Accelerated Underdevelopment: A Film in the Idiom of Santiago Alvarez (1999)

The documentary Accelerated Underdevelopment: A Film in the Idiom of Santiago Alvarez is filmmaker Travis Wilkerson’s docu-tribute to the revolutionary Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez Román (1919–1998), the legend of militant cinema.

Wilkerson decides to create this portrait in the form of a didactic mélange after he lost his interview footage due to a technological failure.

The Tercer Cine Latin American (third cinema) film movement during 1960’s and 1970’s was mobilized by the work of Argentinian Grupo Cine Liberacion, Raynundo

Gleyzer’s Cine de la Base, the Brazilian Cinema Novo and filmmakers like Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino and Glauber Rocha in Brazil, Jorge Sanjines in Bolivia, Med Hondo in Africa amongst others, challenging both Hollywood’s assertion of the bourgeois values through escapist spectacle to a passive audience (first cinema) as well as the auteuristic expression of the European art films (second cinema). Alvarez was in the vanguard of the Cuban third cinema wave, co-directing Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (Latin-American ICAIC News) with Mexican filmmaker Rodolfo Espino, making experimental films and later collaborating with Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement to establish Cuba as a socialist state. This third wave of imperfect cinema,

“often little less perfectly finished with social goals that outweigh pure aesthetics tried to present ‘realism’ and inspire revolutionary activism” says Wilkerson. Fernando Birri states, “The revolutionary function of social documentary in Latin America is to present an image of the people which rectifies the false image presented by traditional cinema”.

In the context of this sense of urgency for social cinema, Alvarez famously states, “Give me two photographs, a moviola and some music and I’ll make you a film”. Wilkerson deeply inspired by the work of this new wave agit-prop filmmakers like Alvarez comprehended that “instead of asking whether images can change the world, this new cinema seeks to discover what should be changed and how”.

Image for post
Image for post
Santiago Alvarez

Accelerated Underdevelopment is an intriguing attempt by Wilkerson to present a perspective of Alvarez, his life, his work and the Cuban social fabric of his times, transcending the initial disappointment of the lost footage. This essay structured in distinct chapters uses voice-overs, archival film and TV footage, photographs, nondiegetic texts and inter-titles. Wilkerson starts the film reminiscing ‘The story of the Russian camera’ with Alvarez and Ivan Napoles failing to record their interview with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, talking about his own loss of the interviews with Alvarez.

Thereafter, with the use of textual cues, he prepares the audience for an innovative and informative experience. Wilkerson’s treatment of this homage reflects elements of Alvarez’s style. The visual arrangement reminds viewers of Alvarez’s nervous montage technique and the carefully designed background music blends with the rebellious ‘popular’ music of the archival footage, matching Alvarez’s unconventional music style, illustrated by the bold use of singer and activist Lena Horne voice in Now (1964).

“There is a tendency among a lot of great filmmakers to (partly out of frustration) to abandon the whole idea of music” says Wilkerson. It was evident that he did not.

Within his narration, he asks Cuba’s best folk musician Sylvia Rodriguez’s “if you make a film about Alvarez which song would you end it with?” and as Rodriguez suggested,

Wilkerson ended the film with ‘El necio’ (the stubborn), offering a metaphorical perspective to Alvarez’s strong-minded personality which he himself refers to as “a product of accelerated underdevelopment”.

In a peculiar reflexive way this documentary about Alvarez reminds viewers of 79 Springs, Alvarez’s documentary about Ho Chi Minh with similar elements in the narrative with negative visuals, popular music and rhythmic editing. Wilkerson alternates between his narrative voiceover and the first person texts (dialogues) of Alvarez trying to recreate the sense of intimacy that the audio-visual interviews (if not destroyed) would have potentially established.

