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Oppression in “Before Night Falls”.
“Before Night Fall” is an extremely well-played film directed by Julian Schnabel who displays his amazing talent tremendously. The film was produced in 2000 and is based on Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir. The director maintains an environment of dense tensing from the beginning of the film to its ending. He also focuses on writing an element Arenas fought for. The directors might have been able to achieve all these since his Arenas was Javier Barden. With the knowledge that the film is of a man who spent some time in prison plus that it was in Castro’s Cuba makes an audience psychologically prepare for obvious tortures which in fact never comes. As it was a custom for prisoners and those to be persecuted to be tortured, the audience expectations persist building an emotional tension that depicts life faced by Arenas and other people who were seen not perfect therefore not fitting the revolutionary mold. Arenas ends up soughing refuge in his writing. Reinaldo Arenas faced severe oppressions because of his sexual status despite being talented.
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The film directed by Julian Schnabel is of a writer who faces severe oppressions for simply being a writer. However, he was an enthusiastic writer who wrote no matter the subject, risks or costs. The oppression is first introduced when the writer was a child. Schnabel shows the childhood of Arenas and his grandfather who clearly did not entertain putting up with a poet in his house. On hearing the news, he slams his fist on a table and beats up the boy. He was too disgusted by that fact that he relocated his entire family just to get Reinaldo away from one teacher who saw and spoke of the boy’s poetry as a gift. However, the grandfather was faced with a new shame of living with a homosexual in his house once again brought by his grandson. Reinaldo had grown to be a homosexual in Castro’s Cuba. Reinaldo was still enthusiastic about writing with or without material, he is portrayed in the film to curving on the back of a tree using a knife. Turing a knife into a pen depicts clear passion for his work. His work was controlled and at times allowed into the public.
The film starts with an image of a young naked boy sitting alone in a grave-like hole crying lustily on the ground. The scene places the child’s sorrows figuratively in the womb, at the case the womb being cold rather than warm. However, it depicts the boys as a product of the earth. The scene is carried through the entire film since Arenas as he grew to be a man remained lonely while crying his whole life. An echo to the scene is when Arenas was in solitary confinement. He also grew fatherless making him deeply attached to his mother.
At his teenage, Reinaldo joined the revolution group but as soon as Castro came to power, no sympathy was shown to artists or homosexuals. This resulted in Arenas becoming an outcast and also a prisoner in Cuba for 7 years until 1980 where he boarded a boat named Lazurus that carried gays, criminals, the mentally ill, and anyone who was seen to be unfit to be a Cuban. This is a clear depiction of political power having a tremendous bad influence on the society. Arenas knew this and was always angry to the regime. At one instance, Arenas is asked why he writes and he says that it is for revenge. Despite it not being stated revenge for what specifically, Arenas was revenging for the regime for making his life difficult. The politics of the time made homosexuals be discriminated and persecuted.
In Cuba, before the 1959 revolution, living as a lesbian or homosexual involved great isolation and repression. The Catholic dogma had enforced a civil law and augmented it. Patriarchal insolences caused the gay be invisible. In case one was discovered, they would suffer sexual abuse, disgrace by the community and lose their jobs. Survival often meant engaging in fake heterosexual marriages or facing banishment to gay slums. After the revolution, women won near full equality under the new laws which included paying equity, rights to child care, abortion and military service among other gains. The foundation made a huge leap to women independence and sexual freedom that propelled homosexuality. Counter-revolutionary bandits were held up in the Escambray Mountains (Lecuona et. al, 89). The government started the Military Units for the Aid of Production (UMAP) in a scheme to put thousands of draft dodgers- from gay men to Jehovah’s Witnesses to work on a sugar plantation. “Before Night Falls” shows UMAPs to portray Cuba as a punitive colony for gays. Then came the rule of Fidel Castro, the renowned dictator. He served the times of Arenas. Fidel openly shunned away gay, physically challenged amongst other people he saw unfit. He gave them a boat to get off the island. The boat is the one that ferried Reinaldo Arenas off his grave into his new birth place. New York City was his destination, a free city without any oppression. He ended up with Lazarus his companion.
