ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Women take the Lead in Havana’s 39th Festival of New Latin American Cinema, December 8-17, 2017

 

Nastasha Jaramillo and Giovany Rodriguez in a scene from Colombian director Laura Mora’s drama Matar A Jesús (2017) which won two of the 39th Havana Film Festival’s most important prizes, awarded by the Glauber Rocha Foundation and Casa de las Américas.  Image: HabanaFilmFestival

In Colombian director Laura Mora’s second feature film, Matar A Jesús (Killing Jesus, 2017) there is an intensely moving scene where university student Paula is in a car driving home with father, a political science professor, and he is shot dead by a young assassin on a motorcycle.  A few weeks later, when she spots the young hit-man drunk at a dance club, she purposely meets him and begins methodically to enact a plan that involves buying a gun and getting revenge.  Her plan gets infinitely more complicated as she gets to know Jesús.  He even instructs her on how to shoot a gun—“Just aim with hate in your heart.”  The story was personal for Laura Mora whose own father was murdered before her eyes and who, like her heroine, later met his killer.  Instead of a straightforward tit-for-tat revenge story, Mora uses the plot to explore how Colombian society has failed its underclass.

This drama was one of dozens of powerful films directed by women at the 39th Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano or Havana Film Festival (December 8-17, 2017), where 34 percent or 38 of the 114 films that were officially competing this year were directed by females.  This festival’s top prize, the Coral for Best Feature Fiction, went to a woman as well—Argentinian director Anahí Berneri for her film Alanís, making this the third time in 39 years that a female director has won the top honor.  Twenty-five of the festival’s 34 awards went to women—directors, editors, scriptwriters, actors and artists.

The huge and diverse 10-day festival is one of Latin America’s most anticipated annual events, offering the best and latest in Cuban, Latin American and world film—roughly 404 features, documentaries, fiction, animation, and archival gems from 41 countries.  The bulk of these films, 308, were from Latin America with the largest participants as follows: Argentina had 65 films, Mexico (50), Cuba (43), Brazil (41), Chile (32), Colombia (21)… all the way down to Bolivia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama with one film each.  The remaining films came from other parts of the world, mainly the US, Spain, France, Germany and the UK.

The breadth of programming is astounding, a challenge that long-term Programming Director, Zita Morriña and her small staff revel in.  (Read my 2015 interview with her here.)  Figures on female directors were published only for competing films, not across the entire festival, where there were dozens of additional female-directed films, female-centered stories from both female and male filmmakers and important panels which brought together female directors and actors to discuss storytelling and challenges they face in their respective countries.  It would be wonderful to have full statistics, for all to see.  As film festivals all over the world scramble to adjust their programming to include more women directors, Havana seems very inclusive.  Festival director Iván Giroud pointed out at the awards ceremony, that the female directors in competition were chosen on their own strength not due to set quotas.

In terms of competing films, only 114 of the 404 films screening were in the official competition for the festival’s Coral Awards.  These are given in seven categories—fiction, opera primas (first films) (18 competing films), documentaries (23), short films (18), animated films (16), unpublished scripts (20) and artistic film posters (24).

The festival publishes a 200+ page catalog every year but “Diario del Festival, its daily 8-page newspaper, is indispensable for festival news and scheduling.  It arrives hot off the press and is distributed each morning at 9 a.m. at the Hotel Nacional.  While all program information in Havana is in Spanish, about one third of the films are subtitled, mainly in English, but also in German or French.  On many occasions, promised subtitles were not available. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

Cine Riviera in Havana’s Vedado district is immediately recognizable by its blue and white motif. Built in the early ’50s on the site of the previous 1927 Rivieria Theatre, it became the first “atmospheric” cinema in Cuba—its walls were once painted with imitation Spanish facades creating the illusion of being outdoors. Currently, it seats 1,200 and also functions as venue for contemporary music. Photo: Geneva Anderson

My goal for my eight days at the festival was to see as many films as I could and to hit Havana’s rustic streets running.  Using the festival’s headquarters, the Hotel Nacional, in Vedado, as a base, I walked to most of the 15 screening venues, which are glorious retro-classics of Cuban architecture.  In all, I saw 42 films, usually five to six films daily, from 10 a.m. to midnight, and I attended press conferences and special programs.  There’s something magical about immersing oneself in powerful Latin American dramas, unfolding in Spanish, on native soil.  One can’t help but be swept up in the moment—the excitement of the Cuban crowd, the lines, the impassioned conversations, the thrill of stepping into these historic cinema houses— Acapulco, America, Charles Chaplin, Infanta, Karl Marx, La Rampa, Riviera, Yara, and 23Y12.

