David Reviews Alysa Nahmias & Benjamin Murray’s Unfinished Spaces [PIFF 2012 Review]

A society going through the tumult of political and cultural revolution creates conditions for some of the most dramatically divergent emotions that humans are capable of feeling. Hopeful optimism and joyful relief from oppression are balanced by cautious anxiety or dreadful insecurity over what the future may hold once the new order is established. The victors experience a rush of exuberant vindication, while those cast out from positions of power and privilege often suffer a mix of terror, rage and debilitating grief. With such high stakes, it’s no surprise that cinema so often uses such compelling circumstances as the backdrop for some of its biggest spectacles, as I was reminded this weekend when I watched David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, a grand saga set against the canvas of Russia’s Communist revolution of 1917.

As impressive as that award-winning epic may be, it’s hard to make the case that its significance compares favorably to stories that occur in real life. So even though the new documentary Unfinished Spaces will probably never make quite the same crowd-pleasing splash as one of Lean’s late career masterpieces, the story it tells, about a visionary campus of art schools that was birthed, neglected and ultimately reborn in the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, is at least as deserving of our attention, because it really happened.

Unfinished Spaces is the debut documentary feature of a pair of filmmakers out of New York University, Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray. In 2001, they enjoyed a unique opportunity to tour the near-ruins of five highly distinctive schools built in the early 1960s in the period just after Castro and company rose to power. The task given to three young architects commissioned by the nascent Cuban government was to visualize the most futuristic and aesthetically striking creative environment they could imagine, then go about creating the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools) on the grounds of what had been an exclusive country club located on the southern outskirts of Havana. The initial burst of creative possibilities that swept over Cuba after the ouster of the Batista regime encouraged such lofty thinking, and for several years, construction continued on the complex even as political and economic realities began to diminish the revolution’s ardor for pursuing its more utopian ambitions.

As Cuba settled into a more centralized, cash-strapped and rigidly dogmatic adherence to Soviet-style ideology, the mission and legitimacy of the art schools was increasingly called into question, by figures of no less authority and stature than Che Guevara himself. The eternal conflict between militant and artistic temperaments was exacerbated as the schools became a laboratory for experiments in sexual liberation and free speech. Resources dried up, skepticism about the school’s value increased among top Communist party officials and what once held the promise of being a world-class destination for the pursuit of excellence in music, sculpture, dance and drama eventually fell into a state of decrepitude. The ravages of time, of nature and of human poverty that led some of the school’s neighbors to pilfer raw materials from the crumbling structures transformed this crown jewel of Cuban expression in the creative arts into an unfortunate artifact of the revolution’s unfulfilled potential.

But  despite these adversities, the remnants of the campus still retain a powerful and magnetic beauty that’s vividly captured by the sharp imagery that Nahmias and Murray created over a nearly 10 year period, filming the buildings in various seasons, times of day and lighting conditions. Their powerful footage is supplemented by equally candid and reflective interviews with the architects themselves, all well into their 80s now, one native Cuban and two Italians who were living in Havana at the time, each reminiscing on their experiences over the past half century since they first received their commission to create this monument.

Archival sources from both the initial phase of the revolution as well as rare scenes from inside Cuba over the subsequent decades add essential historical context, and a number of other key figures – teachers and students both past and present, American architect John Loomis, whose book 1999 book Revolution of Forms first raised contemporary awareness of the subject, and others –  offer their own insights on what the schools have meant to them, and what the site and structures may still go on to inspire in the future. Even Fidel Castro makes an appearance toward the end, offering an explanation as to why the schools fell into their dilapidated conditions, though it sounds an awful lot like standard politician lip-service, telling his audience what they want to hear, if you want to know my opinion. Despite his proclamations of support and admiration for the schools and what they represent about the Cuban spirit, the promised funds for restoration and reservation continue to be subject to the whims of anonymous bureaucrats, endlessly adept at blaming circumstances beyond their control for the administrative backpedaling. Still, it’s clear that the attention generated by Loomis’ book and now this film have had a net positive effect on bringing the world’s attention to these Unfinished Spaces, helping to finally complete construction on two of the schools and at least improving the possibility that their further deterioration will be halted, even if funds for continued restoration are still highly uncertain.

All these elements flesh out an amazing story that can be viewed from numerous angles: a rallying cry for the arts to assert themselves as vital components of a healthy society even in the face of economic distress; a cautionary tale of creative ambition thwarted and redirected due to authoritarian hostility and the priorities of supposed “pragmatism”; or simply as a fascinating though ultimately sad and frustrating chapter in the seemingly irresolvable standoff that’s been going on between the USA and Cuba for well over fifty years now, wasteful and redundant to the point of tragic absurdity. However one views it, even if Cuban history, revolutionary politics or  high-concept architecture seem like relatively remote concerns, Unfinished Spaces welcomes us to come in and look around, so that we might move beyond the lost opportunities of our past and continue to dream of and create a wiser, freer future.

Unfinished Spaces will be screening again on Sunday, February 26th, at 4pm at the Whitsell Auditorium

Unfinished Spaces debuted at the Portland International Film Festival on Saturday, February 11, 2012. It will also be shown on Sunday, February 26, 2012.

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