Gloria Rolando: Santiago Álvarez told me to look in the Bible

The experience of the outstanding filmmaker Gloria Rolando within the rigors of the ICAIC, and beyond, treasures endearing experiences as Assistant Director of notable filmmakers. Among them, Santiago Alvarez. ACN talked to the fertile documentary filmmaker about the influences of that immense creator in her way of making films.

-What was it like to research and assist in the direction of a documentary by Santiago Álvarez?

“I used to visit the third floor of ICAIC. That was the hotbed of the Noticiero (Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano). I had some friends there, and I don’t know how I got involved in two projects with Santiago. The first was the documentary related to Latin America’s foreign debt. In 1985 an immense event on the subject was held at the Palacio de Convenciones. Many political and religious leaders, social and community activists, etc. came, and Santiago decided to film everything, including the speeches. The event was over, and a few days later he called me and told me that we had to make a documentary. “Go see the Bible”, he told me”.

– The Bible? The Bible of a lifetime, or was he referring to something else?

“No, no. The Bible. He told me to look in the book about what they talked about debt and debtors. Luckily I had two or three at home. And after I brought him some proverbs, which were used in the documentary, Santiago told me that it was the European countries that plundered and razed everything we had. That it was not possible for us to pay a debt, but them. That was when he told me that it was the Gods who had been left alone. And the title came out: The Loneliness of the Gods (1985). There you realize the political commitment, the culture, the way of investigating, reflecting and knowing the reality of Santiago”.

– And how did you articulate those biblical references with the speeches of those attending the conclave?

“There comes the part of aesthetics. Look, he liked Mexican muralism very much. He makes like a symphony with all those images in the petition for justice.

That was really what the documentary was invoking: justice. It was very difficult to elaborate. When one begins to thread all those ideas, of the need to make a look not pious, but redemptive to the cause of Latin America, one discovers that Santiago used the spiritual life of the continent. He was inspired because he had a clear commitment of politics with culture. And in the editing room the magic of his temperament was revealed.

“He liked to touch the pieces of blueprints hooked on the hangers. He liked to touch them and recreate himself, placing them in order. I don’t remember the great script made beforehand, but I do remember the intuition of the kind of language with which to guide the editor. I am sure that, if one sees it again today, La Soledad de los Dioses has tremendous validity, because already at that time all voices were heard in the need for dialogue. What happened later with the arrival of the progressive presidents: dialogue and respect”.

– And Gloria’s personal experience with that creator and the realities of Cuba?

“Knowledge, commitment, language, understanding of the complexities of reality. He complemented me a lot. That’s why I say that Santiago Alvarez put a little seed in me. Then with the second project, Historia de una Plaza (1989), came another experience with other characteristics. It was a school for all of us, because I tell you, for me to enter the editing room was a privilege.

“He had a lot of tasks, trips, meetings, the Noticiero itself, which took him a lot of time, but it was done. But it was done. What was the Civic Plaza? An architectural complex necessary for Batista’s policy to look good for Martí’s centennial. La Timba and La Pelusa, adjacent to the place, and Fidel’s efforts to dignify them as Plaza de la Revolución, the Catalan church that was in the same space and that was dismantled brick by brick until it was moved to Rancho Boyeros Avenue.

I searched a lot in the archives, even Santiago put a photo of Martí that I found and that was very controversial. When they are raising the face, you can see that the eyes are covered with some protectors, but it was interpreted at the time as a blindfold that they were putting on him so that he would not see everything that the Cuban homeland had become”.

– Did Santiago ever see in you skills as a director?

“There was an attempt. I proposed to him to make a documentary about Winnie Mandela (1936-2018), a beautiful story. We even had meetings with the representation in Cuba of the African National Congress, books, music, but it didn’t come to fruition. But he did get to see my documentary Oggún: an eternal present (1991)”.

– Beyond the political commitment, Santiago Alvarez’s intuition, what was he like as a person.

