When I ask him about Amaury Pérez’s interview in “Con dos que se quieran,” film director Lester Hamlet says halfway between pride and protest that he has been congratulated more for that show than for all of his four films.
“Does that bother you?”
“No!” he responds, “An entire community thanked me and saw hope in me!”
He is right, because coming out of the closet on Cuban national television even today, three years after what he said in front of the cameras, continues being an audacity that only free hearts dare to do.
In Q we wanted to talk with this artist about his life, the way his sexual identity has gone hand in hand with his work and his vision about the role that cinema should play in advancing the rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Cuba.
We assume that you openly live your sexual orientation both in your personal and professional life, has it always been that way?
It has always been like this. I never had conflicts with that, I never felt different because I was gay. I was as I was. I remember that when I was in first grade, just like the girls invented having a boyfriend, I talked about my boyfriend and said that my boyfriend was Ernesto, and in second grade without them knowing it I broke up with Ernesto and became Raúl’s boyfriend. Just as they said “he’s my boyfriend but doesn’t know it”, I never said “she’s my girlfriend but doesn’t know it.”
You never had a problem with that anywhere?
(He shakes his head) I don’t remember ever having problems with that. Maybe the only time I remember having a problem was once when I argued and faced one of the neighborhood kids over some toys and he won. My dad punished me because they couldn’t beat me, but I don’t think it had to do with my identity. I never had conflicts with that.
I also come from a very comfortable environment. That is, I don’t work in Antillana de Acero, nor do I work in Wajay where they train the boxers. I worked in the world of theater since I started, where I think there’s a greater gay presence.
The world of cinema isn’t homophobic?
The world of cinema is not homophobic. The world of cinema is not television. The world of cinema is more about culture, where interpersonal relationships between us come basically because we are united in cultural projects.
Making a movie is making culture, making a documentary is making culture, or making products for culture. I have never realized if they are homophobic or not. I care so little about homophobes that I don’t realize if there are any or not.
So you have never felt rejection?
Yes, of course, but that is a problem for others. For example, I could have felt an action as a lack of affectionate, a derogatory treatment, but that has never been frequent. In my case it’s the opposite, I have never felt rejected, relegated, or diminished because of my condition.
How would you say your sexuality is related in your work?
I think the way I have related to it was in Casa vieja, which is the movie where I make more references to myself. I turned Esteban into a kind of alter ego: his attitudes are mine; his hieratic poses are mine. He was a character that I built based on myself.
I set out to create a gay character. The kind of gay that I wanted Esteban to be was similar to myself. I didn’t want him to be a weirdo. I asked him to look at me, to copy me. I mounted my movements for him, ways I sat down and my hysteria, like kicking the glass door of the funeral home.
They are all things that were studied and we decided to do, but first of all I wanted to talk about a gay that I wouldn’t be ashamed of as a spectator, because it hurts a lot when I watch movies or series or novels or any kind of fiction work where the character of the gay is almost always a stereotype, an almost clown image, “clownish.”
You said in a Juventud Rebelde forum that the presence of gays in the national audiovisual production, with very few exceptions, has caused you dissatisfaction.
Except for some cases like Strawberry and Chocolate, there are gays that I couldn’t stand in other movies, which I prefer not to mention so as not to fall into some ethical dilemma, because of [this also responds to] the vision that a heterosexual and homophobic director may have about gays.
Everyone here has and should be entitled to an analysis of the other, but when one works on this, one has to snoop a lot, see who the other is, where he’s coming from, what he does.
Does the fact that the female and male directors who have approached these issues―Fernando Pérez, Jorge Perugorría, Magda González Grau―are not part of the LGBTIQ+ groups influence the representation they make of us?
It is not the case with Fernando, who has the character of Jorgito Martínez in Últimos días en La Habana, because Fernando is a god-being. He would understand each one as a character, as he understood the sociopathy of his character in Madagascar, or the madness or the state of impoverishment and disease of other characters. In Fernando there are no such borders.
And in the other cases?
That depends, because there are those who have approached it from a critical perspective, there are those who have done so from a human perspective. I believe that in the case of Marilyn Solaya, who is a female director and made Vestido de novia, she has a way of approaching the conflict based on principles of inclusion and freedom with which she lives. She manages many theses in favor of the development of a better man, a better mind and a more inclusive society so that her characters are seen with that goal.
I don’t believe that a person’s sexuality is decisive, rather their way of dealing with these taboos, their culture and their education.
Do you think that better representations of LGBTIQ+ people have appeared in recent years in Cuban cinema?