Below are a sampling of some of the films I saw that made a strong impression.

Bring on the dramas, both soft and strong!

 

Sofía Gala in a scene from Argentinian director, writer and co-producer Anahí Berneri’s sixth film, Alanís.  Sofia Gala was awarded the Coral for Best Female Performance and the film was awarded the top Coral. Sofía Gala gave a feisty and naturalistic performance as an unapologetic self-determined young mother and prostitute struggling to feed herself and her child after she is thrown out of her apartment.  Set in the streets of Buenos Aires, the unsentimental story contained scenes with the artistry of Renaissance portraits.

 

In Sebastian Lelio’s Una Mujer Fantástica, transgender Daniela Vega gives a breathtaking performance as Marina, a transgender woman and aspiring singer who has just lost her partner and who just wants to grieve.  Vega was awarded a Coral for Best Female Performance.  This was Sebastian Lelio’s fifth time to present a film in Havana and Una Mujer Fantástica won a special jury award and the UN’s Únete Prize.  His 2013 drama Gloria, another remarkable portrait of a woman, opened the 35th festival.

Argentinian director Anahí Berneri’s Alanís (2017) which went on to win the top feature fiction prize, screened in a sweet spot, Saturday night, and1 a huge crowd turned out at Cine Yara to see it and the Chilean film that followed, Sebastian Lelio’s Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman, 2017).  Through stories of female outcasts, both films unpacked female stereotypes, identity and societal intolerance.  How wonderful to see the crowd reacting so enthusiastically to these to two Latina actors who imbued their characters with dignity and presence and enough mystery that we wished their stories would go on and on.

 

Chilean actress Paulina García in a scene from La Novia del Desierto (2017), a delicate drama of female self-empowerment, which made a huge splash in Havana when its first-time directors, Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato, picked up a Coral Award. 

In recent years, filmmakers from Chile, Argentina and Brazil have received international attention for dramas that inventively explore the outward and internal life journeys of female characters marginalized in society.  La Novia del Desierto (The Desert Bride, 2017) written and directed by Argentinians Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato, picked up the festival’s Coral for best debut film and the CiberVoto prize.  Chilean actress Paulina García (Gloria, 2013) gives a radiant and wonderfully-nuanced performance as Teresa, a quiet 54-year-old-woman who has worked for decades as a live-in maid in Buenos Aires, with no real life of her own.  When the family sells their home, she is shipped off to work for their relatives in the distant town of San Juan.  When an unplanned pit-stop in the desert strands her and she loses her small purse and crosses paths with a traveling salesman, her life changes suddenly at an age when taking ownership of her life no longer seemed possible.

In Liquid Truth, Brazilian actor, Daniel de Oliviera, plays a well-liked swimming teacher whose life is virtually ruined by viral internet rumors after he is accused of kissing one of his students, a seven-year-old boy, on the mouth. Brazilian director, Carolina Jabor, won a SIGNUS award for her second fiction feature film.

What if the only actual evidence of a crime is the testimony of an emotional parent translating the words of her child?  Brazilian producer-director, Carolina Jabor, deftly tackles a timely subject in her second feature film, Aos Teus Olhos (Liquid Truth, 2017), which focuses on a person who is all but convicted on the Internet before he is even tried or the facts are known.  Liquid Truth is one of a number of films coming out of Brazil’s thriving art-house cinema scene which has been fueled by strong government funding.

Daniel Giménez Cacho in a scene from Argentinian director Lucretia Martel’s period drama, Zama (2017), which won 3 Coral awards and the FIPRESCI Prize.

Long before Havana, Argentinian director Lucretia Martel (La ciénaga (The Swamp, 2004), La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2010) had charmed international audiences with her period drama, Zama, set in the late 18th century somewhere in the backwaters of South America. It was no surprise when the film picked up multiple Corals in Havana for Best Director, Artistic Director, and Sound, as well as the coveted film critics’ FIPRESCI Prize.  Zama is an epic examination of colonialism and prejudice told through the experiences of a Spanish functionary, Don Diego de Zama (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho), whose life revolves around his anticipation of a job transfer.  Martel once studied philosophy and she imbues her films with a critical examination of big potent issues, exploring cause, blame and ambition.

