WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES
Santiago Alvarez co-founded the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) and is considered one of Latin America’s most influential and prolific documentary filmmakers (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.) As the director of ICAIC’s weekly Latin American Newsreel, his most famous production is the film Now, which is a powerful example of how Alvarez transformed the newsreel format into an exciting visual experience.
Now is a vigorous statement of support for the African American civil rights movement that was inspired by Alvarez’s travels in the United States during the 1940s. He was disgusted by how African Americans were treated and the film’s title expresses his belief that their civil rights should be granted immediately (Chanan 219). To get his message across, Alvarez selected and assembled images and music that would induce strong emotions in viewers and convince them to agree with his point of view. He accomplished this in several ways. One way is the use of counterpoint. He opens the film with the Jewish folk song Hava Nigila to provide scathing and ironic commentary on newsreel footage of police officers running through a city at night in their riot combat gear. The song’s lyrics of “Let us rejoice and be glad. Let us sing. Awaken brethren with a cheerful heart” (Hebrew Songs.com) is also contradicted by numerous images of police brutality that later appear in the film.
Now presents a damning collage of images of racial discrimination and violence set to syncopated editing. Sound is used to heighten the tension and enhance the drama of the civil rights movement. Alvarez also uses a song titled Now by Lena Horne to narrate images of the movement that are used as motifs in the film. This includes images of group violence (protests, riots, police brutality), individual anguish (pained expressions and adults shielding their children from attack) and murder (which includes photographs of a Black man burning to death amid white onlookers and of people grieving the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers). The history of this song compliments Alvarez’s point of view perfectly. Horne had given Alvarez permission to use it after she was banned from performing it in the United States. Authorities feared that its passionate message of support for the civil rights movement would inflame racial tensions at that time.
Alvarez also uses a range of camera movements to present a compelling perspective on the topic. When using photographs, he oftens zoom in to a specific section of the photo to elicit a particular emotion from the audience. Then he will pan out or zoom out to reveal the rest of the image. One example is of an extreme close up of two sets of hands. It appears that a white person has tied a black person’s wrists together. Viewers might think at first that this is a photograph from the slavery era. But when the camera zooms out, it is revealed that the photo is actually of two white men dragging a black man down a street in the 1960s. A grim and angry looking crowd follows behind them. Surprising the viewer in this way opens audiences up to experiencing visceral reactions that can result in taking definitive stances on what they just saw. Alvarez wanted to shock people out of complacent views on the issue. He wanted audiences to understand what was happening to this community in the present.
"Santiago Alvarez." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 4th ed. St. James Press, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com.library.esc.edu/servlet/BioRC
Chanan, Michael. Cuban Cinema (Cultural Studies of the Americas, 14). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Hebrew Songs.com. "HAVA NAGILA." HEBREW SONGS. 3 June 2009 <http://www.hebrewsongs.com/song-havanagila.htm>.