Nowadays, the mainstream and other literature are on the forefront in the influence of issues on LGBT people. Most literature views the issue from a nuanced approach. Child homosexual is by far the led focused subject in gay research and there is significantly little research on the area. Once a child discovers he is a homosexual, he gets confused, mostly unable to realize his sexual orientation and most of all feel ashamed of his erotic life. For Arenas, he realized his sexual desires when he was six years of age on the banks of River Lirio on 24th June when saw over thirty men take a bath in their nude. Later, as a boy with eight years old, he had a sexual encounter with Orlando, a male. He also portrayed love for fellow classmate Guillmero. Arenas notes in his memoir that at his ages between 7 and 10, he experienced eroticism that was embarrassing (Arenas 19). Disappointments are inevitable to every homosexual child and Arenas was no exception. His classmate is noted to remark, “Look, Reinaldo, you are a faggot. Do you know what a faggot is? It’s a man who likes other men. A faggot, that’s what you are” (Arenas 38) these incidents help understand the psychological tortures a homosexual child encounters during his social relations in the world they inhabit. Despite Arenas’ childhood being full of sexual voracity, he still was in the closet; he kept his sexual feelings a secret.
Fidel Castro and Fulgencio, during their rule, are known to promote an organizational principle from which the country functioned. According to Nicholas V. Boline, Castro founded the movement in a way to strengthen his own political agendas and rule in the Cuban government (Nicholas 6). The increasing rhetorics of communism led to a drastically deteriorated state of military coercion which degraded politics away from mass welfare. In such a hegemonic structure, far worse consequences were encountered by the homosexual minorities who for instance were persecuted and oppressed. Leslie Feinberg brings to light that many Cuban homosexuals both male and female due to an “anti-gay terror” began fleeing the island immediately after the revolution on 26th July (Leslie 11).
The final act to homosexuals during the political time was a prosecution. For Reinaldo, Love was an ecstasy in the mind and a desire that could not speak its name (Brad Epps 283). According to Lewis, gay life became intolerable. In 1963, homosexuals were sent to a military unit for Aid to Production (UMAP). They were then persecuted as a homosexual was not part of the revolution basing on the fact that they were perceived as naturally anti-productive and symbols of capitalistic excess and corruption (Vek Lewis 106). Besides the persecution, there existed a belief that homosexuals’ sexual activities would degenerate society and even the army.
Homosexuals were confined to the worst wards of El Morro. They were situated below ground at the lowest level where water seeped into the cells at high speed. The place lacked bathrooms yet sweltering. The gays were treated as if they were not human beings. They took their meals after everyone had their share. Another oppression is them and without excuse being beaten mercilessly by guards. Army recruits who called themselves conbatientes were sent to the prisons as a sort of punishment. They, in turn, took out their rage on the gays. They used names such as fairies, faggots, and queers (Arenas 180 -181). According to Rafael Ocasio, Reinaldo’s varied experiences in various institutions and rehabilitation programs are perfectly displayed in the film. He describes Arena’s experiences in El Morro as being attacks against the violation of human rights of prisoners in Cuban jails and the inhuman treatment of gays in particular (Rafael 87-88). It was during his stay at the jail that Arenas wrote “Before nightfall,” before darkness overpowered his writing and guards came to take him to his cell, he wrote of various instances in his life of oppression. He attempted a number of times to escape the harsh conditions of prison but to no avail. Arenas was in fact placed under more severe conditions for trying and failing to flee. He finally left the island and with it forgot the writings that kept him busy while in jail. The night that awaited him was exile and death.
