Kiki Alvarez’s Sharing Stella is a textbook example of an independent film. The Havana-set drama takes place in December 2014 and follows a director (played by Alvarez himself) looking to cast a production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, the movie is ostensibly a look at a curiously intimate audition process but it’s also an attempt to think through the changing arts landscape following the change in U.S. diplomatic policy.
The film opens with a title card. It’s a line from the notebooks of Elia Kazan, who directed the first production and the cinematic adaptation of Williams’ play. He’s the one to thank for introducing Marlon Brando as Streetcar‘s Stanley Kowalski to the world. In his notes for his work on the play, he jotted down that Stella, the meek sister of the daydreaming protagonist Blanche, would have become as caught up in fantasy as her sister were it not for her husband. It’s the kind of line that reads more like an epigraph and which announced Sharing Stella as less a narrative or a documentary, and more like an essayistic film.
After a screening of Sharing Stella at the Havana Film Festival New York (HFFNY), Alvarez explained that the choice of play had a metaphoric intent: “We chose the Williams piece purely for the movie. We never really did produce it. Actually, it’s a play that hasn’t been produced in over 20 years. For me it’s a play about a woman [Stella] that’s torn between, one the one hand, her family and her tradition, and on the other, embodied by her husband, a more modern kind of world. It struck me that it could be applied to Cuba today.”
This is why the film is so intent on finding the right Stella. Alvarez sends fellow actor Tony Alfonso to meet with actresses and record them as they answer a string of revelatory questions. “What do you like most in the world?” he asks each of them, encouraging them to rank things as varied as croquetas and making love (his own #1 and #2 spots). What end up amounting to vlogs shot in bedrooms and in bathrooms, introduce us to lesbians who are eager to get the paperwork needed to leave Cuba, an actress who’s already lining up work in Cuba, and even more about Tony’s own long-distance boyfriend.
Sex and desire recur over and over in these conversations. In fact, at an afternoon screening in New York, an older audience member chided Alvarez for all the sex talk in the movie. Characters, after all, nonchalantly talk about being with multiple partners at the same time and cite having sex (“zingar,” “templar”) as the thing they love the most. But it all speaks back to the central text—it’s not called A Streetcar Named Desire for nothing. Claudia Muñiz, who appears in Sharing Stella as a version of herself, and whose equally sexually liberated short Con sana alegría screened ahead of Alvarez’s docufiction at HFFNY, pointed out at an audience Q&A that the film was very true to the experience of Cubans today. “You know, these millennials in Cuba today are definitely very open. They’re very eager to think about their own sexuality. And to act on it—not just talk about it. More so than here in the United States, I think.”
“The most predominant Cuban cinema is produced by ICAIC… These are demands that we’re making so as to create a new system that really recognizes everyone and anyone that’s producing cinema in Cuba today.”
As Alvarez explained, those seemingly raunchy moments create a dialogue between these young Cubans and Williams’ now classic play. The key was to encourage this type of cross-cultural conversation. “You know, governments and politicians can sign any piece of paper they’d like,” Alvarez shared at HFFNY, “but that doesn’t amount to much if we’re not actively talking to one another. Then it’s all for show.” It’s why those various speeches by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro in late 2014 find their way into the movie. This is a Cuba that’s about to change.
At the intersection of the cultural and political questions the film raises is the question of independent cinema. The kind Sharing Stella and Alvarez himself embody. Throughout much of the docufiction, we see the director wearing a black t-shirt with the words “Yo Quiero Una Ley De Cine” (“I Want A Cinema Law”) on it. It’s a not too subtle reminder that while Cuba has one of the most well-established film industries in Latin America, it remains quite beholden to one entity: Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). When Remezcla asked him to explain his pointed costume choice, the director didn’t mince words.
“Well, for over 3 years now, a number of Cuban directors have gotten together to request a Ley de Cine in Cuba. One that recognizes the independent filmmakers out there. Right now, the most predominant Cuban cinema is produced by ICAIC. But as of late the cinematic landscape of the country is much more than ICAIC. There are a lot of people working outside its system. These are demands that we’re making so as to create a new system that really recognizes everyone and anyone that’s producing cinema in Cuba today. So that’s what we’ve been calling for.” One hopes they get their way, if only so we can see more films like Sharing Stella coming our way.
Kiki Alvarez’s and Claudia Muñiz’s Q&A responses were in Spanish but were translated by the author for Remezcla.