I think that Strawberry and Chocolate was a turning point, and starting then homosexuals entered Cuban cinema with another visibility. They started getting to know and manage their conflicts, to unravel their lives, their ups and downs in a different way thanks to Titón and Tabío who at that time did it like that.
It is not the same society of the 1960s, 1970s, as the society of 2010 and a bit more. Much has evolved for good and for bad, because at some point I think that so much freedom leads to a dissolute behavior that is not good either, it also gives a deteriorated image.
Just as abusers of their women and with certain attitudes are negative, the very ferries, the irreverent, too mannered gays are also very negative, for pleasure. [Although] I also believe that we live in a universe large enough for extremes to exist, and one has to be tolerant when facing that.
Sometimes I say I’m homophobic as a homosexual because there are some attitudes that I don’t like at all and I say “but why do they have to do it?” And then I say: “and why do you mess with others if you don’t like it when they mess with you?” But we are educated in some way in a patriarchal family scheme, where they teach you that the man is strong, the woman is weak, the man works, the woman accompanies, and there are certain patterns in which most have been raised.
Not me, I am a son of a mother who wanted to have her son in independent production, with a father who has been present in his own way, but I have not lived exactly in a mom and dad environment. My mother and grandmother raised me.
That is, cinema has reflected what Cuban society is, although it could also be a vanguard in the change, right?
It should be, because among many other things cinema has an important social role, since cinema is what history is going to tell us, cinema is what it is telling us about the times we are living, the past, the future.
Cinema anticipates or is delayed. When you want to know how Cuba was at a certain time, the first thing you say is: “we are going to see such a film that is based on that time,” which is why cinema has a responsibility in how it tells history.
I think it should be more incisive in the search for topics, but you also have to see what a director is interested in telling. There are directors who are not interested in LGBT themes―and all the letters we have now―and have other conflicts.
What does have to be clear is how these stories will be dealt with if they appear. There has to be an ethical and humanistic sense in the directors and screenwriters to deal with us, to deal with characters like us.
Perhaps it’s easier for you because it’s part of your life, but for directors of both sexes who do not deal with these identities or sexualities it is different.
It’s the same thing. I wonder: what do I do when I want to show a heterosexual relationship? I don’t know how they work; I have to invent them. I don’t know what a man and a woman do in bed.
And they have to be responsible with that….
Exactly! I’ve asked for things, for example, in the movie Ya no es antes, there is a moment when Isabel’s character masturbates and I say to Isabel: “Then at this moment you sit down…” and she told me: “But I can’t masturbate while sitting! Women don’t do that sitting down.” Things like that happen to me because I don’t know, I also suppose it also happens to them.
Do you think the female and male directors are fulfilling that responsibility? If people within 20 years, using cinema as history, look at the LGBTIQ+ community that is represented in the movies: is there a responsible representation?
No, I believe that the real presence of LGBT people in society is much more than their representation in art. I think we have much more participation in contemporary society, on a daily basis, than what today’s art is representing us, but it is representing us.
Would you say that independent productions have made more progress in that representation?
I haven’t kept very abreast, luckily I’m always very busy, although I have participated in these events as a jury or as a selection committee, and I have loved it because it has given me the opportunity to see a lot of material at once.
However, there are documentaries that I remember like Villa Rosa, about a trans person in Caibarién. There’s Ella trabaja and other documentaries on everything referring to characters from the community. There are several opportunities for presentation and people are using them.
Because there is a greater sensitivity about the subject or because they are very striking topics?
I believe that right now it’s because it is in fashion, after we have been offended, vilified, played with: all this little game with marriage, everything in [Article] 68 [of the draft Constitution], for it to be submitted to a social referendum, which is something that isn’t done in any country, that isn’t voted, that is decided by the government and is established or not.
You cannot ask for the vote of a society that we know is patriarchal and a defender of heterosexuality. You cannot take it to a vote because what’s going to happen is going to happen. Those things have to be decided at a government level.
How can cinema contribute to this process of advancing the rights and welfare of LGBTIQ+ people?
Many years ago, the film Portrait of Teresa was made here, which is a classic forever, that spoke about this patriarchal society, where the woman wants to work but the husband doesn’t let her and she rebels. Of course, after that movie, the mentality changed and I think we need a story that is as blunt as this.
Don’t you think it exists?
No way! That story is not told!
Maybe they have to be many stories….
Maybe! But it hasn’t come up. In Strawberry and Chocolate there was a glimpse, a character appeared that the director made us love. He was not a negative character, he was a character we did not reject: from the beauty of the actor, from his magnificent acting work, from his performance. It was a character that one welcomed, but it has not yet been the movie, or maybe it already was and we did not realize it and it is something that other people will analyze 20 years later, looking at it at a greater distance.
