The Artwork and Artifice of Remembering in Steve Fagin’s “The Batista Syndrome”

The Art and Artifice of Remembering in Steve Fagin’s “The Batista Syndrome”

IF IT IS EVER believable to group auteur tasks into those who exhume the previous, those who champion the current, and those who catapult us into the longer term, then The Batista Syndrome — Steve Fagin’s retrofuturistic video miniseries — leaps and lands firmly on some refined mixture of all three, remaining there in a balancing act. The undertaking’s success could be defined by the benefit and magnificence with which Fagin commingles these temporal approaches: trying again, ahead, and additional nonetheless. It’s a measure of the undertaking’s acrobatic prowess that, approaching the tip, I felt an mental euphoria, moved as I typically am by the promise of time journey. Fagin’s concern with each evoking the simultaneity of time and the treatment to a selective amnesia takes on the quiddities of Cuba’s cultural histories — white and dominant, on one finish; Black and foundational, on the opposite.

In The Ebook of Laughter and Forgetting, Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes that “the wrestle of man towards energy is the wrestle of reminiscence towards forgetting.” The Batista Syndrome, set concurrently in 1950s and present-day Havana, is caught in such a wrestle. An assemblage of imagined reminiscences brought on by trauma suffered below the dictatorship of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista, which lasted from 1952 to 1959, The Batista Syndrome is an act of dysfunction, projecting an unruly efficiency of historical past onto the current. Right here, type and content material are inextricable; in spite of everything, traumatic reminiscence is neither linear nor chronological.

Aside from seaside scenes and an interview with the nephew of famous mob boss Meyer Lansky, The Batista Syndrome was shot totally in Havana’s Rex Duplex, a venue linked to a pre-Castro period and as soon as recognized for its magnificence and refinement. On account of its present ruinous situation, the setting constitutes a type of necropolis in its personal proper, a sacred burial floor from which Fagin exhumes and phases — below the pure gentle of a modern-day Cuba in transition — the stays of days passed by.

The undertaking — written and directed by Fagin and produced by Berta Jottar — traverses a number of theatrical genres: “musical, vaudeville, verité, drama, dream, and soliloquy.” Via language that’s of each the previous and the longer term, the sequence engages viewers in an intimate tryst with earlier occasions. From the outset, then, we’re irreversibly moved to grasp Fagin himself as a faithful gravedigger, not one who digs to bury, however one who digs to excavate.

Episode one, “Sobre una tumba, una rumba” [“Over a Grave, a Rumba”], units the undertaking’s thematic tone by way of the efficiency of a track that shares its title with the episode’s title. Written by Cuban performer and composer Ignacio Piñeiro (1888–1969) and initially carried out by María Teresa Vera (1895–1965), the track’s goal appears to be to help mourners within the strategy of mourning, an enactment of melancholy to the life-confirming heart-thumping of a caja china, presumably a quinto (the highest-tuned of the tumbadora household of drums), and a set of cajones. As this interlude suggests, the previous, as a type of theatrical/musical efficiency, is projected into the longer term to reach at a spectacle that’s partly Afro-Cuban in content material but additionally wholly Afro-Cuban in aesthetics. “Undertaker, I encourage you,” the singer pleads,

that for my sake you sing
while you obtain the stays
of what was my love.
And in her resting place,
as a substitute of gorgeous flowers,
you may plant a bush of thorns.

To which a refrain replies:

Don’t cry for her, don’t cry for her.
She was a terrific bandolera [thief], undertaker,
don’t cry for her.

The scene’s rhythmic, vocal interludes betray a syncopated picture of loss and absence, of the previous’s unfulfilled guarantees — the fabric ruins of a failed undertaking — all of which coalesce within the current. The singer’s plea goals to appropriate selective amnesia of the trauma skilled in the course of the Batista dictatorship and of the dictatorship itself; neither is worthy of flowers.

