Michael Sicinski on The Project of the Century
The Project of the Century played Saturday, January 16 at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2016.
Let’s start at the end and work backwards. In the closing credits, Carlos Machado Quintela dedicates his film to famed Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the late Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez. This dual memorial says a great deal about the tone of The Project of the Century, a film that takes place in a colossal nuclear ruin that dominates Cienfuegos province, in the heart of Cuba’s southern coast. The cosmonaut and the filmmaker both represent different phases of revolutionary development, Communist consciousness, and hope for the future. Despite these differences, it is their latent similarities that are of interest to Quintela. Neither Gagarin nor Gómez can be co-opted as a symbol of post-Communist cynicism, or the Milton Friedman-Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher triumphalism that props up its own rickety ideologies by sneering at socialism’s dreams of a better world. (For a prime example of such smug Millennial gloating, I hand you over to Gizmodo, with apologies.) Quintela’s film has nothing whatsoever to do with the so-called “dustbin of history.” Instead, it is a serious examination of lives left behind in the wake of aspirations that never came to pass.
Gagarin, of course, was a hero. In 1961 he was the first man to orbit the earth, a titan of space exploration and a beacon of hope for the Soviets in gaining the edge in the Space Race. What’s more, he was eminently likable, a celebrity who even the capitalists had to embrace on some level, a competitor worthy of the West’s respect. In the 1960s, many Communists still believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the system might prove to be more than a set of empty promises and deprivations, that all the toil and sacrifice might indeed bear fruit. Yuri Gagarin was the living embodiment of those aspirations. Sara Gómez was an Afro-Cuban filmmaker, one of the few employed by the Cuba’s national filmmaking agency, the ICAIC. She was an assistant director to the great Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who served as her mentor; she also worked with Agnès Varda while she was making Salut des cubains in 1963. Gómez’s filmography is tragically brief. She died suddenly at the age of 31 from an asthma attack. She nevertheless managed to make eleven short documentaries, under assignment from the ICAIC. But Gómez is primarily remembered for her sole narrative feature, De cierta manera (“One Way or Another”), released posthumously in 1978, after she’d finished shooting in 1974. Highly inventive for its combination of direct-cinema style technique and fictional love story, De cierta manera examined the immediate aftermath of the 1959 revolution on poor racial minorities in Cuba, as well as the differential “liberation” of men and women, both in the slums and elsewhere in the nation. Combining Alea’s sensibility with elements of Godard, Varda, and Shirley Clarke, De cierta manera is a dazzling debut by any standard, all the crueler for demonstrating the brilliant career Gómez would never have.
But to return to the main question, how do these two people, the cosmonaut and the filmmaker, serve as avatars for Quintela’s broader inquiry into Cuban history and The Project of the Century in particular? While Gagarin held out the promise of Communism’s glory, he also died young, at age 34, in a MiG training flight. He gave his life for the cause, while also demonstrating that the dream of aeronautic superiority was perhaps never to be. Gómez, for her part, leveled criticisms regarding inequalities in Castro’s Cuba, but did so within the spirit of belief in the revolutionary project, not an exposure of its fraudulence. These are two young believers, dedicated to pushing socialism forward against all odds.
The Project of the Century is a fictional film, much like Gómez’s, that is situated in a realistic time and place, and that draws much of its meaning from that concrete reality. “The Project” is/was the CET, or Electro-Nuclear City, a compound built in tandem with the Juragua Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos. Over miles and miles of territory, beginning in 1983, this joint Soviet-Cuban construction was intended to both alleviate all of the island’s power consumption needs, and display the Soviet Union’s state-of-the art technology for building and operating a full-tilt nuclear reactor, and in the Western Hemisphere to boot. Given the massive amount of personnel needed to construct the Juragua plant, the CET was conceived as a barracks-city of tower blocks, where the crew could live and work together. This was particularly necessary since along with the Cuban employees, hundreds of workers and technicians were brought over from Russia for the years-spanning assignment. Given the massive undertaking, the CET was up and running long before any real progress on the reactor was made.
But then, history happened. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the Cienfuegos plant was left permanently unfinished. Efforts to attract private investment from France and Germany were thwarted by U.S. politicians, demanding adherence to our trade embargo, lest some other global trade agreements stall out in Congress. And so now, Juragua and the CET are a massive shell of incompletion, a testament to thousands of hours of men’s and women’s labor and dedication that have all come to precisely nothing. Since it would cost the Cuban government millions to undertake a large-scale dismantling of the half-built Cienfuegos plant, it’s just going to stay there, a monument to optimism that went awry in the age of rapacious neoliberal capital and bureaucratized crony-communism.
For Quintela’s part, he reminds us that many people still live in the CET, although certainly not as many as did back in the eighties or nineties. The fictional frame story of The Project of the Century involves three men, representing three generations of a family whose lives intersected with the Juragua plant and its shifting fortunes. Rafa (Mario Guerra) spent years working as an engineer, helping to build the now-curtailed plant. He is mired in depression, feeling that he has effectively wasted his life. His father, Otto (Mario Balmaseda), is an angry old man who constantly berates Rafa, and seems to show tenderness only to his pet goldfish. As the film starts, Rafa’s son Leo (Leonardo Gascón) returns home, following the dissolution of a long-term relationship. He is disgusted with himself for retreating to the CET, a moribund place he could not leave quickly enough as a younger man.
While Quintela takes these men’s struggles seriously, it is equally evident that he intends them to serve as a backdrop for larger national questions, a consideration of Cuba’s post-Soviet situation and uncertain present. This is a transitional time for the island nation, with Fidel fading into the background, Raúl seeming to continue the legacy, but also making overtures to the Obama-led U.S., and seeing undeniable results. Could it be possible that today’s world is marked by both residual and emergent social and economic forms? And as demands for political and economic justice around the globe have shown us, the dominance of those forms, and their continued evolution, is dynamic and even hair-triggered. We kid ourselves if we think we’ve somehow arrived at the “end of history.”
The title The Project of the Century literally refers to the Juragua nuclear power plant, but of course, in the broader sense, it is socialism. Quintela’s film displays the crippling emotional malaise that comes with having had a psychic investment in that project, only to see it stalled out, halted in its tracks (even if only temporarily, even if only for your own lifetime). This mournful film takes the utopian aspiration of Communist dreams seriously, without overlooking the dangerous faults at their core. Aside from Michael Robinson’s Victory Over the Sun, and the work of Jim Finn, I can think of very few films that have the sensitivity and courage to embrace heroic narratives in the hour of their disrepute.
Image courtesy of Rizoma