“He was a banquet. With me he melted, in the best sense of the word, but with a very mischievous look. I brought my naivety and my joy to work there, and at the same time, I belonged to a generation that was very respectful and supportive of directors. Remember that we didn’t know filmmaking, and each project was a study, a class. I went with humility. What amazed me the most was to see how with very few resources I could give movement to an image and turn any music into a symphony. Today there are a lot of elements to play with the image, but what are they saying, what is the message. That was something else, the school with which I was formed.

Chuck Palahniuk: “The Bible lacks sex scenes”.

His name is Chuck Palahniuk (Pasco, 1962). His first novel was nothing less than The Fight Club (1996) and that marks, if only because not all writers can tell anecdotes of their shootings with Brad Pitt, as he has done in some article. Author of seventeen other books, now comes The Day of Adjustment (Random House), a frenetic satire, a choral novel set in a United States divided into three independent nation-states, Caucasia (for whites), Negrotopia (for blacks) and Gaysia (for homosexuals). Fast-paced characters, frenetic pace, essayistic density, humor and even an assault on the Capitol, “the new Bastille”, written two years before the events that took place a month ago in Washington.

“The political leaders of the future will come out of Capitol Hill stormers and groups of addicts.”

Where are you speaking to us from?

I’m at home in Portland, Oregon, about 200 miles from Washington.

In your book, in which state would you fall?

In Caucasia, the white state.

Have you come to an agreement with Trump for the promotion of your novel?

I would have had to do it two years ago, when the title appeared in English, it would have been a dream, it would have been number 1 in sales.

Underneath the action, there beats a parodic essayistic undertone, as of extravagant theories.

But true. I wanted to novelize some theses of the German sociologist and economist Gunnar Heinsohn, who has shown the relationship between demography and the great social transformations. When the children of the educated middle classes cannot enter to assume the roles for which they have been trained, a cataclysm occurs. Or societies that have many young males also react in a certain way. The Italian Renaissance, the French Revolution, the conquest of America… all take place in societies with many sons and testosterone. Another thing: whenever there are brutal changes in history there is usually a text that justifies them. A text that is ultimately absurd, that does not stand up to the slightest analysis, but that gains enormous strength and spreads everywhere: Mein kampf, the Bible, the Communist Manifesto….

We live in cultures based on book religions.

They are texts that are used to justify what some guys do. They don’t try to reason anything with arguments but to excite, to inspire faith. They make real barbarities seem just. These are books that have sold in the millions, also in the last 30 years, books that say what people want to hear.
FILE PHOTO: Jacob Anthony Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, of Arizona, poses with his face painted in the colors of the U.S. flag as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith/File Photo

Jake Angeli, one of the Capitol assailants.

What about the theory of power reversal rituals?

The inversion of hierarchies is the basis of revolutions and anti-establishment movements. That’s what this book has in common with Fight Club, which is also based on British anthropologist Victor Turner’s theories of disrupted or disruptive societies. In Fight Club it was individuals discovering their potential to do great things each. Here, instead, it is people coming together to create collective power.

The more negative votes someone has on networks, the closer they are to being killed.

It is the cancer of our days, we live in a world where people destroy and attack each other on social networks, with so-called ‘negative choices’, the culture of cancellation….

Whenever there are big social changes, there is an absurd book that justifies them: the Bible, the ‘Communist Manifesto’, ‘Mein kampf’…”

We have states shaped by religious beliefs but, although it is not so different, is there anyone who asks for states like the ones in your book?

Absolutely! In Michigan, there are supporters of a black nation-state. In Washington, there are groups advocating a whites-only one. But I don’t see many gays who want a nation-state for themselves, that’s the most imaginative. I deal with the problems that would create: blacks and whites would still have children of their color, but some would be gay, and since the gay state would reproduce less, it would need to sign agreements with the other states to have boys and girls brought to it.

If money were to expire, as in your novel, would the world be very different?

Yes, money would not be able to accumulate, it would have to be re-circulated and reinvested at full speed. Instead of producing interest, it would generate tangible value. Many people think this model could work better.

Is the foundation of all power fiction?

Storytelling. The narrative. What justifies people rising to power. Jacques Derrida already said it.

