Nicolás Guillén Landrián


by Manuel Zayas

Those who had known him in Cuba, and had then lost all contact with him, thought that Nicolas Guillén Landrián was already dead. In February of 2003 –thanks to Alejandro Ríos and Lara Petusky Coger – I discovered that this filmmaker was living in Miami and I contacted him. The contact took place via email only and lasted just three months.

Nicolasito, at that moment, knew nothing of the cancer that would end his life, nor did I imagine myself making a post-mortem documentary about him. But just as with his films, which were released almost thirty years after being made, in his life everything seemed to be postponed. Rather than it being fate, this was the decision of enlightened culture officials.

In 2002 and 2003, the Muestra de Jovenes Realizadores sponsored by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), released most of his films in the section “Premios a la sombra” (Awards in the shadows).

The dossier that accompanied the screening defined the various senses of the idiomatic Spanish phrase a la sombra: “under the protection of // in a prison // hidden behind // in the shade // without luck, without fortune // to remain hidden in spite of // placed aside // secretive”.

This discovery surprised many. Since then, the name of Nicolás Guillén Landrián began to resonate. I imagine that one day his name will appear in the catalogues of Cuban cinema.

These are the only three letters that were saved from our encounter. I only regret not being meticulous enough to archive all of our correspondence as well the dates of each letter.


Dear Manuel: The documentaries or the list of the titles that you sent me is incomplete. I do not know if you tried to summarize, but the titles are as follows:

Homenaje a Picasso, El Morro, Un Festival Deportivo, En un Barrio Viejo, Ociel del Toa, Retornar a Baracoa, Plenaria Campesina, Rita Montaner, Los del Baile, Coffea Arábiga, Desde La Habana -1970- Recordar, Taller de Línea y 18, un Reportaje en el Puerto Pesquero and Nosotros en el Cuyaguateje, which was the last one I finished. Also, I doubt that there are copies of Desde La Habana – 1970- Recordar and Rita Montaner in existence, since as far as I am aware these were never copied; they remained only as a sound and image edition, as a “re-recording”, and El Son, of which I did not even get to see the rushes.

I hope you are to put together an objective and exemplary film.

Nicolás Guillén Landrián


Due to the haste in which I wrote to you a few hours ago, I forgot to mention Patio Arenero and Congos Reales. I do not have any aesthetic conflicts with any of my films. All aesthetic conflicts are the result of conceptual conflicts. I wanted to be an interpreter of my reality. I always found myself in the vortex of alienation. The result as a whole is every film I made.

I did not think of doing cinema before the existence of ICAIC because I did not have the means to bring about a result. But I had made a short documentary about Zanja in Havana in which I was accompanied by Françoise Sagan. It was never edited. One of the sponsors of this film was my mother, Adelina Landrián, who provided money and bought the editing equipment – which was not used; the other was the Catholic Youth of Havana.

I went to the ICAIC due to the fact that I did not have any job options in the sixties. I went there for a job and they gave me one. I began as a production assistant, and in a few years I was promoted to the position of director of short films.

My background – in collaboration with others filmmakers of the Escuela Documental, Alberto Roldán, Fernando Villaverde – made me opt for immediate and worthy topics. Because of this, all my documentaries ended up being postponed.

I was humiliated and marginalized while being at ICAIC and they censored my films – they said – due to my social behaviour.

Joris Ivens and Theodor Christensen were the points of encounter for me with a language that was both appropriate and of a higher level. I learned much from them: above all, to be friendly and affectionate with people.

I do not have copies of Los del Baile, Nosotros en el Cuyaguateje, Plenaria Campesina, Un Festival Deportivo nor Congos Reales.

Nicolás Guillén Landrián


Could you imagine what it was like, all of a sudden, to see myself in the cells at Villa Marista1? According to them, they were looking for my ideological conflict after I had won the Espiga de Oro2 with Ociel del Toa.

And this wasn’t everything. I was sent to a farm for two years; a farm that was meant to punish improper conduct in the political cadres. There my schizophrenia once again, yet more acute, and I ended up being receiving psychiatric care from the doctors of the prison. They recommended sending me to a psychiatric centre where I could be treated properly. Furthermore, they put me in an airplane, barefoot, in a farm overall, and on my shoulders a striped suit that I loved very much.

They took me from Gerona to Havana, where I was admitted to the Military Psychiatric Hospital in Ciudad Libertad. In this place, after being treated by an Argentinian psychiatrist, I was sent under house arrest to my parents’ home to finish the rest of my sentence to which I was subjected without a trial, only after the deliberation of a military tribunal.

After, I returned to ICAIC, and ICAIC commissioned a didactic film about the coffee harvest, focusing on the working day of a coffee labourer in Cuba during the years after I was released from prison for improper conduct of a member of the political cadres. Immediately I began to work on an accessible documentary – informative more than simply didactic, although it is also didactic – of everything that had to do with the coffee and the context in which I was placed in order to make Coffea Arábiga.

After Coffea Arábiga, la folie3. There was no possible way that I could put together in a logical manner, in cinematic images for me, the urgency of the sixties.

The paradox is that there was no real political clash for my part, but rather a mute consent and complicity with all that misfortune. I already said it, my friend, la folie.

My last re-recording was the documentary that I titled Nosotros en el Cuyaguateje.
I have been ostracised for sixty-four years: ever since I can remember. Just because of my name and surname.

Just think about the fact that I was never able to attend the international festivals where my films were sent, since the ICAIC did not believe that I could represent Cuban cinema; someone even went as far as to say – so it seems – that my cinema was frenchified (afrancesado). This happened with En un Barrio Viejo, and all the cowardly people responsible agreed. En un Barrio Viejo received an honorary mention in Krakow, Poland, and the Opera Prima prize in Tours, France. So, I started badly and finished badly in the Cuban film industry. Having being subjected to this, I think that ostracism is a terrible thing.

Regards from Nicolás Guillén Landrián.

Drawing on the joy that his films caused me, I began to map his film career with Guillén Landrián himself, the great absentee of specialized publications and catalogues of cinema, and also the great unknown figure for certain foreign scholars: Michael Chanan in The Cuban Image4 did not even mention the name of the unluckiest of all Cuban filmmakers; this did not change when, decades later, he republsihed the book under the title Cuban Cinema5. It is interesting that, although the Cinemateca de Cuba records that Guillén Landrián made eighteen documentaries, the scholars of cinema take care not to mention that name.

Before the thaw, the only one to assess his cinematic contribution was José Antonio Évora in an article that he entitled “Santiago Alvarez et le documentaire”, published in the book Le cinéma cubain: “If they ask me which, in my opinion, was the best documentary to come out of the laboratories of the ICAIC during these thirty years, I would most likely select Coffea Arábiga by Nicolás Guillén Landrián. This is a work commissioned about the coffee harvest in which the filmmaker subordinated the topic to provide an insight into the spirit of a nation inflamed by revolutionary euphoria, thus becoming an accurate portrait of the nation at the time.”6

1 The Cuban State Security Headquarters in Havana.
2 First prize at the International Film festival of Valladolid, SEMINCI. In 1966, Guillén Landrián received the award ex-aequo along with Ingmar Bergman.
3 Written in French in the original by Guillén Landrián. Translation: “madness”.
4 Chanan, Michael: The Cuban Image. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1985.
5 Chanan, Michael: Cuban Cinema. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004.
6 Évora, José Antonio: «Santiago Álvarez et le documentaire». Included in Paranagua, Paulo Antonio (General Editor): Le cinéma cubain, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1990, p.130. [Original in French].