A wonderful companion to Black Panthers for Black History Month, Varda’s photographic study-turned-film Salut les cubains! bridges Varda’s roots in photography with her developing work in moving images. The result is part travelogue, part history lesson about the Caribbean island she compares to a cigar and a crocodile floating in the sea.
Aesthetically, Cubains! also makes a strong companion to La Jetée (1962), in which Varda’s friend and contemporary director Chris Marker wove a narrative film out of still photographs. Varda’s film takes a similar approach to documentary, but Varda’s editing — particularly when paired with lively Cuban music — emphasizes a sense of motion rather than the stillness of the individual frames. MUBI’s descriptive categories on the film include “animation,” and the film is certainly animated, in more ways than one: not just in its frame-by-frame creation of human motion, but in its glimpses of art and artists who have sought to capture the soul of Cuba.
The form of Cubains! seems fresh even after more than half a century, and I suspect part of this comes from its resemblance avant la lettre to the grammar of image-driven social media platforms. I’m a reluctant (and terrible) Instagrammer, yet despite my own deficiencies it’s not hard to imagine how seamlessly this film might become, say, a series of Instagram posts, complete with captions that affix Varda’s signature wordplay against different series of photographs, especially her portraits.
As with Black Panthers, which came after Cubains! in terms of her filmography, Varda invokes an abstract American ideal, or at least its predominant ideology, and she compares this with the core subject of the film, with the occasional striking comment or image bringing this continually humming conflict into the foreground. Here, this study in contrasts bursts forth in Varda’s comparison of Fidel Castro to Hollywood actor Gary Cooper, and in the way she captures the Cubans’ own resistance to American political pressures in sound and image.
The Varda/Cuba companion volume to a 2015 exhibition of her photographs at the Centre Pompidou is another especially useful complement to the film.
Salut les cubains! is now showing as part of MUBI’s Voilà Varda collection: https://mubi.com/films/salut-les-cubains/watch