He quotes many literary works, there are characters that flay The Fight Club, Steinbeck is mentioned, but also Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert, about characters that fail as artists and return to be gray pen-pushers.

Flaubert advances Heidegger’s idea that people are born into a culture and, if they try to escape it, they live a life that is not authentic, a mere reaction to the fact that they do not accept the place where they were born. To be happy, they should go back to their culture. That is what is in the heads of many extremist groups today.

Chuck Palahniuk, in barcelona, in 2012

Another idea is war as purification. Is there a positive view of war in the U.S.?

Of course. We have had a year of war: many people have died or been wounded. What happened in 2020, fundamentally, has been a civil war, which has brought out a new generation of leaders. There is something theatrical about war: it is a scenario in which some combatants are recognized as the next leaders. In the assault on the Capitol we have seen those who are going to be in government in ten or twelve years.

Do you think they are going to get there?

That is how it happens in history, and in my country since the sixties. Any civil rights or protest movement has seen its leaders eventually come to power. It has always happened that way. Capitol Hill and Black Lives Matter will come.

Is there such a thing as methoxsalen, that drug to turn black?

These are all real facts. There are even books of people who have taken that, and painted themselves, to infiltrate black communities. I do journalism.

I don’t know about journalism-journalism… How?

How? I do a lot of interviews, I read all the books and articles on every subject…. I talked to militants of the extreme right and the extreme left to understand their points of view and, once understood, to pass them on to the different characters. I talked to groups like American Renaissance, white supremacists, for example. My method is journalistic.

I do journalism, I interviewed a lot of far-right and far-left militants to understand their points of view and then transfer them to the characters.”

It’s a novel about power: the power of force, money, politics… but also, and very much so, sexual power, with those characters from underprivileged backgrounds with immense power because of their attractiveness.

I always include strong physical elements in my novels. There are books with great intellectual, emotional appeal but no physical appeal. There is no eroticism in Mein kampf, and the Bible lacks explicit sex scenes, it would be much improved with them. My books do have a physical and sensual part, so that the reader connects on that level.

What’s that Dickensian story about him losing his house?

I never got the advance for this book. I’m still waiting for it. I kept asking my agent and all I got were lies and evasions: that the money is withheld, that it will come such and such a day…. In the end, I realized that they had stolen it from me, the agency’s accountant took my advance, and they had been stealing from me for twenty years. I had to sell a house I had bought from my in-laws for their retirement, and the poor people had already moved in, it was very sad. They put the guy in jail but, because of the coronavirus, he was released after a year’s sentence, even though he had stolen millions of dollars from me, like many other authors.

Chuck Palahniuk, in a hotel in Madrid


You didn’t get the money back?

No. Not a penny.

Will there be a movie?

A miniseries. There are no theaters open now.

In your novels we take pleasure in seeing violent scenes. Is there beauty in violence?

I’m not sure there is. A very beautiful room is dead, it’s static, beauty has to do with something finished. What attracts me is to give that room a new life by provoking the death of what was there. Violence is about change.

In your books it is basic.

My books are very physical. Sometimes it’s consensual violence, sometimes sex, drug addiction, illness… always something corporal, so that the reader is hooked on the visceral.

My agent has stolen millions of euros from me, it will take me years to recover, but I don’t care, the rich are the most boring thing there is.”

On drug addiction… His messiah, Talbott, says that addiction groups like Narcotics Anonymous are the new religions.

Recovery groups are the new religious meeting places. People went to church because they had problems, they met people with similar problems there, and that’s how the civil rights movements began, leaders like Martin Luther King were found in church. Today, people have left traditional churches and find a similar function in meetings of sex addicts, spending, alcohol, drugs, anger…. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s where the new political movements have sprung from.

Have you changed agencies?

I’m in a bigger one. I hope there will be more responsibility and attention to the accounts, but it’s going to take me years to plug that financial hole.

Maybe one day you’ll write a novel about it.

