Cuba and the US: Memories of Overdevelopment

Gargantuan budget blockbusters dominate Hollywood. So when a micro-budget, experimental movie hits Tinseltown – with the director in tow – it’s an event. Memorias del Desarrollo (Memories of Overdevelopment), the new feature by Cuban director Miguel Coyula is just that. Mixing documentary, narrative and visual art, the film crosses boundaries and subverts conventional cinema.

“My goal is to make filmmaking more intuitive, more stream of conscious,” said the film’s director Miguel Coyula during an interview at the 2010 Los Angeles Latino Film Festival.

Based on the novel Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) by Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, Memorias del Desarrollo trails a Cuban exile in New York who could not remain in Cuba, but who can barely survive in the swashbuckling consumerism of the United States.

One of the film’s most unique elements is its storytelling technique. Rather than the standard beginning-middle-end plot, Memorias del Desarrollo dices up time, creating a kinetic, brooding story.

“The novel was so episodic,” explained Coyula. “It gave me a lot of freedom to play around with the material.”

The tale opens in New York City with the Cuban exile Sergio (Ron Blair) teaching at a second-rate university. He quickly falls for his student Deirdre (Eileen Alana), a pseudo-leftist who waxes poetic on making a difference in the world. Sergio – fleeing from Cuba, but isolated by hyper-Capitalist American culture – indulges Deirdre, it seems, in an attempt to escape the meaninglessness of his job, marriage and life.

Crisscrossing between America, Cuba, England, France, and Japan and jumping from bedrooms to classrooms to metropolises to deserts, the scenes emphasize displacement and an unanchored sensibility. Sergio, alienated from the world, can’t really find a home, no matter the location. This sensibility reflects Coyula’s own internationalism.

“I feel like a citizen of the world,” said the 33-year-old director, who was born in Cuba, but has been living and working in New York since 2000.

Coyula shares much with the fictional Sergio. Like his character, Coyula admits to feeling shell shocked by the rampant commercialism of life in the U.S. Along with their nationality, both men come from a similar perspectives of the Cuban revolution.

“We entered the revolution by inertia,” he said. “My generation was told that Cuba would be a perfect place. And when we realized that it wasn’t, we started to look at every society very critically.”

Born in 1977, Coyula fell into film through a love of comics, graphic novels and manga. An aunt in Miami gave the then 17-year-old Coyula a VHS camcorder. He shifted to movies, shooting a series of shorts that landed him a spot studying cinema at the International Film School of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.

“I was lucky that I was born in the digital era, it’s like the VHS camcorder fell from the sky,” he explained. “It’s just go out there and do the film guerilla style.”

In 2000, he received a grant to continue studying filmmaking at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. Over the next two years – with a miniscule budget of $2,000 – Coyula directed Red Cockroaches, his first feature. The science fiction odyssey won numerous awards at festival’s worldwide.

Part auteur, part DIY punk, Coyula’s filmmaking process undermines the Hollywood system. By literally doing everything on his movies – from writing-directing to camera to editing – Coyula avoids the budgets and artistic compromises of larger filmmakers. Total independence provides Coyula with the opportunity to express an artistic vision, rather than having it filtered through the multiple layers of financiers, producers and crews.

“A lot gets lost in that big chain of people,” he said.

This workflow also allows the various aspects of filmmaking to cross-pollinate. Instead of starting with preproduction, then production and finally postproduction, Coyula does it all simultaneously. The biggest challenge to making his films is not financing or distribution, but finding actors. Why?

“It’s the only thing I can’t do myself.”

Thanks to low cost digital cameras and editing software, micro-budget cinema has emerged as a major player in recent years – in both the U.S. and around the world. The financial success of films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have pushed even major studios to get behind independent cinema. But while these films may have small budgets, Coyula finds their stories stale.

“A lot of independent filmmakers are looking for commercial appeal,” he continued. “They are independent economically, but not of spirit. What’s the point of telling stories that have already been told?”

Coyula explores this distrust of consumerism, commercialism and ideology throughout Memorias del Desarrollo. Using documentary footage and photographs, Coyula dives into the history of the Cuban revolution. Starting with the crimes of the Batista dictatorship, it then flashes to the triumph of July 26 Revolution in 1958, only to then cut to footage of some of Castro’s crackdowns. Later, the movie mines the hypocrisies of American history – slavery, segregation and race riots. More than anything, these forays into the nonfiction world mirror Sergio’s mental state, his cynicism and suspicion of dogma.

Throughout the film, pornographic collage sequences slice in-and-out of narrative, contributing a grotesque texture to the already saturated visuals.

“The collages are sex and politics,” added Coyula. “The character [Sergio] is bombarded by all these images. It’s his only attempt at manipulating the world.”

Memorias del Desarrollo tells a story of man’s alienation from modern society. But even Sergio – unable to withstand the confines of dogmatic Communism or Wild West Capitalism – finds salvation. Likewise for Coyula. Despite the glamour and the glory, filmmaking – especially truly independent cinema – remains a rough business. For now at least, Coyula has no other options.

“I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Sammy Loren is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist currently based in Los Angeles, California. To check out his other projects visit,