A meeting with a Belgian surgeon gave the Dutch documentary filmmaker and human rights activist Daniel Abma the story he was looking for: every year, Cuba invites this surgeon along with a Dutch colleague to carry out sex reassignment surgery on five of the island’s residents. Between November 2013 and January 2015, Abma documented the lives of three transsexuals hoping to be among the lucky five. Then, as relations between the US and Cuba warmed, he was given a newsworthy peg on which to hang his film.
“The regime has gone from persecuting homosexuality to using all its propaganda machinery to promote integration,” says Abma who has just watched his documentary, Transit Havana, premiere at the LGTBI Zinegoak 2017 Film Festival in Bilbao. “ But Cuban homosexuals still have to deal with religious intolerance, poverty, discrimination and often prostitution.”
Many Cuban transsexuals have no alternative than to turn to prostitution
Cuban-trained doctors do not possess the necessary know-how to perform sex reassignment procedures, which is why the Cuban government seeks out experts in Europe. Through him, Abma was able to get permission to document the new transgender residents’ program, headed by President Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela.
“Mariela Castro supported us in every way. There was no control over what we filmed and it became clear that she is a sort of mother figure for the community,” says the director, who visited the island four times over the course of two years.
Mariela Castro is a member of Cuba’s National Assembly and Director of the National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex), whose push for integration is giving the community a great deal of positive exposure while, at the same time, making socialism a priority – the program financing the sex reassignment surgery has adopted as its slogan: homophobia no, socialism yes.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing for Abma’s project. While he was offered unprecedented access to certain aspects of life in Cuba, some of his footage was thought to give the wrong image of the island. “Without Mariela’s support, it would have been impossible to move so easily around the island but when the authorities saw the results, they wanted several changes that we didn’t make,” says the director, who regrets that Mariela Castro did not show up for the premiere.
The Cuban authorities wanted some cuts to the documentary, which were refused
Along with Abma, the documentary’s three protagonists, Odette, Malú and Juani – three generations of different sexes facing different challenges – were at the premiere in Bilbao. “At 64, Juani has a good life,” says Abma. “She was one of the first transsexual women and her new identity as a man has not caused her problems.”
This is not the case for Odette, who at the age of 38, has had to deal with rejection from her family due to their religious beliefs, while Malú, 28, was forced at times to turn to prostitution to make a living. “Each of the three highlights the challenges that still face transsexuals: religious prejudice, the lack of job opportunities and social stigma,” says Abma.
The director adds that Cubans are aware discrimination is wrong and that, in the spirit of the revolution, they accept in theory that all people are equal. But in practice traditional attitudes, combined with Catholic convictions, mean that prejudice is widespread.
“The Church is a big problem for Odette,” says Abma. “Her mother insists that she can’t be transsexual because it goes against Creation. Malú’s fight for transsexual rights has become her life and made her the leader of the TransCuba Association. The older generation has reservations about the country opening up, and finds it hard to understand transsexuals. The young people are pushing for change and see the community as normal.”
The making of Transit Havana also prompted Abma to consider issues such as how countries can implement radical change and how the most traditional governments can turn their propaganda tools to good use. “In Cuba, tradition exists side-by-side quite comfortably with movements keen to open up,” says Abma. “And it’s Mariela Castro who is promoting integration within the National Assembly. It's a shift that fills the LGBTI community in many Eastern European countries with hope. Communities can take strength from my documentary and governments can reinforce their campaigns.”
In Georgia, a transsexual was murdered on the street just days after Transit Havana was released. But as he embarks on his next project, these kinds of brutal responses only make the director more determined to use cinema as a platform to bring about change and equality.
English version by Heather Galloway.