No. Nothing more boring than money, that abstract thing. To tell you the truth, the most boring people in the world are the rich, spend time with them and you’ll see, I’ve done it and they live in such a buffered life, everything is so surrounded by money, they don’t have good stories or a narrative. Money is boring and that’s why I didn’t look at what my accountant was doing.

The Bible and the writers, by Rafael García Maldonado

There is little doubt that the Bible -the Old and New Testaments- has contributed to the fabrication of a moral regime in the culture of what we call the West. Or to put it another way: it is largely thanks to the Bible that, in this part of the world, we are civilized human beings and not savages. However, this being so, what Western writer today openly admits to being under the dominion and influence of such a reputed (and for some, sacred) book? It is not necessary, as is also the case with other myths (Quixote is a literary example) to have read it in its entirety, a task that only a few persevering, enthusiastic and fortunate people have completed. The Bible is read by environmental aerosols, or by osmosis, as it is said that Rubén Darío and Menéndez Pelayo read books. We have read the Bible (and Don Quixote, and so many others) without even opening those voluminous texts; books that, it could be said, they have read to us.

The Bible is many different things, and if there are those who are convinced that it is a sacred book written under divine influence, what is clear for religious, believers, agnostics and atheists is that it is a literary book, a monumental treatise on literature where all possible genres and styles fit: mythology, prophecies, sermons, wonderful facts, sagas, biographies, novels, poems, legends, love songs, etcetera. Also, of course, the Bible (or rather, the books that make up the Bible) contains a whole range of literary techniques that would suffice to give a fertile course in comparative literature in any Spanish workshop or American university, where allegory, symbol, comparisons, discourse, monologue, symmetry, ritual and narration in circles, genealogy and dialogue stand out, with the Book being especially rich in this last technique. It is the Bible, therefore, a narrative text, where what matters is the argument, the plot, the plot, leaving in the background the print, the description, the rhetorical ornaments and the search for formal beauty. The Bible, epitome of fantastic literature, as Borges, an enthusiast of the genre, used to say, goes to the point, to the action.

The Bible and the writers 1

As I was saying, all this, what does it matter to a writer and a reader today? I’m not going to pick apart the Bible to prove them wrong, what nonsense, nor to prove that Bible translations have been crucial in creating language and nation (England, Germany). I do intend, on the contrary, to outline a series of well-known examples for the reader to see – if he has not already noticed – that the Bible (as a standard or not of the Jewish, Christian or Islamic religion) has been present until very recently in the work of the great Western writers, and that although it has been losing (apparent) importance as societies have become more secularized, there must be some who are still fascinated by the Book and spurred to write.

It is perhaps the Old Testament, because of its remoteness and profusion in everything that most concerns the conflict of the human heart, the richest in literary terms, although it is the younger brother, the New Testament, which has enjoyed more luck on the moral and religious plane. Writers, therefore, will be more partial to the so-called Hebrew Bible, which, according to historians, was almost entirely written during the reign of Josiah of Judah (639-608 BC), although oral transmission (the origin of the literature) may have begun in the 13th century BC.

The first writer clearly influenced by the Bible is Augustine of Hippo, whose books (The City of God, Confessions) became popular during the 4th century, becoming authentic spiritual best sellers in early Christianity. In the Middle Ages, it was the Mester de Clerecía, with Gonzalo de Berceo at its head, who, with a cultured and erudite language – practiced by Jews, Moors and Christians alike – recognized the devotion to biblical readings, and as a result, works such as that of the aforementioned author were born, where the Milagros de Nuestra Señora (Miracles of Our Lady) stands out. Somewhat later, perhaps it was Dante who, with his Divine Comedy, gave more importance to the biblical fact, in a well-known -and little read- text in which his beloved Beatrice and the pagan and admired Virgil walk with the author through a hell turned into a sort of tornado of concentric circles according to the gravity of the sins committed in life.

