By Victor Fowler Calzada
The contemporary situation of Cuban film cannot be separated from the very existence of the Cuban Revolution. Although the first Cuban film was produced as early as 1906 (El parque de Palatino), the creation of the Instituto Cubano de la Industria Cinematográfica (ICAIC—the Cuban Film Institute) on March 24, 1959, changed everything. Since then—only two months and three weeks after the beginning of the Revolution—all matters involving film were concentrated in ICAIC. These include equipment purchases, production, processing, international and domestic distribution, training of film professionals, education of popular taste and, to no small extent, film criticism. Consequently, ICAIC has long played a significant role in Cuban cultural life and today reflects the challenges and contradictions facing the film industry in Cuba.
The words “Film is an art,” written in the original declaration that established ICAIC as a revolutionary institution, set the stage for the high standards demanded of Cuban filmmaking by critics and the general public, as well as by the filmmakers themselves. This phrase also helps to explain some of the gaps, difficulties or historical fluctuations of Cuban filmmaking. Cuban cinematography has been characterized by high artistic standards and loyalty to the Revolution, while at the same time reflecting the contradictions and problems of the national reality; the industry’s rejection of simple entertainment in movies, as well as of genre films, eschatological visions, vanguard experimentation and the presence of censorship, are some of its direct and indirect corollaries, gaps or problems.
At the beginning of the 1990s, during the country’s most severe economic crisis, the film industry virtually stopped production. Even the emblem of the revolution, the ICAIC newscast, disappeared in 1990 because it could not acquire raw film or pay for the costs of developing film and post-production work. From the very beginning of the Revolution, one primary achievement has been this type of documentary image, projected to domestic and international audiences. The ICAIC Latin American newscast, under the direction of documentary filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, was the vehicle for transmitting a vision for the construction of a new society in which collective effort, constructive criticism, confrontation with imperialism, and confidence in the future and internationalism prevailed.
Once the Cuban film industry was threatened with total bankruptcy, co-productions seemed the best formula for survival. Spain was particularly generous in financing these endeavors. Milestones of contemporary Cuban film (Fresa y chocolate, La vida es silbar, Suite Habana, among others) owe their existence to co-productions, but so too do a great number of films with little or no cultural aspirations.
As part of ICAIC’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the Cuban Association of Film Journalists conducted a poll to select the “most significant” films produced between 1959 and 2008. Published in March 17, 2009, in Boletín ICAIC Digital, the results showed that four films from the 1960s figured among the top seven films; after 1994, only one film in that category could be found, in twelfth place. In a separate category, twelve out of the fifteen most significant documentary films were made in the 60s, one in 1980, one in 1990, and only one after 2000 (Suite Habana, 2003). These results certainly seem to suggest a nostalgic imaginary anchored in the moments when a new national film industry was being created simultaneously with the new life fostered by the triumphant Revolution in the social arena.
Documentary film today is a good example of a changing scene, dominated by the works presented annually at the Muestra de Nuevos Realizadores/ New Filmmakers Showcase (2001), the Festival de Cine Pobre/ Film Festival of the Poor (2000) and the Festival de Documentales “Santiago Álvarez in Memoriam”/Documentary Festival “In Remembrance of Santiago Álvarez.” (2000). Despite the fact these three events are organized from within ICAIC or by people closely linked with the Institute, they are not part of the system of the Cuban mega-organization’s public actions.
Several factors have led to the emergence of a new generation of documentary filmmakers within the country: ICAIC’s focus on the production of feature films; the impact of the so-called Special Period on the new generation of Cubans; the growing number of film graduates from the Instituto Superior de Arte/ Arts High School and the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión de San Antonio de los Baños/ International School of Film and Television; and the availability of less expensive equipment for filming and processing audiovisual materials. Unlike previous productions, current films propose a vision of national reality characterized by a sharp-edged critical intention to deal with the troubles of contemporary Cuban society. Individuals such as Gustavo Pérez, Alina Rodríguez, Susana Barriga or Aram Vidal are doing some of the most interesting documentary work in the present decade. In addition to these filmmakers, all film professionals who are graduates of Cuba’s film schools in recent years have seen the emergence of the Faculty of the Art of Behavior (Cátedra de Arte de Conducta), Tania Bruguera’s complex visual arts project that operated from 2003 to 2009. Bruguera sought to facilitate change and artistic growth for participants who attended workshops, conference series or forums with world-renowned artists and special guests. These young men and women, some of whom had no previous specialized training, created audiovisual documents that are among the most interesting made in Cuba in the present decade. In this context it is worth mentioning Adrián Melis (A mí todo el mundo me cuida, 2006) and Javier Castro, a Cátedra graduate (Yo no le tengo miedo a la eternidad, 2006).
If, for many long years, Cuba had produced films that –given the relationship between the characters and history—could be interpreted as allegories of the nation, the present gives us works that try to recuperate the old conventions of Hollywood-style movies, resulting in films that are bereft of any ideological discourse. Examples are Frutas en el café (Humberto Padrón, 2005), Omertá (Pavel Giroud, 2008), the unreleased Mata, que Dios perdona (Ismael Perdomoor and the recent Los dioses rotos (Ernesto Daranas, 2008). Another example of this trend is the work of Eduardo del Llano (a humorist and ICAIC screenwriter, as well as an independent filmmaker ) and Jorge Molina (who has acted in some ICAIC films, but writes and directs his own independent films), They have directed six short films that have a profound impact on the national scene—without any support (project approval and subsequent backing) or financing from ICAIC.
