An object lesson in a regime’s uses and abuses of artists, “Unfinished Spaces” elegantly traces the brief heyday and longer dark years of Cuba’s National Art Schools and the campus’ unconventional architecture. The essence of a nation’s attitude toward its culture may be read through specific angles and episodes, and Alysa Nahmias’ and Benjamin Murray’s film allows for such a reading of Cuba from 1961 to now. Classy mounting, an original subject, solid interviews and fine research guarantee wide fest exposure prior to 2012 pubcast airings.
The man with the idea of establishing schools for the arts that would draw in students from across Cuba was no less than Fidel Castro himself, who had a brainstorm while on a lark with Che Guevara, golfing at Havana’s most exclusive country club. Seeing the space on the links as the perfect spot for an expansive campus, Castro recruited architect Selma Diaz that same day to come up with plans for “the best art schools in the world.”
No other sequence better illustrates the excitement and youthful vigor of Cuba at that moment, newly liberated from the oppressive military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Like members of every social sector, artists were encouraged to think grandly and imaginatively, and Diaz immediately linked up with top Cuban architect Ricardo Porro, who in turn enlisted brilliant Italian architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. Together, with a group of eager students, they were to create an archipelago of sensuously designed structures to house separate schools for plastic arts, modern dance, ballet, theater and music.
Some viewers may be surprised at the free expression of creative activity the schools represented, but this was the nature of Castro’s early vision for the country. The buildings were meant to suggest all sorts of organic shapes and resisted right angles; Porro’s, in particular, engaged in overt sexual symbols that went beyond the art of architects like Antonio Gaudi, who clearly influenced this project.
As Nahmias and Murray smartly document, students from all overt the island attended the schools, and their ample use of black-and-white footage shot by the great Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solas beautifully captures the youthful energy on campus. (“Free love,” as former student Manuel Lopez-Oliva terms it, wasn’t unknown, either.)
Yet it was precisely this trend that Castro’s officials came to condemn — most dramatically Guevara, whose efforts to militarize the country while rounding up gays and lesbians (among other so-called “subversives”) marked a stark change of course for Cuba. It’s beyond the scope of “Unfinished Spaces” to delve into the politics, but the docu raises the issue of Cuba’s tragic turn toward totalitarianism better than any recent film just by telling its story. It also provides a reminder to those who may hold a romantic view of Guevara as a revolutionary rebel that he directly managed an essentially Stalinist (and specifically pro-Soviet) transformation that rigidified what had been a much freer country.
Porro is the film’s star, still an amusing and sharp observer of the realities he was up against, even as Garatti and Gottardi play an equally vital role as interviewees. They all found themselves up against Soviet-influenced bureaucrats at the Ministry of Construction, whose decision to go on a mass building campaign using Soviet-made pre-fabricated materials was decried by the “bourgeois” architects like Porro. Images of the shoddy pre-fab work, in contrast to the masterful school structures, say everything about Cuba’s tragic alliance with the U.S.S.R. Pic ends on a somewhat upbeat note, though with a bitterly ironic twist just before the credits.
Murray’s color HD lensing is warm and assured, and editors Kristen Nutile and Alex Minnick fluidly navigate new footage as well as the fascinating treasure trove of archival film. Among the supporting interviewees, Cuban architect Mario Coyula stands out for his keen and frank observations of what went wrong with the project and why.