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IFFR2015: Half-Life – La Obra del Siglo (The Project of the Century)

La obra del siglo (Carlos Machado Quintela, 2015)


On the site of a never-completed power plant in Cuba, a son’s return electrifies the relationship with his workless father and his bitter grandfather. With great chemistry going on between them, these three generations of Cubans form a bruised bunch, all forced to live together – an existence marked by the absence of women. The real protagonist of La Obra del Siglo however is possibly the place where the story is rooted. Electro-Nuclear City (ENC) is a little-known construction site where the Soviets once planned to build the first nuclear power station on Cuban soil. However, this ‘project of the century’ (hence the English title), was never completed due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuban filmmaker Carlos M. Quintela, in competition with his second feature, interlaces the situation of the former construction workers, who have stayed behind in the temporary housing units, with archival footage of the project.

With its dome standing out, the plant is almost more reminiscent of the Taj Mahal than a structure that could actually belong in the Cuban environment. Quintela describes the place as a ghost town. “Because of the abandonment of the project, that place was never really born and never died; it’s a little bit dead and a little bit alive at the same time.”

The film draws parallels between the alien place created by this strange endeavor and space travel. The Communist utopia connects to the cosmic utopia. For Quintela, going into space is the ultimate utopia. “Just as is the case with the three alpha-males living together, it’s a matter of machismo, a matter of size. All of the time Cuba is trying to show to the world that it has size, a little island that pretends to do something bigger.”

Not without a sense of humor, metaphysical elements provide the story with a sprinkling of stardust. For Quintela the illogical or unreal events that happen in the film correspond to the strangeness of the place. He describes them as “errors in the system”. A straightforward rendering of the place and its streets would make its failure too obvious. “I’m interested in the human matter”, Quintela notes.

A key role is reserved for the grandfather’s goldfish, Benjamin. It is remarked in the film that these animals only have a memory of fifteen seconds. This would be a great asset for the humans living there. This ghost town, which the involved nations want to forget, remains haunted by the past, as shown in the interwoven color archival footage. Gorgeously shot in black and white, Quintela considers this contemporary place simply impossible to imagine in color, everything is gray. Surviving in their rectangular container, the inhabitants are like fish out of water.