reinaldo arenas (again) through the eyes of jana boková

“I’m not a conceptual artist, more like an intuitive anarchist.” – Jana Boková

I’m half way through Reinaldo Arenas’ The Palace of The White Skunks, 1982, and totally enraptured. It made me look up his poetry. That led to my discovery of this clip from the documentary Havana, 1990, by the Czech-born director Jana Boková . It features a poem by Arenas in a sequence directly appropriated by Julian Schnabel for his film adaptation of Arenas’ incendiary autobiography, Before Night Falls (a project that credits Boková as one of five screenwriters including – red herringly – Schnabel himself). I’ve not seen either film yet, and while the latter got rave reviews, I suspect I might feel as this frieze reviewer does who says: “The exotic aestheticization of the film does have a downside: the politics of the Fidelista and Arenas, whose insistent, hedonistic sexuality was as much about politics as personal satisfaction, are toned down. Arenas’ erotic quest is recast as more happy-go-lucky than rebellious.”

Did you figure out I’m not a fan of Schnabel’s? Anyway, I shouldn’t say I’m surprised that he would so freely take from a lesser known filmmaker, a woman and a documentarian, to boot. Someone without Hollywood connections. Its in keeping with his arrogance (which I’ve had the displeasure to witness). A grossly overrated artist (ok, the plate paintings were pretty brilliant) who turns out to a talented director, someone who knows how to assemble and lead talent. That doesn’t make him a writer or an auteur. It makes me wonder whether Boková fought for that credit.

In the same frieze review, the influence of Boková’s film is summed up this way, neatly sidestepping the matter: “Mr. Schnabel said he’d first heard about Arenas through a Cuban real estate agent in Miami named Esther Percal. ”She told me I had to see this documentary that Jana Boková made called ‘Havana,’ ” Mr. Schnabel said. ”So for $25 we bought a black-market copy of it in a bodega in Little Havana. It’s an oral history of Cuba, interviews mixed together with fragments of these people’s writings, including Virgilio Pinera and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Reinaldo comes on and starts talking, and the guy is so funny and so modest. I was so impressed with him that I read ‘Before Night Falls.’ ”

A Variety review makes specific reference to the clip as if Schnabel created the aesthetic it borrows: “By heightening the color and playing around with film stock, Schnabel cleverly integrates archival footage — reportedly the only color film shot of the revolution — to illustrate the moment of excitement, optimism and political ferment, while Arenas’ poem, “The Parade Begins,” is heard in voice-over. This is one of several instances in the film in which the author’s writings are used to great effect and one of many skillfully handled narrative expedients….In addition to Arenas’ autobiography and other writings, Schnabel also sourced a BBC documentary on the author by Jana Bokova. Footage from a banned Cuban film titled “PM,” which is mentioned at one point, is seen over the end credits.”

Watch and see for yourself.

Obviously, Schnabel was/is sincere in his appreciation of Arenas, and I do want to see the film. I just couldn’t ignore coming across these two snippets one after the other, Schnabel’s popping up immediately (in my Google search for the poem), Boková’s precedent coming later. Is this the fate of small films and female directors in a greedy male-dominated industry? And maybe we should rethink our relationship to the notion of “appropriation” because, as I’ve said before, this is not the 1980s?

Granted, there’s no way to know how Boková feels, and I tried to find out. Perhaps she and Schnabel are great pals though there’s no evidence of that in the way of images or articles. Her Doc alliance bio says this: “She was the first to film the writer Reinaldo Arenas, about whom Julian Schnabel later made the feature film Before Night Falls, which was directly inspired by Havana.” A quiet indictment? Made me want to explore her films, if nothing else. You can watch the 1968 drama Hotel Paradise online, made just after she left Prague for Paris (how fortuitous that it includes a Camus storyline, given my post recent on him). Getting a hold of Bye Bye Shanghai, 2008, might be as easy as it gets though of course I want to see the BBC doc on Arenas first! The Cinémathèque Française gave her a retrospective in 2003, but that’s all the leads I’ve got at the moment. I wonder which version of himself Arenas would’ve preferred, Boková’s or Schnabel’s?