¡Vive el cine! Havana’s 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema—a magical encounter with Havana and film
One of the main attractions of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema or “Havana Film Festival” is its locale—sunny Havana, Cuba. Every year, for the first two weeks in December, this phenomenal festival, now in its 37th edition, brings Cubans and international guests to 14 historic cinema halls all over downtown Havana and outlying neighborhoods. Scurrying from venue to venue has never been more exciting as Havana is experiencing its own cinematic moment. The city still has much of its unique time-capsule feel—old Chevys, cobblestoned plazas, faded facades, and 1950’s Soviet-style architecture. The famous five mile long Malecón, the broad esplanade, roadway and seawall, looks much the same as it did a half century ago. But on nearly every block within the city center, those fabled baroque buildings are undergoing surgery as hundreds of new businesses, restaurants, bars and hotels go up. A chaotic melange of people go about their daily business while foreigners with cameras and phones click away.
The prestigious festival itself is one of the Havana’s and Latin America’s most anticipated annual events, offering the best and latest in Cuban, Latin American and world film—over 675 features, documentaries, fiction, animation, and archival gems from 49 countries. Programming Director, Zita Morriña, received over 1,500 film submissions, the biggest year ever and the festival seeks out and invites prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.
Travel has been denied most Cubans but they are well-informed, voracious cinephiles and will wait for hours in lines that stretch on for blocks to see a film that generated a buzz abroad. The energetic atmosphere makes all the hassle of getting to Cuba worthwhile. With juried competitions in eight areas and numerous awards, including best unrealized screenplay and even one for the best artistic design of the festival’s poster, the festival acknowledges talent across the board. I was on the lookout for Raúl Castro, who usually makes an appearance at every festival, but Cubans are excited about famous guests. Over the years, the festival has flown in a good number of Hollywood stars—Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Annette Bening, Spike Lee, and others.
I attended the 37th edition of festival—December 3-13, 2015. I had been inspired by the Sonoma International Film Festival’s “Vamos Al Cine” programming, organized by Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, which in 2014 brought several Cuban films, directors and actors to Sonoma. I had also spent part of the summer of 1987 in Cuba with colleagues from the Columbia School of Journalism and was intrigued to learn how life had changed there.
There were no direct flights to Cuba, so I traveled from San Francisco to Cabos San Lucas, Mexico, and then on to Havana. My accommodations at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, in gorgeous Vedado, just a few meters from the sea, were booked through the festival. The pace of change in Cuba is brisk, so look for direct flights to Havana soon.
After leisurely touring the Cuban countryside in an old Chevy for three days with friends from Sonoma, I attended opening night and the first five days of the festival and saw five to six films per day, from 10 AM through midnight. The festival catalogue, Apuesta por el cine (Committed to Cinema) offered 200 pages of films. About a third of the films were subtitled but all program information was in Spanish. I realized that I knew next to nothing about the cinematic history of the region, much less its newest films and most important directors, and would need help.
Breakfast at the festival hub, the Nacional, included the who’s who of Latin American cinema, all pouring over their Diarios del Festival. This 8-page daily festival newspaper lists screening times and venues for the current day and the next day, and whether or not a film contains English subtitles. It also profiles celebrities in attendance and historic film and festival moments. Loaded up with recommendations straight from directors, producers and actors, I built an ambitious schedule.
Getting to the various venues in the morning via some form of taxi was the first challenge and the second was navigating the huge lines. A festival “participante” pass ($40) gets you in the theatres ahead of non-pass holders but you still stand in long lines. Almost every day, it rained heavily off and on for several minutes, creating monstrous puddles to navigate while in line. One can’t help but be swept up in the moment—the excitement of the crowd, the impassioned conversations, the glory of these old cinema houses— Infanta, La Rampa, America, Charles Chaplin and 23Y12.
This is bound to change, but with so few cell phones, people actually communicate directly with each other, something I enjoyed. I met an endearing trio of women in their late 70’s, friends since childhood, who make this festival their annual get together and haven’t missed a year yet. They recounted memories of Harry Belafonte and Annette Bening. After the gala screening of Todd Haynes’ lesbian melodrama, Carol (2015), I walked on to the next screening with two university students who were struggling to understand why the film had gotten so much hype—in Cuba, it’s a given that some freedom’s are denied but they found something missing in the film and hadn’t been able to relate to the characters emotionally.
If you’re looking for perfect screening conditions, creature comforts, or envision sipping a mojito during a screening, Havana is not for you, at least not yet. There were technical issues—primarily with sound, or films that would not play, and, a few times, there were no subtitles. Substitutions were made on the spot. Basic snacks—chips, cups of popcorn, greasy nuts, Cuban candies and fruits—are sold outside the theatres in huge shopping carts. There is no “to go” for coffee and this was challenging. There’s not much to buy but each theatre displays and sells wonderful movie posters and t-shirts that you’ll be tempted to stock up on.
