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France, 1984 (MIFF 1985)

Director: Nestor Almendros, Orlando Jimenez Leal

Improper Conduct has raised storms of controversy wherever it has been screened. The general thesis is quite simple: consolidating his power in Cuba, Castro systematically proceeded to stamp out political 'impurities' by charging many dissidents with 'moral impurity'.

The film attempts to support this thesis by presenting filmed interviews with 28 men and women, most of whom claim to have fled Cuba under such pressures. The male homosexuals are presented as the most marked victims of this purging, although the interviewees also include some (presumably) non-homosexual editors, artists, poets, - even former officials and friends of Castro - speaking of their own victimization on similar charges.

In this campaign, Castro is seen to be aided by the cult of Latin machismo; thus the more 'effeminate' male suffers the most (extravagant behaviour or long hair are cause enough for charges of 'improper conduct'), while more masculine-appearing gays not only managed to 'pass', but some have even become prominent in government, especially within the military and police where machismo is most blindly revered. Cuba, accordingly, is seen as being consecrated to images of male virility, with Castro himself machismo personified, a manly celibate wedded to his political duty and married to his nation.

The thesis is an intriguing one, and the interviewees speak with intelligence and poignancy, exhibiting the gentle self-mockery so common in oppressed groups: telling their stories with a frightening credibility. Conversely, the film is not free of questionable generalizations that are drawn from personal statements - its stylistic strategy raising serious questions about documentary representation in the broadest sense (regardless of one's political beliefs).

In excerpts from a 1979 French television interview Castro admits some harsh measures against dissidents have taken place, and defends this as a justifiable expedient to preserve the revolution. Yet some objections which have been raised (other than outright refutation) are worth considering when viewing the film - in particular that Leal and Almendros have largely restricted their interview subjects to those who fled Cuba during the '60s, and that oppression of homosexuals is by no means restricted to socialist, or even 'totalitarian' governments.

Those who support the first view claim that such oppression is in the past and see Cuba as being in a constant state of (r) evolution, learning from its mistakes. As an illustration of the second, one example must suffice; in the week before Improper Conduct was shown at the London Film Festival, the British Parliament passed legislation which effectively allowed police to act as agents provocateurs in arresting gay men for 'soliciting'.

Whatever the limitations of Improper Conduct, it is undeniably a passionate and powerful document - and one very close to the hearts of its directors. Its capacity to create heated, and often well-considered debates, when most political documentaries never reach beyond a narrow, clearly-defined audience, have earned it a well deserved notoriety: its commercial releases in Paris and New York have met with success rare for this genre.

- Trevor Bergroth

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