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‘NOBODY LISTENED’ One of Many Cases of Censorship
by Jessica Rincon and Patrick White
Dictatorships have been known historically to censor people’s freedom of expression. From the communist regimes in the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and today in modern day Cuba, people are locked up for questioning or disagreeing with the action, views, and or policies of their government. Regardless, people still try to make their voices heard. Nobody Listened is a documentary film that attempts to reveal the truth about one of the world’s most notorious dictators, Fidel Castro. After watching the film and researching the issues that relate to it, we found that this particular film is part of an even bigger issue of censorship that not only involves the censorship in Cuba, but also that of Cuban exiles in the United States of America. We will examine here the various ways that the documentary film Nobody Listened has been censored both in Cuba and in the United States.
Cuba is known to the world for having excellent literacy rates and an outstanding system of health care; however, most civilians consider this a myth created by the revolutionaries, since for decades Cubans have suffered under Castro’s dictatorship. Although some Cubans favor his government, a considerable amount has fled, mainly to the United States, to escape his regime and Cuba’s poor conditions of life. Castro censures people’s freedom of expression by arbitrarily banning any material (book, film, or article) he feels threatens his government principles, such as the declaration of Human Rights or a Cuban exile book, and labels it as “counter-revolutionary.” Since Castro first formed his government, 47 years ago, thousands of political and regular prisoners have been accused of committing crimes. What are considered crimes, as mentioned in the article Against All Hope: A Memoir in Castro’s Gulag, are things like being part of organizations defending Human Rights, sedition, possessing counter-revolutionary or non-authorized material, or if the person has been arrested before and is considered politically active, Castro will find any pretext, such as refusing government officials to fumigate the person’s house with substances she/he is allergic to, to arrest him/her (Valladares 1-2). They were, and are, taken to jails where they endure unthinkable abuses, ranging from horrendous tortures, forced labor and beatings, to “accidental deaths” and executions.
The documentary made by Nestor Almendros and Jorge Ulla, Nobody Listened, touches on these issues, questioning the general state of Human Rights in Cuba. The film is inspired by the book Against all Hope, where the author, Armando Valladares describes the experiences he and other prisoners went through. Nobody Listened is an expository documentary showing a series of people’s testimonies ranging from Castro’s former comrade, to priests and civilians that had been, or had a relative, in at least one of the prisons shown. Their stories are accompanied by footage or pictures supporting their testimonies, and on given occasions, the narrator explains further the images shown.
When one watches the movie, one realizes immediately why the film is censored in Cuba. This documentary is completely against the revolution, or better said, against Castro’s government since it reveals the stories of people that have gone through terrible tortures and somehow survived. It questions Cuba’s system of Human Rights and shows the discrepancy between what Castro and his “comrades” say is happening in Cuba versus what is really going on according to the everyday experiences of many Cubans. Castro has a remarkable ability, like any other tyrant, to ignore what the people are going through in his own country. He demonstrates his unwillingness to make things better when he said that “for those who hope for change ‘Let them sit down and keep hoping, because in Cuba there is no need to change a thing’” (Valladares 3).
The documentary also tackles the non-supportive response of Cuba’s government towards its exiles, as in the case with the directors themselves (Ulla and Almendros). This can be seen at the beginning of the movie when Ulla is trying to ask important figures of the government for their contribution, or their thoughts on the situation of Human Rights in Cuba, and they respond, if at all, with ambivalence, evasion or outright refusal to talk to him. Exiles are considered traitors to the country, and therefore, do not deserve any help. Also, it should be kept in mind that obviously exposing the real situation in Cuba is inconvenient for Castro. To this end, the reaction of the people in his government is to be expected.
It is understandable that due to such a dictatorship people who have seen this documentary in Cuba are few and far between, but what about in the United States, a country who prides itself on being the Land of the Free? Well, it seems that in the U.S there is a tacit sense of censorship, an implicit way of making decisions about what is broadcast since they cannot air everything is made in order to make everyone happy, and this is precisely why this documentary and others like it have been rejected. The censorship of the film Nobody Listened is not something that limits itself to films with explicit descriptions of the terrible things that certain people had to go through in Cuban jails, but is actually part of a bigger problem that Cuban American intellectuals face every day.
