditioning. Meanwhile, I found myself fascinated by the world of dreams that a magical lamp and a loudspeaker projected onto a white screen. I did not know then, that boy could not have guessed, that many years later I would be the one filming stories for people to continue to have a place to go to satisfy their curiosity with others’ stories. I think I have kept this memory because all the sensations that always motivate me to enter a movie theater and discover it to be full of people lingering within it.

“More than a generation in Cuba lives free from the weight of history.”

The way of life and everyday perspectives have been changing in Cuba recently. What are some of these cultural changes that have entered into the narrative of Venecia?

Venecia does not take place in Cuba where people are constantly aware of their frustrations and weight of existence. Here, the three protagonists, Mayelín, Violeta, and Monica live in a continuous present, always ready to react with a beautiful innocence to the vicissitudes that they grapple with during the day — we happen to peer into their lives. They do not feel bad for themselves; they do not try to explain their behavior; they don’t have dreams and when they come up with a common dream, they abandon it immediately in order to continue living, living, living.

Already more than a generation in Cuba lives free from the weight of history, without ties or commitments to a dismantling past or to a future yet to be built. They are young people like the characters in Venecia, people who build their life step by step without seeking anything other than their own happiness or at least a moment of fulfillment and redemption. I think that can help define or explain the behavior of the three women in Venecia as they build a friendship throughout the course of the film.

Have there been changes to the roles of women in Cuban society and/or Cuban cinema? How do we see these changes reflected in the film? What was it like to direct the three female protagonists?

Venecia is a women’s film and I, like Ulysses in the Odyssey, had to tie myself to a post in order listen without being driven crazy by the beautiful and awesome song of the sirens. I love women. I love the women in my film and the incessant chatter with which they construct a friendship. After the second screening in Toronto, a woman came up to me and asked how I had worked with them to achieve that spontaneity. I answered that all I did was look at them, listen to them, and respect their views while they were building their characters.

“I forgot they were actresses. I forgot that I was watching a movie.”

So this Canadian woman kisses me and says: “For me it has been a beautiful experience. I forgot they were actresses. I forgot that I was watching a movie and wanted them to be my friends. I want to continue to get to know them.” For me, this was the best of all possible praise.

Introduce us to Claudia Muñiz please. How did you meet and begin working together? What was the creative point of departure?

Claudia Muñiz is responsible for all of this. She is in the process of discovering her voice and in the case of Venecia, she was able to diversify it and share it with the other actresses in the film in order to create an ensemble framework, which was amplified with the improvisations we prompted during production and which were captured throughout the shoot. I’ve been working with Claudia for several years and looking for that common ground where our visions converge and interact.

We are a creative team that has been influenced and enriched by people like Nicholas Ordoñez, Rubén Valdés, Ivonne Cotorruelo, Ivette Liang and all who have been willing to participate, contributing labor and talent in the completion of a project as risky as this.

The film was shot based off a scene-list, which was used to improvise from. What were the benefits of this approach?

Improvising is not easy and controlling the results is very difficult. So almost nobody would have bet, in terms of production, on a project like Venecia. Today movies are made step by step, in endless stages of development, consulting and rewrites that dehumanize creativity and minimize risk. I get the sense that the academic and professional worlds operate in very similar ways and now festivals and markets dictate projects with their curators, workshops and dominating trends that specify how to “write” a movie.

“Improvising is not easy and controlling the results is very difficult.”

Generally films in Cuba are made through ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos). However Venecia was not made within its boundaries — it was financed via a Kickstarter campaign. Why did you choose to produce it this way?

Venecia is an independent production because it required a production model that would assume its risks and creative specificities. The need for “independence” is not conditioned by the search for a space to practice thematic freedoms but due to the artistic proposal. It’s a film that ICAIC, with its current industrial model, could not produce. If someone asks me if Venecia is the result of a political gesture (which is usually expected from Cuban films) I would say yes, but Venecia is not a political film as evidenced by its discourse (which is more or less critical) but by the type of existential and creative relationships the film proposes: interaction, multiple voices, coexistence, respect for others. These are needs that Cuban society has to assume in order to continue growing. Confrontational politics do not interest me. My job is to reveal and ultimately propose.

Speaking strictly metaphorically, where and what is Venecia?

Venecia is a nowhere, just a utopian dream of its own characters which fades instantly by the need to continue living a continuous present we can not capture because as it builds, it disappears… like the very experience of going to the cinema to watch a movie while someone next to you sleeps and dreams of their own demons.

Venecia premiered this month at the Toronto Film Festival.