“True Truths” Interview with Magda González Grau, director of Cuban TV show Calendario

Magda Gonzalez Grau, Cuban director, film and TV

Since its initial broadcast, on Sunday, January 9, the [Cuban] television series Calendar has stolen the affection of most Cuban families. It is enough to walk the streets after 8:30 at night to hear, in many houses, the voices of the protagonists of the TV show: the students of 9th grade and their teacher Amalia. It is enough to look at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or WhatsApp to realize how issues that should be put on the table, in the public arena, that sometimes, go unnoticed, are permeating society.

Actors of Calendario Cuban TV series

The rescue of poetry (and of authors such as Villena and Heredia), the traditional celebration which came before Halloween, the smooth rhythm of the theme tune, bullying and phrases such as “Cuba does not reach the Havana tunnel” are issues that are being appreciated and debated by viewers on social networks.

For the director of the series, Magda González Grau, the reception has been a gift, above all because fiction “is needed to encourage reflection on conflicts of these times”. Despite being immersed in the preparations for the second season, she agreed to answer Cubadebate’s questions via WhatsApp.

Calendar has generated a wave of positive criticism in the Cuban family (in my humble opinion, because it breaks stereotypes). What does this welcome mean to you, being the first television series you have directed?

-I believe that the success of Calendar is due to the fact that it reflects reality without stereotypes. Stereotyping is never an option. You have to look for archetypes, which is something different. And when I hear people say that these are their stories, or those of someone in the family, or the neighbour’s, it’s wonderful. That makes me feel stimulated, even more, being my debut TV series that I am directing. And although the fatigue of months of work is already felt, we are preparing the second season with the same enthusiasm, because receiving that affection from the public and, above all, generating debate within the family and in society, is one of the duties of the makers, even more of the creators of fiction.

Speaking of the second season… What will it bring?

We are already writing and rehearsing. This stage will be pre-university, a year later, when Amalia will teach the 11th grade. For this reason, and because we had actors with other commitments, new characters had to be created.

“There will also be some conflicts and there will be new situations… Here we go. We are trying to ensure that the saying  series twos were never good  is not true in this case”.

The work of the screenwriter is essential. How has working with Amílcar Salatti been?

–Working with Amílcar is wonderful because, in addition to being a talented writer, he is a person who knows how to listen and is always in a good mood. We have constant communication. Sometimes I come up with things that I tell him about, and he then translates them into the script in such a creative, engaging, well-dialogued way that it’s a joy to watch.

“In addition, it makes my work with the actors much easier. I do not allow them to change the words in the scripts. They are well written and that must be respected. I am absolutely happy to work with him because, I tell you, he is an artist in every sense of the word”.

Is the production dedicated to a teacher in your family?

-Yes, I wanted to dedicate the series to my mother, Ángela Grau. She was a teacher for a long time. As director of scholarships at Cepero Bonilla she taught the selected students at pre-university level. Many of the intellectuals who are currently in the Cuban public arena were her students.

“My mom was a real teacher, who understood teaching as something to respect, and that got into my head. Perhaps my interest in making a series about the teacher comes from there, because I am also a teacher.

“But my mother not only brought me up, she also trained me in ethical principles that I am very grateful for. So, if I’m going to do a series on pedagogy, how can I not dedicate it to her?

Let’s talk about the first season. Given that Calendar is an independent production and recorded in pandemic conditions, how was the filming experience?

–The initial step was to start the system of independent production. Since we were one of the first big productions to come out with money from television where we manage the budget ourselves, we had many run-ins with the bank. We still have that problem with various entities that say: “And who are you? Where do you come from? Bring me a letter from the organization you represent.” But hey, there has been the will of the ICRT [Cuban TV industry institution] to make this work, and we count on their support when we hit those hurdles.

“As for the pandemic, that we have been able to record without setbacks I owe to the detailed organization of my production team, especially to my producer Yolanda Rosario, who knew how to handle cleaning and protocols in detail.

“We kept up with everything. If someone felt ill, we immediately isolated them and did PCR tests. If there was any contact with a confirmed case, the shooting plan was changed so that the PCR testing could be done and the results would be known. In order to do that it also helped a lot that the production was independent.

