66: Unfinished Spaces (LAFF 2011)dirs. Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, USA, 2011, 84 mins
(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)
After Fidel Castro’s ascendancy in 1959, the entire island of Cuba was swept up in a wave of revolutionary ardor: For those Cubans who didn’t see the revolution as the end of the world, it was a new beginning where anything seemed possible and sheer idealism could will a new nation into existence. This idea was given form in the five ambitious Schools of Art commissioned by Castro and Che Guevara in 1961. Unfinished Spaces, a documentary by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, traces that idealism as literally embodied in the design of the schools: grand and sprawling structures designed by renowned architects Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro, and Vittorio Garratti. However, the ardor quickly cooled and the Castro regime became plagued with paranoia and dogmatism. Some schools were never finished and all were left to the mercy of nature and the elements.
Using a mix of archival footage and images along with interviews with the architects and present-day exploration, the film traces a line from the schools’ inception to their current status. Even as construction was underway and eventually abandoned, classes were being held and students were living onsite. Present-day scenes of student musicians playing in the middle of overgrown brick skeletons that recall ancient ruins are some of the most haunting moments of the film.
The most successful tactic Nahmias and Murray undertake is the subtle, syntactical way they form parallels from the physical structures of the school to the way the schools as institutions are run, all the way to the health of Cuban civil society at large. In the film’s sweeping vision, the Cuban Schools of Art are a grand metaphor for the whole country. Built on top of nationalized land that used to be an exclusive golf course, the schools were, in architecture and ideals, the vanguard navigating new frontiers. (Much is made of Porro designing the School of Plastic Arts to resemble the body of a fertility goddess, provoking minor scandal.) But pressure for the schools to hew closer to their Soviet benefactors’ ethos stifles their ambition; we see images of military-style discipline imposed upon freewheeling arts students. The buildings themselves certainly did not conform to the new dogma, and the trio of architects were driven to exile or marginalized in their field before their work could even be completed.
The film doesn’t try to hide its advocacy, but it makes a convincing argument with its exquisitely photographed exploration of the schools in shambles being absorbed by the encroaching wilderness. Nahmias and Murray tell the story of an attempt to establish an artistic Eden, and the eventual expulsion from that paradise hits with the weight of biblical inevitability. It’s such a shocking jump from the beautiful abstraction of the architects’ designs to the reality of the present, with the detritus of squatters and roaming wild dogs. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the tragedy of loss and hope for rebirth when everyone involved speaks with such great passion—even Castro himself, who is called to task in a press conference. He displays such conflicted emotion while delivering a speech that’s either the resurgence of forgotten idealism or its gurgling death throes.