Cuba’s Cinematic Élan Vital: Cubanidad and Cubanía as Citizenship and Sentiment

April 26, 2016

This article focuses on the current shifts in expressions of Cuban national identity by considering the articulations of cubanidad and cubanía in recent films from Cubas Muestra joven, a showcase for new filmmakers organised by the state film institute (ICAIC). It argues that whereas cubanidad is aligned with the modes of citizenship (the official), which is a sense of Cubanness defined by a rationality that may be imposed, cubanía is affined with a sentiment fuelled by intuition (the personal). It then demonstrates that the Muestra joven embodies the current vacillation and movement of Cuban cinema between citizenship and sentiment and that the films it showcases indicate a process of reinterpretation and rupture of Cubanness in a context of flux instead of rigidity.

Citizenship and sentiment are both forms of identification, but whereas the first is rigid, official and exclusive, the latter is fluid, empathetic and inclusive. For theorists such as Appadurai, the mass migrations and electronic media which shape our age herald a postnational order in which the nation-state has to vie with other forms of identification and national identity must endure reinterpretation through a multiplicity of individual affiliations1. This new order of fluidity and instability has undoubtedly had ramifications for Cuban national identity, reconfiguring relations between the terms famously defined by Cuban essayist and anthropologist Fernando Ortiz; on the one hand, ‘cubanidad’ has been aligned with the ‘condición genérica de cubano2 that ‘designat[es] the junction of nationality and citizenship’3, evoking a uniform Cubannness that can accommodate but also restrict plurality in social and cultural terms that respond in some degree to criteria for inclusion and exclusion. On the other hand, a fully Cuban national identity or ‘cubanía’ has crucially been aligned with a will to collective identity and coherence: ‘la conciencia de ser cubano y la voluntad de quererlo ser.4’ Thus, whereascubanidad is a sense of Cubanness defined by a rationality that may be imposed,cubanía is a sentiment fuelled by intuition that is often romanticised. The coexistence of these two models points to a ‘logic of fetishism’: a simultaneous acknowledgement and disavowal of difference as lack5. But whereas cubanidadcentralises this logic, making it a defining factor in the pervading criteria for inclusion and exclusion that are essentially centripetal and potentially hermetic,cubanía acts upon its longing for coherence in more centrifugal ways, reaching out to ‘elsewheres’ through cultural expressions such as music and film.

Recent Cuban cinema evidences a reconfiguration towards a more fluid, sentiment-based articulation of Cubanness. Moving on from the idea of a people and its understanding of itself as having political, legal, social and economic obligations and rights as well as a shared sense of itself as a subject with a separate historical, cultural and even linguistic identity, we follow Georg Sorenson in recognising that ‘communities of citizens’ are being replaced by ‘communities of sentiment’, which are based upon relations between those in a group defined by a common language and a cultural and historical identity based on myths, symbols, music, art and assorted iconography. Sorenson’s prediction of the creative and emancipatory potential of sharing and empathy in relation to identity and classification thus sends communities that deploy film as a vehicle for expression and investigation towards a more universal cinema that exists beyond the nation-state and ultimately beyond citizenship, one in which identity is no longer given or withheld but ‘discovered, constructed and actively sustained6.’ Indeed, as our analysis demonstrates, recent Cuban films appear to fulfil Sorenson’s notion that communities would not have to be racially or politically determined if they embraced an empathy that was based upon shared sentiment and affined experiences.

Alejandro Ramírez’s deMoler (Muestra 2004), Laimir Fano’s Model Town (Muestra 2007) and Juan Carlos Cremata’s La Época, el Encanto y Fin de Siglo (Muestra 2000) foreground multiplicity, instability and subjectivity, troubling linear national narratives on which cubanidad as a set of criteria for exclusion or inclusion is based and instead opening up to more a more fluid, sentiment-oriented cubanía. IndeMoler, we watch with the residents of a small town as the sugar mill that defined their community is dismantled, splintering their coherent narratives of selfhood and fragmenting personal and national identities. However, their memories of theingenio, together with their longing for a better future defined by inclusion and opportunity unites the residents into a community of sentiment.

Meanwhile, the residents of Model Town, Hershey, are trapped in their nostalgia for a local glory long past. The film uses archive photos and mementos to call on ‘the continuous, accumulative temporality of the pedagogical’7 crucial to constructions of memory and national identity. At the same time, its attempts to bring the past to life and reconnect it with the present correspond to ‘the repetitious, recursive strategy of the performative’8. However, this strategy introduces a gap through the instability of the signifier, ultimately creating difference rather than identity. The film’s combination of the pedagogical and performative thus enacts the vacillation between cubanidad and cubanía by figuring the simultaneous creation and loss of identity, paradoxically defining the community through a nostalgia or longing that can never be satisfied.

