Laura-Zöe Humphreys was awarded a joint PhD in anthropology and cinema and media studies from the University of Chicago in 2012 for a dissertation entitled “Revolutions Within: Criticism and Ambivalence in Post-Soviet Cuban Cinema.” The reason for the joint degree is that her work is fundamentally concerned with the intersection of traditional and new media with politics, intellectuals, and the state. It focuses on Cuba, its diaspora, Latin America, and the impact of media—in particular film—on Cuba’s diasporic population and, what is perhaps its most novel feature from the perspective of the program on “concepts of diaspora,” how the reception of film produced in Cuba for the Cuban diaspora elsewhere returns to inflect the political and social self-understanding of Cubans at home.
Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with the Havana film community, as well as archival research and the analysis of traditional and digital Cuban films, Revolutions Within traces the production of Cuban cinema and examines how new film styles and aesthetic ideologies express late socialist anxieties about socialist values, the state, and Cuba’s new immersion in the global market. Humphreys argues that since the late 1980s, the Cuban state has devised new means of controlling political protest, eschewing total repression in favor of allowing it a limited forum in certain arts, of which cinema has the broadest mass media. The films produced under this newly relaxed, but still vigilant, aesthetic and political regime has posed problems of audience interpretation for Cuban filmmakers, who seek to combine commitment to socialism with social criticism. Variously interpreted as heroic acts of resistance or state propaganda on behalf of a regime seeking to refashion its global image, Humphreys seeks to demonstrate how Cuban filmmakers struggle to allay paranoid readings of their films in order to convey their ambivalence about socialism. Audiences, in turn, both diasporic and islanders, tend to scan the films for hidden political messages and thus convert them into national allegories.
While at Hopkins, Humphreys will revise her thesis for publication and begin work on her next project: Artistic Ambassadors: Transnational Cuban Cinema and the Politics of Diaspora. Expanding upon the work done for the thesis, this project has a more forthrightly diasporic focus, looking in particular at the two-way exchanges between Cuban and Cuban diasporic filmmakers and audiences in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with all the implications that collapse possessed for the future of socialism. One of the hallmarks of Cuban cinema in this post-Soviet period, she argues, is to seek to bridge the rift between the island and the diaspora, long defined in opposition to each other and each claiming to represent the “true” Cuba. Instead, she will argue, Cuban filmmakers both on and off the island explicitly frame their work and themselves as cultural ambassadors, substituting reconciliation for confrontation and arguing on behalf of a (re) united national culture in place of the battles between socialism and democratic capitalism that raged in an earlier period. In this, the circulation of films between the island and émigré, diasporic communities challenges and interrupts the longstanding political hostility between Cuba and its diaspora. Notably, emigration, which barely surfaced as a topic in earlier films, has become the theme par excellence of island films, while recent diasporic Cuban cinema echoes this conciliatory trend. As a result of both this newly crafted relationship and the rise of digital technological, there is a growing transnational circulation of Cuban films. Humphreys’ new project will investigate the reception of island films from the perspective of the diaspora and will examine how diasporic film critics and festival organizers interpret the politics of Cuban films and filmmakers. What Humphreys seeks to illuminate, in the end, is how the Cuban state struggles to maintain its hegemony by cultivating new relationships with the diaspora. At the same time, she will demonstrate the paranoia that ensues as artists on and off the island foster, challenge, or question these changes in state power.