After each film, it was a race out the door to the street curb to hunt down a way to get to the next screening. Most tourists use Convertible pesos or “CUC” and pay the equivalent of US $5 to $10 dollars to go from venue to venue in some form of private taxi. The locals all use buses or taxi colectivos—big old classic cars from the 1950’s, which go just one way, up or down the long boulevards. People cram in like sardines and hop in and out and pay just 30 centavos in Cuban “CUP” (the national coin used by Cubans).
What I did see in my five days was largely exceptional and I had the time of my life. Here are five aspects of the festival that most impressed me—
Opening Night at Karl Marx Cinema
Over 4,000 people showed up at Teatro Karl Marx, Havana’s largest cinema house, located in Miramar, central Havana, for opening night and it rained. Following festival director Alfredo Guevara’s opening remarks, there was a brief homage to Geraldine Chaplin, the British-American daughter of Charles Chaplin. Born in Santa Monica, in 1944, she has over 140 acting credits and chaired the festival’s jury for fiction films. Next, the audience was treated to Pablo Trapero’s El Clan (2015). The prominent Argentinean director won a Best Director Silver Lion at Venice for this brutal bio-pic about the notorious real-life Puccio family who resided in an affluent Buenos Aires suburb and kidnapped their wealthy neighbors to extort ransom and then murdered their captives anyway. With a dark performance from Argentinean actor Guillermo Francella, the film picks up right after the 1981 fall of military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, whose regime was responsible for the disappearances of some 30,000 Argentinean dissidents. At the festival’s closing awards ceremony, the film picked up the Coral Award for Popularity, which was based on audience feedback.
As it turned out, Havana offered a number of stomach churners whose moral consequences weighed heavily on viewers. Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s El Club (2015) took the Coral Award for Best Feature Film. This dark treatise on the Catholic church through the prism of a group of exiled priests had picked up the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale. What I found lacking in Havana was post-screenings Q & A’s with the directors and actors that help one process their experience and broaden perspectives. These have become such an integral part of most festival experiences that when they don’t happen, you feel you’ve missed out.
Revisiting important events in Latin American history
It’s thanks to movies like Patricio Guzmán’s La Batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile) (1975-78, Chile, Cuba, France) or Costa Gavras’ Missing (1982) that many of us learn about events in Latin American history such as the CIA-funded military coup in Chile that installed the right wing dictator Pinochet and led to thousands of deaths and mothers and sisters searching for decades for the remains of their missing loved ones. In Havana, I witnessed the power of film’s storytelling to reopen debate on what these significant events meant and how to move on.
Prior to viewing Columbian director Klych López’s engrossing drama, Siempreviva (2015, 111min), his first feature film, I had never heard of the siege of Columbia’s Palace of Justice. The 1985 raid by members of the guerrilla group M19 (or April 19) led to all 25 of the country’s Supreme Court Justices being held hostage, over 200 civilian deaths and disappearances, and three decades of largely futile efforts by surviving family members to recover the remains of their loved ones. López, an acclaimed television director, was a just a boy when the siege occurred but he went to school near the Bogotá courthouse and witnessed the event unfolding. His work in television has also addressed aspects of historical memory. Siempreviva tells the story from a family’s perspective. In their large Bogotá household, which is held together by a struggling strong mother (Columbia’s beloved Laura Garcia), all of Columbian society is represented through skillfully interwoven stories.
Peruvian director Héctor Gálvez’s NN (2015), Peru’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee, also confronted the scars of civil war but was less successful from a storytelling perspective. The drama focuses on a forensic anthropologist (Paul Vega) in Lima whose team spends their days excavating remote mass graves and sorting through human remains trying to help people find missing relatives who were victims of Peru’s Internal Civil War (1980-2000). He struggles to remain detached but a long-suffering elderly widow, who only knows that her husband was pulled off a bus in 1988 by the military police, gets under his skin.
Encountering big Latin stars unknown in the US
Havana is an inauguration into the legacies of talented Latin stars who, largely due to the exigencies of film distribution in the US, are virtually unknown in the States. Casual conversation with festival participants generates a list of not-to-be missed performances by actors as well as not-to-be missed actor-director pairings. A film that completely charmed me was Argentinean director Maxi Gutiérrez’s Tokio (2015), a love story that unfolds in 24 hours against the backdrop of jazz piano and low light. Since there are hardly any romantic films in the US with characters past the age of 70, I was delighted to watch 75 year-old Argentinean film and television siren, Granciela Borges turn out a tender, sensual performance conveying the hesitation, insecurity and joy that accompany falling in love late in life. Over the years, Borges has acted in over fifty films. Her co-star, the beloved Argentinean film, theatre and stage actor Luis Brandoni, 76, matched her step for step and together they elevated the film into an unexpected masterpiece.