The influence in Spain is also very clear, since from the reaction against the Lutheran Reformation, religious mysticism sprouts in poetry, with a Renaissance that also gains strength in terms of great literature: San Juan de la Cruz, Teresa de Avila, Juan de Yepes. In the cultivation of prose, during this fertile 16th century, the two Fray Luis stand out: the Augustinian Fray Luis of León and the Dominican Fray Luis of Granada, as well as the Hieronymite Father José de Sigüenza, a triad that could be said to have invented the grand style or noble style in Castilian: it was necessary to be at the height of what was narrated, and in their case it was the word of God. De los nombres de Cristo (Fray Luis de León), Guía de pecadores (Fray Luis de Granada) and Commentaria (Fray José de Sigüenza) are masterpieces of a grand style that would soon fall into disuse, in the tavern, as Juan Benet aptly put it. What can we say of Cervantes, beneficiary of an era -that of Philip II- in which Benito Arias Montano laid the foundations of Christian humanism with his Biblia regia; or of a Baroque full of autos sacramentales and of a Calderón who made the theatrical genre popular.

Outside our borders, Milton and his Paradise Lost will stand out, and we will have to wait to cross the desacralized century of the Enlightenment to reach Goethe and his Faust (where the ignorance of the protagonist leads him to sell his soul to the devil Mephistopheles) and find again echoes of the Bible. Tolstoy, in a 19th century of literary excellence like few others, will do his best to get rid of his omnipotent and heterodox Christian morality, and Dostoevsky will show his obsession with guilt, sin and hell. Melville, a Puritan Yankee, imbued all his work with a symbolism full of uncertainty and ambiguity, which he surely learned in the Bible. Many others will not be able to conceal the influence of the book – hence the wonderful The Master and Margarita, published by Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1960s and recently published by Navona, a masterpiece on the adventures of the Devil in Moscow -, but above all it marked – together with some avant-garde poets – the two titans of the 20th century, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann.

Faulkner himself said that, every morning, to get himself in tune before writing, he would read some passages from the Old Testament. From this obsession with the abysses of the human soul – not exempt from violence and barbarism – would spring titles such as Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Si yo de ti me olvidara, Jerusalén (1939) -which the publisher eventually transformed into Las palmeras salvajes- and Desciende, Moisés (1942). Around this time Thomas Mann wrote the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (1933-1943), enthusiastic as he was about a biblical story as short as it was crucial, which he filled with details and additions. All in all, it was a monumental work that did not find favor with the public and hardly with the critics -a world increasingly distant from biblical references-, and which, as Javier Marías says, in Spain was only read by the aforementioned Juan Benet.

The Bible and the writers 2

And it is precisely with Juan Benet that we come to the penultimate of those who, if I am not mistaken, used the Bible as a source of inspiration and as a metaphorical language. His great novel -the least read and least complex-, Saul before Samuel (1980), takes the myth of the prophet Samuel -the meditative man- and the first king of Israel, Saul -the man of action- to the civil war in the region, in another fratricidal struggle between blood brothers. Nowadays, among internationally recognized authors, only Lobo Antunes -Conocimiento del infierno (1981), Ayer no te vi en Babilonia (2006)- seems to play with biblical similes. Also, in Spain, my dear pharmacist colleague the poet León Felipe did it, and with even greater profusion Jiménez Lozano (Un cristiano en rebeldía, El viaje de Jonás). Nowadays, Javier Gomá (Necessary but Impossible) and the Chestertonian García-Máiquez do it.

It is possible that I have forgotten important names, but there is no doubt that today’s writers have stopped reading the Bible as the inexhaustible literary source of knowledge of the human soul that it is. One is not the same after reading, for example, the so-called Biblia del Oso (Basel, 1569), one of the first translations into Spanish of the Book, made by the reformed Hieronymite monk Casiodoro de Reina, and which is being republished in 2021; a Bible in the grand style or elevated style that I mentioned above, and which reminds us that the Bible was also, at one time, a refuge for heterodox in half of Europe. There is no book more complete, complex, rich and exciting, and it is not in vain that the great writers of history who decided to write under its influence are still in places of honor in the canon, giving rise to the old literary theory: if the chosen theme is great – and there is nothing greater than the Book that forged our Western culture – the style is also elevated, and that is the only way to attain (in this world) eternal life.