Censorship and persecutions of individuals who showed homosexual traits had become an emblem of the political activities in the country. In his disclosure of Before Night Falls, Arena discloses of no beginning, no end, no before, no during, no after to his life. He states that at once all positive things in his life disappeared but rather transformed into being a homosexual counterrevolutionary who dared to publish a book abroad (Arenas 155). He was arrested on the basis of homosexuality but mostly due to him refusing to write state-approved works (Laurie Vickroy 113)
Political repression at the time was in excess. Writers faced the wrath with writers such as Eliseo Diego and Cintio Vitteray, who are labeled to be against the government, are forced to write as a means of paying homage to Castro. Famous gay writers like Virgilio Pinerra nd Jos Lezama Lima became dissatisfied by the Cuban treatment of homosexuals and left the island. They both in some instance suffered shunning and exile just as Reinaldo Arenas did.
Arenas writing revolutionizes not only due to political reason but social and historical changes. When one keenly reads the memoir in which the film was based, it becomes clear as to how Arenas smuggled his manuscripts out of Cuba. This is striking mostly due to his work being viewed as a rebellion against the government. Through Jose Camacho and his wife Margarita, Arenas struggled to move his novel out of Cuba. The couple was in pursuit of the real situation of artists in Cuba. Through the act, the ill-fated peregrinations of Fray Servando, Arenas famous novel was published in French and gained great admiration which eventually earned him the best foreign novel prize. Contemplating over his own ill-fated and lack of freedom, Arenas writes and states the awards did not bring him any gain since he lived in an oppressed world were freedom was seldom (Arenas 118).
When at last Reinaldo escapes the womb he was born; Cuba, he does so using a boat named after Lazarus. It symbolizes the departure to be a rise from the grave. The next scenes are Arena playing boyishly and openly in a convertible with snowflakes falling like freedom on his face. The director clearly portrays a birth that is a happy ending for Arenas. It also leaves no doubt of Cuba being a grave to Reinaldo and others like him who were oppressed. The director skillfully uses documentary footage whereby they were spliced so cleanly such that the audience encounters no instance of a discomforting sense of media shift. A perfect instance is a scene where the Cuban audience hears Castro declare homosexuals as a threat to the state. The well-timed placements of segments declare the irrationality of declaring Arenas an enemy of the state. On his new birth, Arenas continues to write stories and poems, he attends parties accompanied by his friends and has sex; freedom from political oppression, indeed. For sure, there is no worse thing as being under an oppressive government.
At some instance, the film is hard to watch. However, there exist some critics that the film let the repressive regime in Cuba off the hook too easily. It is known of the extreme oppression that took place in Cuba but the film was not a political documentary but rather about an artist’s life. It is only during his freedom that Arenas was vocal on politics. It also is a small section in which on the memoir Reinaldo openly displays his anger and condemns Castro’s raucously. However, on the film, the condemnation is brought by his artistic work. It is clear that his suffering was caused by the president and his words. Arenas was an artist who worked on poems and novels. He was not a diatribe. The film shows constant play between art and politics. However, it usually is up to the artist on how they express their political experiences.
The director uses cruel irony in the film whereby Arenas becomes sick with AIDS at a time he supposedly is free. He becomes sickly forcing the film to a slow ending. The film shows how Arenas becomes weak through acts such as swallowing laboriously, drinking through straws and even the fragile state of his hands as he makes childish movements while writing. Arenas shows much poignancy on how he handles a glass of whiskey while trembling. He struggles to swallow his many little pills which he keeps in an envelope. Arenas fights for his freedom and finally, when he gets it, he is sickened but however has his close and long-lived friend Lazarus to help him die.