We are also living our historical moment, I don’t know about the importance of the things we are doing now, what I do believe is that we must appeal to the voluntariness and the wishes of the directors and screenwriters to see those stories and see how they unite the cultural and historical process in which we are immersed.
Personally, are you interested in continuing to represent these issues in your work? Contribute to a different representation of our groups?
Of course! For example, now I want to make a film about the life of Bola de Nieve, which in essence would be a portrait of what society in the 1970s was like towards homosexuals and how homosexuals lived their love, from the character of Bola, who had many problems in his acceptance of his sexuality, to another character who is inspired by my mother, who has an independent production because she is a lesbian and otherwise could not.
I have another project called Las, which is about a group of five lesbian friends’ love story. Those are my ghosts; they are in my head. I wish I could find a producer, who would become an agent of change and would be interested in a filmmaker like me making that movie.
About Amaury Pérez’s program: why did you decide to open up in that space?
I didn’t decide to open up. He asked me and I answered.
But he himself clarified in his preamble that other LGBTIQ+ artists had not wanted to talk about their private life.
I already knew where he was heading two sentences before!
That topic was not agreed before the interview? Did you know you were going to be asked something like that?
No. He called me one day to invite me to the program. Another day he called me to look at the questionnaire with me and I said no, I didn’t want to know his questions.
“Can I ask you about EVERYTHING?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said, “whatever you want to ask me, I’ll answer it.”
“But about everything, everything, Lester?”
“Everything, Amaury: there’s no problem there!” That was the way the interview was agreed.
I gave him absolute freedom. In addition, everyone says that in his interviews Amaury begins with “he is my friend,” “I have known him since he was a child,” well in this case it was true: Amaury has known me since I was a child, because of my mother, who was a show producer and worked in the music industry too. I gave him full permission to ask what he wanted.
At that moment did you feel nervous, pressed? Some say that we don’t always have an idea of the connotations of things at the time and that was a time of great connotation for many people.
His TV program was a moment of great connotation, but not for me at the time I said it.
Were there reactions from people?
An infinite amount! There still are.
Can you tell me some of them? Maybe a good one and a bad one.
There hasn’t been a bad one.
No! A good one: the next day when I leave my house, a woman came on a bicycle taxi and when she saw me she begins to tell the driver: “Stop, stop, stop!” When he stops, she comes up to me and says: “Oh, my love! Let me give you a kiss. After seeing you I haven’t stopped crying all night long, that was beautiful!” Another man, who was in front of me in a bakery, when he leaves tells me softly: “Thank you very much for what you did for us yesterday!”
There have been all kinds of manifestations of love. I haven’t been congratulated so much in my life. They congratulated me on Amaury’s interview more than for all my four films!
That is, you knew of the connotations there would be by being on national television talking openly about your sexuality, your partner and your desires.
I knew about them when the show was on the air. I gave the interview and then they sent it to me to see it, but the day I saw it on the air, the day it came out, that I heard through my building’s air vent that my ENTIRE building was watching it, that people from my environment were paying attention to what I said….
And what happened with my phone was incredible, with my husband’s phone, with my home landlines that kept ringing! I got calls from my senior high friends to Abel Prieto and Miguel Barnet.
All my acquaintances called me. The first message on my phone said: “You don’t know me but I found your number in the ETECSA telephone directory. I was watching the program with my family and in a minute you changed my life forever. Thank you!”.
I feel, and my vanity makes me feel, that there have been few programs more important at the level of consequences than this one, because I represented a community that had been silent, or had not had that when someone said: “Yes I am, I am! and so what?”
You talked about marriage then.
I am married.
Where did you get married?
In my heart and with a notary. We went to the notary, we each made a will on behalf of the other and we are already married. If I die, everything goes to my husband, if he dies, everything goes to me, which is one of the things that marriage is for, to ensure the heritage values that you are creating in the family, and as a couple, isn’t that it?
If we spend money on buying a good, well that good belongs to both of us, he won’t be left helpless, without legal support, if I die. No, I got married, I solved that.
But there is a meaning about marriage….
Romantic! I would have loved to have married Yohan, I would have loved to have a show of my wedding, a party with my friends. Having celebrated it, the marriage, I would have loved it.
Would you support a campaign for same-sex marriage?
Do you consider yourself an activist?
They consider me an activist!
And you? Do you consider yourself an activist?
No, I don’t consider myself an activist. I consider myself a free man, others consider that my freedom is activism. I do nothing for others to do something, I do things to live in peace and quiet. If that easy-going and daring way of living makes me an activist, then I am one.
* This interview originally appeared in Q de Cuir magazine. It is reproduced here with the express authorization of its editors.