Although we could not contact Jorge Ulla, and Almendros passed away in 1992, we could get a hold of a friend of Almendros, the filmmaker (Covering Cuba series from one to four) Agustín Blázquez, who provided us with substantial information about the censorship of this type of documentaries, particularly in the United States. For years, intellectual Cuban exiles residing in the U.S have been discriminated against by the people who control the media and the ones in charge of promoting and distributing artists, filmmakers, and writers’ works. As mentioned in Blázquez’s article, Branded by Paradise and Maligned by Exile, there is a herd of “pro-Castro sympathizers in the U.S. media and in the film industry” (3) who, like the dictator they support, react in this way against people who do not share their political beliefs. An example of this is when Nobody Listened was rejected in 1988 by the New York Film Festival, the same festival that rejected Bitter Sugar (Leon Ichazo) and This is Cuba (Chris Hume); which are also films that contain as well controversial information about Castro’s regime. However, this trend did not go unnoticed because of the group of Cuban American filmmakers who protested against this decision, and among these protesters was Ulla. According to Blázquez’s article “Enough is Enough,” the director of the festival, Richard Pena, said that the films are chosen irregardless of their content. This is the same man who said that Improper Conduct, another film by Nestor Almendros, “attacks the stability of the Cuban revolution” (Blázquez 1). No correlation is shown between what the principle of the Festival seems to be and what actually happens at the end. It seems as if films of this sort are destined to receive little or no airtime.
In our conversation with Agustín, he sounded aggravated by the fact that although people like him had spent a great deal of time, money, and effort to produce and direct films with such an important message, and in a country where freedom of expression is so valued, are yet still censored. He felt helpless in relating that everything is about politics and about who controls public broadcasting. According to him, as repeated many times in both his articles and our conversation, a large part of the media and art world in the U.S., which includes filmmakers and festival organizers, are considered political Leftists. This means that in a free country like the United States, they have the right to express their views. At the same time, it is contradictory that precisely this situation is what prevents movies like Nobody Listened from being seen; as was the case with the festivals rejecting it, and the PBS TV stations, which was probably the most blatant form of censorship that has been imposed on the film.
For years, PBS refused to show it, but in 1990 when they finally agreed to broadcast it - better late than never, they cut out about an hour of the two-hour film. This meant that many of the powerful testimonies of torture and suffering where left out. Furthermore, immediately after it ended, PBS aired a pro-Castro documentary entitled The Uncompromising Revolution by Saul Landau. This, according to Blázquez, was something that Ulla and Almendros considered an absolute offence to their work. He shared their opinion and compared it to the unlikely scenario of a movie about the Holocaust being aired, followed directly by a pro-Hitler movie. This is something that would never happen, he said. He also added that by doing so, and by cutting down the film, the message they were intending to send was diluted or had no effect, since the audience was put in “double standard” situation.
After having examined the issue about censorship being applied to the documentary film Nobody Listened, in Cuba it seems inevitable that a film like this one would be censored, judging from the regime under which it is governed. As mentioned earlier, one of the first rights taken away from people living in a dictatorship is freedom of expression. Therefore, it is impossible to show a film like this one under the political conditions in Cuba. On the other hand, the case of censorship in the United States is a different issue. It seems strange that a country not involved with decisions concerning what is broadcast in Cuba, since it is a different country, in its own country when dealing with this issue, trying to sort out between pro-Castro and against-Castro material, they apply a tacit censorship. Because it is such a delicate issue, they should be objective and neutral, but instead they take a biased stance. It would seem more adequate and fair to perhaps still show both side views, as everyone has the right to speak their opinions, but maintaining respect, above all, towards both groups, and leaving it up to the audience to interpret what they see in a considerable space of time.
Going through this investigation has provided deeper insight into the controversial issue of censorship. One sometimes takes for granted freedom of speech in countries like the United States, since we are used to the idea that we are expressing ourselves with minimal or no restraints. However, what seems common sense to us is not necessarily the case for others. In the case of Cuban exiles in the U.S. their films are apparently too controversial to be shown. For us, the fact that the material is controversial and revealing is precisely why it should be shown. We should be prepared to deal with the complexity and conflict in society by acquiring as much information and debating the issues. In this way, overt censorship and heavy biases by those with power amounts to. Our right is to know.
Blázquez, Agustín. Telephone Interview, Feb. 25, 2006
Blázquez, Agustín with collaboration of Jaums Sutton. “Branded by Paradise and Maligned by Exile.” Tyrant Aficionado. 1999, http://home.earthlink.net/~servando/tyrant/women.htm
Blázquez, Agustín, “Enough is Enough.” CubaNet News. http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y96/nov96/6enou.html
“Nobody Listened”. Dir. Nestor Almendros and Jorge Ulla. Perf. Jorge Ulla et al. Cuban Human Rights Film Project and Direct Cinema, 1989
Valladares, Armando. “Against All Hope: A Memoir in Castro’s Gulag.” The Heritage Foundation. 15 March, 2002. Heritage Lecture # 737. http://www.heritage.org/Research/LatinAmerica/HL737.cfm