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“Before Night Falls” is a memoir of the oppressed so far as Arena’s social background and defiance are concerned. The documentation such as the one the film was based is vital since it gives a voice to not only its writers but rather the entire community of homosexuals. Just like in any other nation, homosexuals in Cuba were marked as sexual defiant groups and once a society marks them, they end up facing extreme oppression and discrimination. The importance of the film is that it serves as a medium communicating on the subject. As Linda Anderson suggests, there should be documentation of such people since it is a creation of a space allowing something new to emerge. The film serves two purposes, it first testifies of Arenas oppression and secondly empowers on the subject through recognition. The film is a testimony of Arenas oppression at the same time empowers his position through recognizing him as a writer. Writing is what gave him the status he rightfully deserved in a society that viewed him as a faggot and sexual deviant. According to Susana Egan, the film depicts expression of subjectivity. To Susan, the body is a source of subjectivity since, through the body, a subject recognizes their location in the materiality of a body. It is through Arena’s body that his sexual identity, social status, and class is decided amongst his community. Through the film, his subjectivity gets some outlet such as the important incidents in his life like poverty, counterrevolutionary writing, promiscuity, homosexuality, arrest, escape, exile and finally suicide.
Of most importance, the film reclaiming identity is the most tangible. The writer presents the most delicate matters of his life, passes on his array of traumatic experiences to the public to get due-recognition, self-validation, and identity. Due to being a gay, Arenas faced stigmatization and oppression. He was also policed for counterrevolutionary writing whereby his writings lacked identity in the society. According to Murov, Before Night Falls shows Arenas constructing his identity of being a rebellious intellectual compared to the literary relationships he consciously fashioned with earlier generations of Latin American intellectuals (Murov 134).
Arenas is amidst a revolution to uproot a dictator by the name Fulgencio Batista. The revolution is led by one Fidel Castro and renowned Che. The two work together plus Fidel Castro’s brother to strengthen the rebel force. Just as any leader, they were faced with challenges. For their case, amongst the rebels were gays, Fidel Castro for a fact did not entertain the issue of working with gays but rather saw them as a disgrace to humanity. He finalized that they were not fit to be among the rebels and that they should be locked away. Finally, as the president, he openly states and proclaims gays to be enemies of the state. As a leader, he ought to have worked with everyone to get the revolution up despite it thriving anyway (Staten & Clifford 36)
The marginalized in the society are portrayed as facing difficult times in the society. Arenas in the film clearly faces trying times not only from the community but also from his family. His grandfather beats and relocates them for instance. He is locked up in solitary just because of being a gay. The state in which homosexuals were kept in the jails was terrible. As if not enough to lock them up, they were constantly beaten up by the army for no clear reason. Despite being talented, the society he was in shun him. He lived his early ages in the closet; not open of his sexual orientation to men.
A society ought to fight the traditional ways of marginalizing people based on their gender, sexuality, age, race or culture. However, everyone should be embraced for who they are and live their lives in freedom of oppression. Governments should also not be cruel as Fidel Castro was. He is openly shown stating gays are an enemy of the state. During the revolution, he sent gays into unit camps for the aid of production. Governments should have laws in place protecting rights of individuals such as Arenas since they also are human. The film is a wonderful film despite ending in sorrow. Arenas contracts AIDS and commits suicide after having difficulties in his health. He, however, died in a free world.
Arenas, Reinaldo. Before night falls. Profile Books, 2010.
Boline, Nicholas V. “Fidel Castro’s Grand Strategy in the Cuban Revolution: 1959-1968.” Papers & Publications: Interdisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Research 4.1 (2015): 14.
Feinberg, Leslie. “Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba.” World View Forum, 2009.
Lecuona, Oscar Zanetti, and Alejandro García Alvarez. Sugar & railroads: a Cuban history, 1837-1959. Univ of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Lewis, Vek. “Grotesque spectacles: the janus face of the state and gender variant bodies in Reinaldo Arenas.” Chasqui 38.1 (2009): 104-124.
Murov, Maureen Spillane. “An Aesthetics of Dissidence: Reinaldo Arenas and the Politics of Rewriting.” Journal of Caribbean Literatures 4.1 (2005): 133-148.
Staten, Clifford L. The history of Cuba. ABC-CLIO, 2015.
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