Display seize by Steve Fagin

Appropriately, what follows is the picture of ruins: a promenade by way of Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, certainly one of Latin America’s most necessary necropolises. Enter Dr. Daniel Santos, a Cuban neurologist who focuses on learning the mind and investigating how folks reconstruct their previous. In accordance with Fagin, Santos — our man in Havana’s cemetery — was impressed by Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Spouse for a Hat. Within the ebook’s titular story, a affected person known as Dr. P is recognized with visible agnosia, an impairment in recognizing visually offered objects. Very similar to Sacks’s ebook, Fagin’s undertaking bets on altered perceptions, spontaneous reminiscences, selective omissions, and extraordinary losses. The crown of wires that Dr. Santos makes use of to interchange a funereal crown of flowers echoes the bush of thorns talked about within the lyrics of “Sobre una tumba, una rumba”; each photos recommend the undertaking’s philosophical and theoretical proposition: the previous is an unintelligible tangle, a theatrical jumble that have to be filtered, translated, and transcribed with the language of the current.

Photograph by Simone Lueck
Photograph by Simone Lueck

Hereinafter are thrillingly underexplained episodes, by turns incantatory and elegiac, illuminating the lifetime of a dysfunction. The deeper we transfer into the syndrome’s labyrinthine imaginings, photos of trauma skilled change into extra pervasive and disorienting: dreamy ballet dancers pliéing to a black-and-white video of a 1958 Russian rendition of Giselle; an anthropomorphic, retrofuturistic jukebox — a type of psychopomp that may entry the world of the useless in change for a chocolate coin; a scantily clad Kissing Bug or “Bicho besucón,” the results of a reminiscence transplant. Our bicho, whose incessant panting and kissy lips terrorize a girl in her modern-day Havana palace, remembers chosen moments throughout Batista’s regime: lavish events the place wealthy Americanos haggle with Havana’s crème de la crème, and a marketing campaign of clandestine leaflets calling for client strikes in the course of the 1958 Christmas holidays. “Zero film theaters, zero procuring, and 0 cabarets,” the bicho hollers, echoing the trending slogan selling the resistance efforts towards Batista.

The eight episodes represent a collective understanding of the previous’s lingering into a gift by no means to be absolutely grasped. All through the sequence, reminiscences seem as visitations, whispers, confessions, and ghostly reveries that assert themselves into the right here and now; they launch themselves into the longer term by way of musical predictions, generational trauma, and even desires. The reminiscences are vivid and anxious, like blinking neon indicators, and acts of heroism, violence, terrorism, and censorship.

Photograph by Simone Lueck

Like Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers, and its musical revelations — which Fagin confessed to me was the muse for this undertaking — The Batista Syndrome is equally within the enterprise of music. Via its knack for hypermemory — the alternative of selective amnesia — music all through the sequence invokes cultural contact, affect, and change. In spite of everything, in contrast to anything, music remembers the previous by consistently shifting towards the longer term.

Finally, Fagin postulates the opportunity of a special type of forthcoming, one primarily based on excavated reminiscences and displaced beats, the place the sins and efforts of the previous are as soon as once more a regenerative energy. The shock of the musical, the whimsical, and the sudden among the many ruins is the antidote to an period cursed by the stupor of everlasting sleep. We end the sequence with the eerie feeling that we too are specters of the previous, visitations into the current slipping by way of the cracks of some ramshackle constructing in Centro Habana — maybe the Rex Duplex — and just like the anthropomorphic jukebox, the dreamy ballet dancers, and the human-sized Kissing Bug, we declare our spot sooner or later whereas trying again to the previous.


View The Batista Syndrome in its entirety right here, utilizing the password LARB.


Susannah Rodríguez Drissi is an award-winning author, poet, playwright, translator, and scholar. Her novel Till We’re Fish is forthcoming from Propertius Press on October 6, 2020.


Steve Fagin

Berta Jottar

Jeremy Prokosch
Barbara Lee
Willard Morgan

René Arencibia

Raúl Prado

Jorge Miguel Quevedo Glez

Delio Ferrero Moreira

Yoelvis Lobaina

Paula Fernández

Nancy Angulo

Simone Lueck


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