 

Docs: informing and entertaining

 

Chilean director Lisette Orozco investigates her own aunt’s complicity in torture and the disappearance of dissidents as one of the female police agents Pinochet-era Chile (1973-90) in “El Pacto de Adriana” (2017). Photo: Geneva Anderson

Chilean director Lisette Orozco’s El Pacto de Adirana (2017) follows her frustrating investigation of her mercurial aunt, Channy—Adriana Elcira Rivas González—a female police agent in Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.  Adriana was arrested in 2007 in Santiago under charges of torture and involvement in an event that took place in 1976 when Pinochet’s secret political police’s (DINA) extermination unit raided Chile’s Communist Party safe house in Santiago, located at 1587 Conferencia Street.  During this raid, secret police officers, allegedly including Adriana, tortured, killed and did away with the bodies of one of the party’s chiefs, Víctor Díaz, and several other members.  Orozco’s dogged investigation into DINA and her aunt’s involvement literally divided her family, most of whom sided with Adriana.  Fascinating multiple conversations with the aunt reveal her to be highly suspect and unstable.  The remarkable film reveals deeply buried secrets festering in Chilean society to this day.  Orozco was awarded a special jury prize for Feature Length Documentary as well as the FEISAL Prize (Federation of Latin America Image and Sound Schools) and the Memory Award of the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center.

A scene from Pamela Yates’ 500 Years.  Mayan survivors of the Guatemalan genocide cheer the guilty verdict against dictator Ríos Montt.  Convicted and sentenced to genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, 2013, Montt was given an 80-year sentence and sent directly to prison.  It was the first time the perpetrator of genocide against indigenous people had been tried in a court of law. Photo credit: Daniel Hernández-Salazar

Intrepid American director Pamela Yates’ new film 500 Years (2017) continues her important saga of Guatemala’s indigenous resistance that began with When the Mountains Tremble (1983), followed by Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011).  In this doc, Yates introduces journalist Dr. Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, who covered the 2013 genocide trial of former dictator General Rios Montt and the citizen’s uprising which felled President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015.  Finally, it seems Guatemalan society’s plea to end corruption has been heard.  Simply put, Pamela Yates is the gold standard.  Her work ethic, dedication to truth telling and decades of reporting in the troubled region are unparalleled.

 

Mexican ranchera singer and rebel Chavela Vargas, the subject of Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s Chavela (2017).  Chevala was a LGBT icon in Mexico long before she officially came out at age 81.

Every year the festival showcases talented Latin American celebrities.  Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s captivating music-filled documentary, Chavela (2017), was a huge hit in Havana and introduced Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas who burst onto the Mexican music scene in the 1950’s.  She was known for her passionate, rebellious performances, and for often wearing men’s clothing.  She burned-out due to alcoholism and then rebounded late in life, coming out as lesbian at age 81, and establishing herself as musical and lesbian icon for a new generation of fans.  Gund and Kyi masterfully explore the singer’s legacy and her elusive and contradictory nature relying on filmed interviews with the late singer done in the 1990’s, more recent interviews with those who knew her, and a montage of archival footage from 70 years of performances.

Cuban Film:

Whether the focus is a period film looking back at Cuban history, a documentary or an entertaining drama or comedy, Cuban film inherently addresses life in Cuba and, for an outsider, there’s no better window on the island.  Before each screening of the two Cuban films in official competition for the fiction prize —Gerardo Chijona’s Los Buenos Demonios (2017) and Ernesto Daranas’ Sergio & Serguéi (2017) (winner of the Audience Award for Best Film), there were long lines of people eager to see how Cuba would be reflected on the big screen.