Finally, La Época, el Encanto y Fin de Siglo uses three famous department stores in Havana as a point of departure from which to turn the pedagogical, textual and documentary into the performative, destabilizing any coherent sense of national identity and time. Combining photos, archive footage, interviews, music, quotations and visual art, this film proposes an intertextual, creative and disordered conception of both history and national identity that works against unitary conceptions associated with cubanidad. By showing how multiplicity and difference inevitably emerge from the interaction between past and present, the film champions the individual’s creative agency that makes identity subject to sentiment. Moreover, the director’s playful engagement with postmodern forms of ‘reciclaje’ reminds us that the current evolution towards a cinema of cubanía, of sentiment, involves a move along a continuum that incorporates past elements, rather than an abrupt change of mode.

This new Cuban cinema is not rigid, bounded, regimented and servile, but one of renewal and exploration that seeks affinities and contrasts as it moves outwards, looking back on its own history as fuel for further progress. Where political strategies or industrial measures require filmmakers and audiences to deal with the weight of the past, new technologies, transnational opportunities and creative liberties allow them to conceive of a new Cuban cinema of sentiment, enacting a pattern of difference with repetition central to Cuban national identity. In opening up to creative sentiment, the films examined here move towards the expression of a certain Cuban élan vital. This term is taken from Henri Bergson, who describes how evolving, complex emotion aids gradual awareness, so that through constant renewal, change and mobility the consciousness may eventually contemplate the entirety of life and perceive in it a single impulse: the élan vital9. The analogous reflexivity and evolution of the cinema of sentiment allow us to suggest, though these films, that the ‘ongoing project’ of contemporary cinema from the island is precisely the élan vital of Cuba.

In addition, the fact that Cuban films may no longer enjoy (or even desire) full institutional support, official status, or cubanidad, should not blind us to their renewed articulation of Cubanness. Filmmaking in Cuba has always been part of the cultural foundation of the revolution; but digital transformations have enabled films about present-day communities and contemporary citizenship to offer such intimate examinations of social, economic and political thought that an authentic sentiment reflecting change, potential and sacrifice is tantamount to a revisionist view of Cuba by Cuban filmmakers. It thus appears inevitable that the new Cuban ‘cinema of sentiment’ will be transformative for Cuba because, as Sorenson says of the community of sentiment, its ‘political convictions are no longer preordained from a certain social class affiliation or other tradition. They are created from the great selection of ideologies and values and the end result may not correspond to well-defined party affiliations10.’ It is precisely this rupture in a context of flux instead of rigidity that allows for sentiments that used to be contained in mainly domestic Cuban cinema to be transferred to the transnational arena, where ‘belonging’ is not achieved by conforming to the limitations and restrictions that define citizenship but by representing Cubans as an analytically competent people, able to rethink collective and individual identity, to capture on film their nation’s elán vital and express this by means of an increasingly universal sentiment.  



1. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1996: 41.

2. Fernando Ortiz, ‘Los factores humanos de la cubanidad’, Perfiles de la cultura cubana, No. 2,  mayo-diciembre 2008: 3.

3. Gustavo Pérez-Firmat, ‘A Willingness of the Heart: Cubanidad, Cubaneo, Cubanía’, Cuban Studies Association Occasional Paper Series, Vol. 2: No. 7, October 1, 1997: 3.

4. Fernando Ortiz, op. cit., 2008: 3.

5. James J. Pancrazio, The Logic of Fetishism, Lewisberg, London and Cranberry, New Jersey, Bucknell University Press, Associated University Presses, 2004: 30.

6. Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1994: 82.

7. Homi Bhabha, ‘DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the 
Modern Nation’ in Bhabha, Homi ed., Nation and Narration, London, Routledge, 
1990: 297.

8. Homi Bhabha, op. cit., 1990: 304.

9. Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, New York, Citadel
Press, 1992.

10. Georg Sorenson, The Transformation of the State: Beyond the Myth of Retreat, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004: 90-1.

About Author(s)

Dunja Fehimovic
Dunja Fehimovic is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Cambridge, currently working on national identity in relation to contemporary Cuban film. She has a background in English literature and Spanish, and has dabbled in documentary filmmaking. During her MPhil in Latin American Studies, also at Cambridge, she studied Latin American film more widely, as well as music (rap and reggaetón) in Cuba. She has worked on the Latin American news website Pulsamérica ( as writer (for the Caribbean) and sub-editor. She also contributes to the Palabras errantes ( project as translator. Webpage: