Popular TV shows break ground by tackling social issues
By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
HAVANA – In her latest role, actress Monica Alonso plays a coarse, yet sincere teenager who criticizes Cuba’s troubles. “I was the girl who couldn’t tell a lie,” she says.
Her soap opera, Doble Juego, or Double Game, was such a sensation that the Cuban government turned it into a movie after it went off the air. And people lined up for blocks to see it at dingy Havana theaters.
The soap was more realistic and went deeper than any other Cuban program “and that’s what hooked people,” says Miss Alonso, a 20-year-old actress who lived with an impoverished Havana family to prepare for her role.
No doubt, Cubans crave shows about real life. They don’t get a lot of that in a country where the government controls the only three TV stations. But Double Game marked a new era, actors and directors say. The government-financed television program tackled serious social issues, from rape and suicide to inequality and disenchanted youth.
“Double Game broke new ground for soap operas reflecting on Cuban reality,” says the program’s director, Rudy Mora. And one key to its success was “that there was never any censorship.”
To some, it might seem odd that Cuban soap operas provide a new outlet for free – or almost free – expression. But Cubans say it’s only natural. Soaps are non-threatening. They’re soft entertainment. They’re like the Havana comedians who joke about the country’s food shortages. They’re like sculptures that show 76-year-old Fidel Castro as he is, with wrinkles.
Simply put, some of this innocent looking entertainment is on the cutting edge of criticism.
Soap operas are a tradition that goes back decades in Cuba.
In the 1930s, Cubans were pioneers in the making of Latin American soaps, producing lively radio shows. By the 1950s, the island was a leading exporter of TV soaps, or telenovelas.
Cuba’s influence in Latin American television dipped after the 1959 revolution. And by the 1990s, Cuba’s economic woes cut the production of soaps and other dramas from eight per year in the ‘80s to one by 2002.
Over the past year, the economy has begun to recover. More money is available for production, TV executives say. The government has spent several million dollars to upgrade equipment and is boosting production.
But making soaps in Cuba still isn’t easy. That much was clear recently on the rustic set of the soap, Forbidden Destination.
The winds were kicking up and filming outdoors had become almost impossible.
“It’s too noisy,” director Xiomara Blanco shouted over the sound of wind rushing through the trees. “Yesterday a tractor was driving us crazy. Today it’s the wind.”
Wind, tractors, a lack of money, gear, costumes, make-up – it all works against the creators of Cuban soaps. But they don’t give up. They invent. They improvise. They spend just $5,000 per episode, salaries included, an amazing feat by any standard.
On the set of Forbidden Destination, some actors wore clothes and accessories borrowed from friends and relatives.
“Some of these beads are mine. Others belong to friends,” said Nieves Riovalles, an actress who plays a gypsy. “We don’t always have the money to supply our own wardrobe.”
Nearby, actress Jaquelín Arenal waited in a trailer.
“Stay in there!” Ms. Blanco ordered. “This wind is going to mess up your hair. This wind is driving me nuts.”
A day earlier, she was able to film just seven minutes of the soap because of noise from a tractor. But before shooting ends, she needs to rack up nearly 400 scenes and 5,500 minutes.
“It’s like doing 45 or 50 movies. I’m not going to get much done today because of this wind. It’s tough. And all of us – the actors, the directors – we’ll probably end up hating each other by the time this is over,” Ms. Blanco said.
There are other obstacles, too.
Latin American soaps, which have exploded in popularity in Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil, typically feature rags-to-riches stories. The maid marries a rich landowner. A humble worker climbs the corporate ladder.
But those are not exactly appropriate story lines for Cuba, where the government discourages people from piling up riches. Party officials want everyone to be equal, to make about the same amount of money. At least that’s the goal. And some producers say doing “social good” is as important as providing entertainment.
Many soaps “have a social purpose,” explains Mirtha González, a Havana TV producer. “They’re less commercial.”
She directed When the Water Returns to Earth, a 1993 soap about Cuban families that included a new player: the environment.
It was shot at Cienaga de Zapata, the site of some of the country’s most important swamplands and crocodile habitats.
“We included ecology and the love of nature as some of the themes,” Ms. González says. “Those aren’t the usual topics in a soap. But we wanted to do some social good.”