The portrait is organized in ten distinct chapters. Wilkerson craftily uses his own as well as the first person narrative of Alvarez to establish the social distinctions of Cuba then, the journey of his growing up, developing ideologies and above all his life and work as a filmmaker, directing over six hundred newsreel films over thirty years. He uses footage of films like Now (1964) (deemed as the world’s first video-clip), LBJ (1968) and 79 Springs (1969) amongst others, to showcase his work. He also uses observational footage in Alvarez style to further the mimesis along with new music that bridges the original music of the archives. This hybrid audio-visual treatment emulates and asserts

Alvarez’s filmmaking style, which he himself calls “the style of hatred for imperialism”, creating a unique diegetic world, where the didactic narrative paints the portrait. Though in a few places Wilkerson takes some risks with the lengths, his choice of footage to represent the genius of Alvarez, is reasonably comprehensive (though not chronologic). He also alternates smoothly between personal and social aspects of Alvarez and his society as well as his work. His choice of typefaces, use of distorted video screens and negative visuals add to the narrative.

“Who gets to tell the communities’ story? What are the storytellers’ responsibilities? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?”. “Construction of meaning is easily obscured by its righteous mission” impresses film-critic Trinh.T.Minh-ha. Is there a transfer of responsibilities from Alvarez to Wilkerson in this mélange? Should or did Wilkerson feel responsible?

What were his responsibilities especially in the context of his choices of archives and its portrayal? Did Wilkerson represent Alvarez and his work with authenticity? Is innovation with found footage original or does it incline towards plagiarism? These are some questions that intrigue us and influence the viewing experience. Wilkerson’s disclaimer of the didactic nature of his narrative helps the viewers calibrate expectations. As Dirk Eitzen states in his article analyzing documentary as a mode of reception “documentary must be seen not as a kind of text but as a kind of reading”.

The docu-tribute focuses mostly on Alvarez’s work and his social motivation. His personal events like his initiation to ‘Marxism’ in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the death of his wife in a plane bombing and his own death “after living precisely 79 spring times” is treated in a non-dramatic and objective way. Wilkerson shares his personal experiences of watching films with Alvarez, interactions with Ivan Napoles (and extracts of his diary) and Silvio Rodriquez ending with his subjective adjectives (like political, playful, serious, born of rage, irony, solidarity etc.) endorsing the work of Alvarez and influencing the audience to join him in the applause. “Fortunately, the unseen narrator no longer has to pretend neutrality” says B. Ruby Rich. Wilkerson’s endorsement of Alvarez and his work would surely act as a perceptual narrative agent effecting the viewing interpretation.

“Documentaries have a voice” says Bill Nichols and there is established orinferred authority with a coauteur’ic dynamics of the maker, the subject and also the viewer (and the subjects work in this case). Wilkinson was quite successful in demarcating his personal voice (his experiences and his homage to Alvarez), the autobiographical voice of Alvarez through first person texts and the voice of his films and orchestrating them well.

Though proclaimed didactic, there is a visceral intersection of the diegetic experience of the homage from Alvarez to the famous band leader Benny More unconventionally using More’s popular music in an asynchronous contrapuntal ‘narration’ of his own funeral, and Wilkerson’s homage to Alvarez ‘narrated’ through collaboration with his films.

As Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino articulates in the article Towards a Third Cinema, “There is no knowledge of reality as long as that reality is not acted upon, as long as its transformation is not begun on all fronts of struggle. The well-known quote from Marx, ‘It is not sufficient to interpret the world; it is now a question of transforming it’, deserves constant repetition. It remains for the filmmaker to discover his own language, a language which will arise from a militant and transforming worldview and from the theme being dealt within”.

In Accelerated Underdevelopment, Wilkerson investigates with his own language from the theme being dealt within, the theme of Alvarez, and reflexively his ideas of revolution. An impressive tribute, within the world of imperfect cinema.

[A research homage]

Written by

Documentary Filmmaker, Journalist, Consultant - spending time between California and Northeast India. Current project Adi | At The Confluence.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store