Experiencing cinematic history
Attending the premiere of Bob Yari’s Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015), the first Hollywood film to shoot on location in Cuba since the trade embargo was imposed in 1960, was one of the more memorable festival experiences. Most of the cast and crew flew in for the event. Yari, the director of Crash (2004) and The Illusionist (2006), shot the film in 2014 with the assistance of the Cuban Film Institute. The film generated a lot of media attention and festival screenings were enormously popular with Cubans. The screenplay by the late journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc recounts his relationship with Hemingway, whom he befriended when he was a young Miami Herald journalist. Later, Petitclerc was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and he retired in Sonoma. Adrian Sparks was brilliant as Hemingway, capturing the vulnerability under the rage and bluster of this great genius in his last years. At 41, Giovanni Ribisi was miscast as a young reporter and turned out a rather lackluster performance. My Papa experience reached its zenith when I shared an elevator with Mariel Hemingway, who makes a brief screen appearance.
Cuba’s cinema moment
My enthusiasm for Cuban film brought me to Havana and the selection was vast—61 films! I got a list of must-sees from Jorge Perugorría, Cuba’s most famous actor, now 50, who in 1994, played Diego in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s delightful fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) (1994), reportedly the first Cuban film with a gay hero. Perugorría has since stared in over 50 films and visited the Sonoma International Film Festival in 2014 with Se Vende (2012) Naturally, he recommended his latest film, Irish director Paddy Breathnauch’s Viva (2015), a Cuban-Irish co-production about Cuban drag queen culture, enlivened by pitch-perfect acting and its gritty barios Havana setting. Viva is Ireland’s Foreign Language Oscar entry. Héctor Medina’s seductive and tragic performance as a young man struggling with his identity stole the show but watching Perugorría’s transformation from a wrecked and aching man into the role of a real father was something to behold. Viva was one of a large number of films at the festival addressing gay, trans and alternative lifestyles from multiple perspectives. It was just picked up by Magnolia Pictures, expect a State-side release.
Pavel Giroud Eirea’s El Acompañante (The Companion) (2015), took the Coral for Best Screenplay. I knew that filmmaking has been quite arduous for Cuban filmmakers whose scripts must still be approved by the State but I also began to pick up on the fact that most Cuban dramas seem to need to fulfill a purpose–they revisit some aspect of Cuban history. This one brilliantly focuses on an unpleasant moment in Cuba’s recent past. In the 1980’s, during the peak of AIDS epidemic, the Cuban government began testing citizens for HIV and taking those who tested positive to Los Cocos, a sanatorium where they were quarantined from the rest of society and cared for. Each incoming patient was assigned a companion who educated them and simultaneously spied on them. The film tells the story of hunky Horatio (Latin Grammy winning singer Yotuel Romero), a former Olympic boxing champion who was caught doping and becomes the companion/watcher for Daniel (Armando Miguel Gómez ), a defiant soldier who was infected by a prostitute. Under constant surveillance, their trust grows and slowly develops into a friendship that is challenged by Daniel’s attempts to escape and Horatio’s desire to resume boxing. The film managed to deliver a searing critique of state policy and magnetic performances. Its best moments are found in the ruthless behaviors of its desperate characters.
My Cuban line-up also included Rigoberto Jiménez Hernández’ first feature film, Café Amargo (2015, Cuba/Spain), a period drama centered on four sisters living independently and working in very macho culture on a coffee plantation in Cuba’s remote Sierra Meastra mountains. Risking their lives, they give refuge to an injured young rebel who is leaving to join the guerrillas and he profoundly impacts each of the women. Jorge Luis Sanchez’s third feature, Cuba Libre (2015), the first Cuban film to depict the US army’s intervention in Cuba’s 1898 war of independence (the Spanish-American War), boasted extravagant sets, magnificent period costumes and wonderful acting, bringing late 19th Cuba to life through the eyes of two Cuban children who are both witnesses to and caught up in a battle that involves three countries with competing interests. Crowds turned out in droves for this film, filling the Charles Chaplin theater. Marcelo Martin’s quite documentary, El Tren de la Línea Norte (2014), took me on an unforgettable journey on a single wagon train, the only means of transport between several small towns in the rustic province of Ciego de Avila, the agricultural heart of Cuba highlighting how difficult and different life is in the provinces.
Bleary-eyed from my whirlwind and wonderful Cuban festival experience, I then stepped into full-swing into Christmas stateside. Looking back, there’s no more exciting locale than Cuba, a country teeming with talent and excited to step onto the world stage and an important hub for Latin cinema. And while I concentrated on Latin American and Cuban film, I did run into San Francisco experimental filmmaker Dominic Angerame, who for the past 10 years, has been programming a popular experimental and avant garde film program that screens a half dozen or so films each festival. He explained that the Cubans in his audience had read everything they could about experimental film but few had actually had the opportunity to watch one until he came along. With so many film angles to explore in Havana, I can’t wait to return next year.
Details: The 38th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-18, 2016 in Havana. Click here for information a few months prior to the festival.
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