“We were all scared to death. But we wanted to do the series and I think we worked to get lucky. Finally, the recordings did not have to be suspended for any broadcast event.”

Working on ‘Calendario’ Cuban TV series with director Magda Gonzalez Grau

Do you think that the success of Calendar , one of the first great independent productions in the country, can stimulate other projects of the same genre, also self-managed, to be brought to the screen?

–It is not only the success of what is appearing on the screen, it is that we met the recording deadlines and managed to get people to work in the best possible conditions, in the midst of the hostility of the pandemic.

“Furthermore, everything was transparent: accounting, contracts, everything. At first we had some setbacks, due to ignorance, but we immediately solved it. The State gave us money to produce and we had to respond to that trust.

“Taking that experience into account, I think it’s an alternative that directors should develop, because it’s the best way to create. Of course, it is a good way if you are prepared and manage the resources with the responsibility that it implies. It can’t happen that they give you the resources and then you show up with garbage.

“So, I think that is the way and it can be the future of TV and film. But you have to take care of it, not go overboard or cheapen it. Everything that is done in this way has to be of high quality.”

Calendar is broadcast after the main news on Cuban television, which favors a large-scale audience. But, is it a good time for your target audience, taking into account that the TV programmes of that type are usually broadcast before eight o’clock?

-The schedule was one of the few indications that the series had from the beginning. But the same people took it upon themselves to defend it. A lot of people were like, “Well, when do you want it to be shown? At seven, when I’m making dinner? During the week, when we have not arrived from work? So yes, Sunday at 8:30 I think is a good time. I also think it should take the slot of the Cuban drama series when Tras la Huella is not running, because, obviously, on Sunday most of the family is sitting watching television.

“And on social media you can see the number of young people who follow the TV show. Even in four episodes it has been proved that people eat early, take a bath and sit down on Sundays to watch Calendar , because the issues of adolescents and young people are of interest to all of society. That is a gift for me, for the channel and for programming.”

How has the TV show been received by workers in the education sector?

I have received messages from teachers who begin their classes alluding to a poem used by Amalia, or by talking about topics reflected in the series. The Ministry of Education has also followed us. In fact, the minister, Ena Elsa Velázquez, attended the premiere of Calendar . That day I sat behind her, somewhat nervous, because the series questions aspects that may be wrong. And I remember her phrase at the end of the screening: “True truths.” You have no idea how important it was to me.

“Once we met with the president of the junior high school pioneers, and it gave me great pleasure to hear her say that we had put her “up against the wall” , but in the best sense of the phrase, because the series urged schools to look at each other, inside, and to think about the things that need to be reformulated.

“So, if it works for that, if it helps to improve things, great! I believe that this should be the spirit of teachers, schools and the Ministry of Education itself. And Calendar is not made only to criticize, but also to offer possible solutions”.

In this sense, how can television programmes help to rethink social contexts and phenomena, such as those linked to approaches to teaching in this case?

-Look, fiction is a very powerful tool, because it appeals to emotion. You can hold seminars, social orientation programs, have someone explain the social processes, how this should be, how the other should be. That has a value, undoubtedly. But what works best is fiction. Why? Because it tells stories and, when stories are told, they are talking about human beings.

“I think that fiction plays an important role in putting the finger on the sore spot. When I was head of drama at the ICRT, people from communications said:  But, why can you say things that we can’t? . And I answered: Well, because we are talking about lives and behaviours, which reach people more easily and that is, perhaps, the best way to say it .

“A television series does not solve the problems, but it does make people think, not only the recipients of social plans, but also those who decide where the weak points are. In the case of Calendar, the role of the teacher is addressed, but also the various conflicts that we Cubans are experiencing.

“That is why it gives me tremendous joy every time an episode ends and people on social media begin to reflect on the issues addressed, because that is one of the objectives: that on Sunday night the viewer goes to bed thinking about the issues that we present, above all to perfect them, to build a better country, beyond the fiction that is, ultimately, what we all want”.

Read full interview in Spanish in CubaDebate.cu here