Cuba produces about four long feature films yearly. In this context, a short film is enough to shake up the critics, audiences and the governing sector, as well as to challenge certain aspects of life or the making and meaning of the films themselves. For example, del Llano’s works have made their mark with the richness of their staging, stylistic characteristics and the author’s creative and poetic transparency, ranging from Monte Rouge (which parodies the actions of Cuban police and security forces) to Brainstorm (which mercilessly pokes fun at political immobility, media manipulation and the silence of officialdom about critical aspects of Cuban life).
Molina continues to be the only Cuban filmmaker who explores the worlds of eroticism, pornography and violence. His latest film, El hombre que aullaba a la luna (2008), also demonstrates powerful personal poetics. Both del Llano and Molina are regular figures at film festivals throughout the country; their productions deserve more recognition than they have enjoyed so far.
Although it does not exactly fall into the category of film, the expansion of the video-art scene in Cuba is one of the most interesting developments in audiovisual production in the country. This type of work tends to be distributed in a different way than commercial film, but it has had considerable cultural impact. Since the I Coloquio de Arte Digital (1999) / first Colloquium of Digital Art, now in its tenth year, the idea of a new audiovisual art (consisting of video-art, digital film, animation and audiovisual stories made for computer) has been flourishing in Cuba; a good example is the fact that from 2005 to 2008, el Festival Internacional de Cine de la Habana/the Havana International Film Festival exhibited Cuban video-art under the umbrella category Flash Forward; this year there is a separate category for experimental work and for video-art. New information technology has opened up new territory for artists like photographer Juan Carlos Alom (Habana Solo, 2000), painter Lázaro Saavedra (Síndrome de la sospecha, 2004) and video-artist Raúl Cordero.
This new work co-exists with the popularity of Cuba’s more traditional film, both in the domestic and international realm. To be sure, it is Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s feature film, Fresa y chocolate, that has garnered most international distribution, marking the high point in national cinematography since the mythic years of the first decade of the triumph of the Revolution. The film tells the story of the friendship between a young Communist Party member (David) and a homosexual (Diego), who is forced to abandon the country because of prejudice and low-level political manipulation. Fresa y chocolate presented the very sensitive theme of emigration to the public for the first time and earned much-deserved success. In its subplot, the story functions as a tale of learning (within the realm of culture, particularly national culture) for David, who is taken under his wing by Diego. Since then, other authors have revisited the theme of emigration, resulting in feature films such as Video de familia(Humberto Padrón, 2002), La ola (Enrique Alvarez, 1995), Nada (Juan Carlos Cremata, 2001) and Viva Cuba (Juan Carlos Cremata, 2005), as well as documentary films such as De-generación (2006) and Ex-generación (2008), both by Aram Vidal.
Other important films produced by ICAIC have included Barrio Cuba (Humberto Solás, 2005), Páginas del diario de Mauricio (Manuel Pérez, 2006), Madrigal (Fernando Pérez, 2007), El viajero inmóvil (Tomás Piard, 2008) and Los dioses rotos (Ernesto Daranas, 2008). These five movies, with very diverse aesthetic intentions, relate small contemporary stories through humble characters (Barrio Cuba), propose ample revisions of critical points of contemporary Cuban history (Páginas del diario de Mauricio), give us a dense metaphoric parable of the national reality in a tale that is split into a twofold history situated in the present and in the future (Madrigal), profoundly analyze national culture through the work of Cuban writer José Lezama Lima and his novel Paradiso (El viajero inmóvil), and present an in-depth account of the codes of life in Havana’s marginal neighborhoods (Los dioses rotos).
I believe the sum of all these efforts is enough to demonstrate that Cuban film lives on, that this is a moment of great changes, and that surprises lie in store.
TOP TEN MOST SIGNIFICANT CUBAN FILMS
(Asociación Cubana de la Prensa Cinematográfica)
- Memorias del subdesarrollo (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea) 1968
- Lucía ( Humberto Solás) 1968
- Fresa y chocolate ( T. G. Alea y Juan Carlos Tabío) 1993
- Madagascar ( Fernando Pérez) 1994
- Papeles secundarios ( Orlando Rojas) 1989
- La muerte de un burócrata (T. G. Alea) 1966
- La primera carga al machete (Manuel Octavio Gómez) 1969
- Retrato de Teresa (Pastor Vega) 1979
- La bella del Alhambra (Enrique Pineda Barnet) 1989
- La última cena (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea) 1976
- Now! (Santiago Alvarez ) 1965
- Por primera vez (Octavio Cortázar ) 1967
- Suite Habana (Fernando Pérez) 2003
- Coffea arabiga (Nicolás Guillén Landrián) 1968
- L.B.J. (Santiago Álvarez ) 1968
- Vaqueros del Cauto (Oscar Valdés) 1965
- Ociel del Toa (N. Guillén Landrián) 1963
- Ciclón (Santiago Álvarez) 1963
- Nosotros, la música (Rogelio París) 1964
- Hanoi, martes 13 (Santiago Álvarez) 1967
Victor Fowler Calzada is a Cuban poet, critic and lecturer on film and literature. His most recent book of poetry is La obligación de expresar (Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2008). He is presently coordinating a series of books on contemporary international film, written by Cuban researchers and to be published by the ICAIC Press.