That said, some soaps are pure fantasy.
Take Salir de Noche, or Going Out at Night. It portrays a Cuba that few islanders know, a place where the homes are luxurious, where the phones work, where everyone drinks bottled water.
Nancy González, a star in the soap, says it’s just entertainment.
“People do like to see soap operas that touch on contemporary themes ... on their own problems. But without fantasy, the world wouldn’t be the world as we know it.”
In Going Out at Night, Ms. González plays María Antonieta, director of a fashion house, and she leads a lavish lifestyle.
Some viewers complain the show is unrealistic. “But these people do exist,” Ms. González says. “Part of society lives that life.”
Indeed, some Cubans live better than others despite government goals of equality.
Most Cubans are poor, making $10 a month on average. And many live on society’s margins. They’re young and unemployed. And they don’t see an end to the dismal economic times.
They’re people like Isabel, a 15-year-old in Double Game. To get ready to play that character, Miss Alonso says, she spent a month living in a decrepit Havana apartment.
The shower “was the worst,” she says. Water dribbled out of a hole in the wall.
“You had to stand up against the wall to wash yourself. I got there and thought the place was really gross. When the people who lived there gave me a glass of water, I didn’t even want to drink it.”
But the actress adjusted. She learned to talk and act like a disenfranchised slum dweller. She went to Havana’s worst neighborhoods and listened to people yelling at each other. And she jotted down some of the latest slang.
“On the street, men who look good are called ‘iron.’ People say, ‘Look at that piece of iron. Good cars are called ‘dogs.’ People say, ‘Hey, that’s a tremendous dog you’ve got parked outside.’ ”
Miss Alonso also studied the way people ate.
“Isabel ate like a little pig and I had to learn to do that,” she says. “My mom was mortified by that. She thought I was completely crazy.”
But the actress was merely becoming Isabel.
Indeed, Isabel showed a side of Cuba that people aren’t used to seeing on state-run television. And it wasn’t all negative. Isabel demonstrated the power of friendship and strength in the face of adversity. And she showed that people often unite when times are tough.
On the show, Isabel’s mother is abusive. On the second day of taping, she flew at Isabel, fists flying, and shoved her down stairs.
“We didn’t have any special effects, so we decided to do the scene for real,” Miss Alonso says. “All I could do was cover up and protect myself from the blows.”
She injured her heel and her body was bruised for weeks. But that was only part of it. She had to shave her head and remain bald for most of eight months.
“Isabel injures her head in the fight scene and doctors have to shave her head to operate,” Miss Alonso says. “I thought they’d give me some kind of a fake bald head. But I had to shave my head. It wasn’t easy explaining that to my family.”
Her real mother, Olga Solares, recalls the conversation.
“She came home from casting and said, ‘Mom, I got the role! The only thing is, I have to shave my head.’
“I said, ‘Tell them thank you very much, but no.’ But Monica said she liked the role very much and so I finally said, ‘Well, it’s your hair. Do what you want.’ In the end, I suffered more than she did.”
The show’s realism hit home with viewers.
When it came on the air at 9 p.m., “the streets cleared,” Mr. Mora says. “Something like 85 or 90 percent of all households watched it at its peak last year.”
“If there was a blackout, if the electricity went out, you could hear people cry out in the neighborhoods, ‘Ayyyyy, no! Not again!’” says Blanca Rosa Blanco, an actress featured in the soap.
Admittedly, she says, even dull programs are watched in Cuba because not much else is on TV.
“It has to be really terrible for people not to watch it,” she says.
Or speeches get in the way.
On a recent night in Baracoa, a town in eastern Cuba, a family gathered to watch Going Out at Night.
The program was delayed because President Castro was on TV.
“Boy, can he talk,” said Olga Acosta, 70. “When is this man going to finish?”
Mr. Castro finally did stop talking and the soap opera came on.
“I almost always watch the soaps,” Ms. Acosta said. “And if I miss them, I hurry home and ask around to find out what happened.”
The actors know their shows are popular. Eager fans swamp them for autographs, asking them to sign whatever’s available – T-shirts, pants, baseball caps.
“I went to the town of Bauta near Havana and it was like Jennifer Lopez had showed up,” says Ms. Blanco. “People wanted autographs. One kid asked me to sign his hand.”