A scene from Cuban director Magda González Grau’s ¿Por qué lloran mis amigas? (2017). Photo: habanafilmfestival.com

Cuban director Magda González Grauda’s elegant drama, ¿Por qué lloran mis amigas? (Why My Friends Cry, 2017), was enlivened greatly by superb acting on the part of its four costars, all prominent film and television actresses—Luisa María Jiménez, Jasmín Gómez, Edith Massola and Amarilys Núñez.  The film, not included in official competition, screened as part of the enormous Latin America in Perspective portion of the festival which offers some 17 categories of films. The story revolves around four female friends who were very close growing up and who reunite after 20 years have passed.  Their discussion grows more candid the more time they spend together and shines a light on Cuban society, unleashing pent up emotions, frustrations and insecurities about the courses their lives have taken, the secrets they are keeping and how far they are willing to go to help each other out.  With a production team of mainly women, it was a joy to see them all take the stage in Havana.

Cuban actress and director, Isabel Santos.

Isabel Santos is one of Cuba’s most revered and beloved actresses and she made multiple appearances at the festival.  She starred in Carlos Barba’s 25 horas (2017), in the short fiction competition.  She co-starred in Gerardo Chijona’s Los Buenos Demonos (The Good Devils, 2017), in the feature-length fiction competition.  She was also one of 10 female directors included in the festival’s official documentary competition with her own 40 min doc, Gloria City (2017).  The film deftly explores the intertwining of fact and myth associated with the first Americans to settle in Cuba, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the village Gloria City, presently in the municipality of Sierra de Cubitas, on Camagüey Province’s northern coast, about 500 kilometers east of Havana.  Santos, who is from Camagüey, interviewed Cuban essayist and author Enrique Cirules (1938-2016), also from Camagüey, who wrote two books on the subject of Gloria City.  We can only imagine what this powerhouse would turn out if she were to direct a feature-length film.

Details: The 40th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 6-16, 2018 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on making plane and hotel reservations well in advance of the festival.  Once in Havana, festival passes can be purchased at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the festival is headquartered, or, individual tickets can be purchased at various screening venues.  Due to the immense popularity of the festival, and to avoid long lines, purchasing a festival pass is advised.

 

 

 

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¡Vive el cine! Havana’s 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema—a magical encounter with Havana and film

Opening night at Teatro Karl Marx at Havana’s 37th International Festival of New Latin Cinema, December 3-13, 2015. The film was Argentinean director Pablo Trapero’s “El Clan” (2015) and Geraldine Chaplin, the British-American daughter of Charles Chaplin, was honored. The theatre is Havana’s largest cinema house and seats over 5,000.

Havana’s 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, had its opening night at Teatro Karl Marx in Havana’s Miramar district. The film was Argentinean director Pablo Trapero’s “El Clan” (2015). Geraldine Chaplin, the British-American daughter of Charles Chaplin, was honored. Teatro Karl Marx is Havana’s largest cinema house and seats over 5,000 in a huge single auditorium. After the screening, the rum flowed as participants partied in heavy rain at Havana’s palatial Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

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’sVamos 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.

 

 

There’s no better way to see the Cuban country side than hitting the road in an old Chevy with knowledgeable and lively traveling companions. Sonoma International Film Festival programmer Claudia Mendoza-Carruth (R), originally from Columbia, eased Spanish language concerns and introduced me to the world of Latin cinema while Sacramento lobbyist Noreen Blondien (L) was enthusiastic about business opportunities and discovering Cuban wines. Photo: Geneva Anderson

There’s no better way to see the Cuban country side than to hit the road.  Sonoma International Film Festival programmer Claudia Mendoza-Carruth (R), originally from Columbia, eased Spanish language concerns and talked film while Sacramento lobbyist Noreen Blondien (L) was enthusiastic about business opportunities and discovering Cuban wines. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

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.

The historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the festival’s main host hotel. Built in 1930, the five-star Vedado hotel is situated on a hill just a few meters from the sea and its guests have included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the festival’s main host hotel. Built in 1930, the five-star Vedado hotel is situated on a hill just a few meters from the sea and its guests have included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner. Photo: Geneva Anderson

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.

The informative “Diario del Festival,” the festival’s daily newspaper (entirely in Spanish), is indispensable for scheduling and the latest festival news. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The “Diario del Festival,” the festival’s daily newspaper (entirely in Spanish), is indispensable for scheduling and the latest festival news. Photo: Geneva Anderson

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 hypein 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.

Cine Yara, in Havana’s Vedado district, is one of the main venues for Havana’s International Festival of New Latin Cinema. A key example of Cuba’s “Modern Movement” in architecture, it opened in 1947 as “Teatro Warner Radiocentro” with 1,650 seats, and was operated by Warner Bros. In 2015, it became one of Havana’s first cinemas to embrace digital projection but it retained a 35 mm projector to allow screening of classic films. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cine Yara, in Havana’s Vedado district, is one of the main venues for Havana’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. A key example of Cuba’s “Modern Movement” in architecture, it opened in 1947 as “Teatro Warner Radiocentro” with 1,650 seats, and was operated by Warner Bros. In 2015, it became one of Havana’s first cinemas to embrace digital projection but it retained a 35 mm projector to allow screening of classic films. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Bustling Cine Yara. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Bustling Cine Yara. Photo: Geneva Anderson

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.

One of the best experiences to be had in Havana is taking a taxi colectivo (shared taxi), about 30 cents a ride and always in a vintage American car. Photo: Geneva Anderson

One of the best experiences to be had in Havana is taking a taxi colectivo (shared taxi), about 30 cents a ride and always in a vintage American car. Photo: Geneva Anderson

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.

Argentina’s Oscar entry and its box office sensation “El Clan,” directed by Pablo Trapero, was the opening night film for the 37th International Festival of New Latin Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.

Argentina’s Oscar entry and its box office sensation “El Clan,” directed by Pablo Trapero, was the opening night film for the 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.

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.

Columbian director, Klych López at the screening of “Siempreviva” (2015) which addresses the siege of Columbia’s Palace of Justice thirty years ago.

Columbian director Klych López at the screening of “Siempreviva” (2015) which addresses the siege of Columbia’s Palace of Justice thirty years ago.

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.

A scene from Peruvian director Héctor Gálvez’s second feature film, “NN” (2015), Peru’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee, which addresses the ongoing Peruvian struggle to identify the remains of and remember Peru’s disappeared persons.

A scene from Peruvian director Héctor Gálvez’s second feature film, “NN” (2015), Peru’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee, which addresses the ongoing Peruvian struggle to identify the remains of and remember Peru’s disappeared persons.

 

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.

When is the last time you saw a love story starring 70 year-olds in the US? Argentinean director Maxi Gutiérrez’ “Tokio” (2015) stars Graciela Borges,76, and Luis Brandoni, 75, who last appeared together on film 36 years ago.

A scene from Argentinean director Maxi Gutiérrez’ “Tokio” (2015) starring Graciela Borges,76, and Luis Brandoni, 75, both big stars of Argentinean television and film.

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.

Adrian Sparks is Hemingway in Bob Yari’s “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” (2015), which premiered at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. The film is set against the turbulent backdrop of the Cuban Revolution, with many scenes shot at Finca Viga, Hemingway’s Havana estate, as well at La Floridita, his preferred watering hole. Sparks used Hemingway’s actual typewriter in a scene shot at Finca Viga.

Adrian Sparks is Hemingway in Bob Yari’s “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” (2015). The film is set against the turbulent backdrop of the Cuban Revolution, with many scenes shot at Finca Viga, Hemingway’s Havana estate, as well at La Floridita, his preferred watering hole. Sparks used Hemingway’s actual typewriter in a scene shot at Finca Viga.

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.

Héctor Medina is Jesus in Paddy Breathnauch’s “Viva” (2015). Jesus works backstage at a nightclub styling wigs but yearns to perform in drag on stage. When he gets his chance, he emerges as the stunning chanteuse “Viva” but, just as he is building his confidence, his long-absent father (Jorge Perugorría) appears and demands that his son stop performing. As the son learns to forgive the father and to broaden his identity, the father learns to accept his son.

Héctor Medina (R) is Jesus in Paddy Breathnauch’s “Viva” (2015). Jesus works backstage at a nightclub styling wigs but yearns to perform in drag on stage. When he gets his chance, he emerges as the stunning chanteuse “Viva” but, just as he is building his confidence, his long-absent father (Jorge Perugorría) appears and demands that his son stop performing. As the son learns to forgive the father and to broaden his identity, the father learns to accept his son.

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.

Yotuel Romero and Armando Miguel Gómez in a scene from Pavel Giroud Eirea’s El Acompañante (The Companion) (2015), which won the Coral for Best Screenplay.

Yotuel Romero and Armando Miguel Gómez in a scene from Pavel Giroud Eirea’s El Acompañante (The Companion) (2015), which won the Coral for Best Screenplay.

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.

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment