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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Havana’s 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, so much to see!

Argentinean directing partners Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s comedy, “El ciudadano ilustre” (The Distinguished Citizen), opened the 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema at Havana’s Karl Marx Cinema on December 8, 2016. The film stars Oscar Martinez as Daniel Mantovani, a cosmopolitan Noble Prize-winning Argentinean author who returns to the village of his birth for the first time in 40 years. The film picked up a Coral award for best screenplay at the close of the ten day festival and was Argentina’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Havana’s renowned International Festival of New Latin American Cinema—December 8-18, 2016—is a ten day extravaganza that gives attendees a chance to roam widely through an immense selection of cinema and spend time in fascinating Havana.  My second experience of this wonderful festival, the 38th edition, was even more rewarding than the first, which was in 2015.  The festival 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—roughly 440 features, documentaries, fiction, animation, and archival gems from roughly 50 countries.

Due to bad weather in Miami and delayed flights stateside, I arrived two days late and missed opening night, which drew hundreds to  Teatro Karl Marx in Havana’s Miramar district.  Festival director Iván Giroud dedicated the evening to Fidel Castro and to Julio García Espinoza, whose his acclaimed film school, EICTV, was celebrating its 30th anniversary.  The Argentinean drama, The illustrious citizen, directed by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, was the opening night film.

Last December, the 30 minute (9 mile) cab ride from the José Marti International Airport in Boyeros to downtown Havana was marked by banners and billboards commemorating Fidel Castro’s life and influence, some had been there for years and others put up in response to his recent death. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Overshadowing the 38th festival was Fidel Castro’s recent death, of natural causes, on the evening of November 25, 2016.  Castro, whose health had been failing for years, had held onto power from 1959-2008.  Gradually, he had turned things over to his brother, Raúl Castro, who is now nearing the end of his second five-year term and will step down from the presidency in 2018 when a new ruler will elected by the National Assembly.  A large part of Cuba’s attraction, festival aside, is exploring Castro’s complex legacy.  His death took place amidst an undeniably cinematic moment—Cuba’s rebirth.  Everywhere you go in Havana these days, architecture and attitudes are in flux and Capitalist consumption is perched to spread like wildfire.  In a society that has long touted the ideals of social equality, there’s a feeling both of hopefulness and of anxiety over being left behind.  Not surprisingly, the motif of nostalgia and change permeated the Cuban films I saw as well.

My goal for my 8 day stay was to see as many films as I could and to hit Havana’s rustic streets and start exploring the changes firsthand.  Using my hotel, the Hotel Nacional, as a base, I walked to as many of the 14 screening venues as possible and to tried to take different routes each time.  In all, I saw 48 films during my 8 day stay, usually 5 to six films daily, from 10 AM to midnight, and I covered a lot of downtown Havana.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the festival’s hub and main host hotel. Built in 1930, the beloved five-star hotel is situated on a hill in Vedado just a few meters from the sea; it has a fabulous outdoor bar facing the water that is the perfect spot for an interview and a cocktail.  Guests have included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner. Photo: Geneva Anderson

A ride in a taxi colectivo (shared taxi) is a cliche waiting to to be exploited: it’s cheap, about 30 cents in Cuban “CUP” (the national coin used by Cubans), and fun.  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 classic cars from the 1950’s—which serve as shared taxi’s and go just one way, up or down Havana’s long boulevards. People cram in like sardines and hop in and out. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

 

The festival catalogue, mi rollo, my película (mi role my film) offered 231 pages of films, with all program information in Spanish.  About a third of the films were subtitled, mainly in English, but also in German or French.   Immediately evident is the depth of the programming, a challenge that Programming Director, Zita Morriña and her small staff revel in. (Read my 2015 interview with her here.)  The festival receives well over a 1,000 film submissions directly and seeks out prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.  It acknowledges talent across the board, offering 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.

Every morning at 9 a.m., the 8-page daily festival newspaper,  Diario del Festival, arrived hot off the press, listing screening times and venues for the current day and the next day, and whether a film was subtitled.  The Nacional’s lobby and breakfast room came alive with discussions of what to see, how to get there.

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

One can’t help but be swept up in the moment—the excitement of the crowd, the lines, the impassioned conversations, the glory of stepping into these historic cinema houses— Infanta, La Rampa, America, Yara, Charles Chaplin and 23Y12.  Most Cubans have not traveled or been able to surf the web much but they are voracious cinephiles and will wait in lines that stretch on for blocks to see a film that generated a buzz abroad.  Seeing Latin American and Cuban films on native soil with such an energetic audience added tremendously to my experience.

This year, the festival flew in Sonia Braga, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma.  Over the years, a good number of Hollywood stars have attended—Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Annette Bening, Spike Lee, and others.   I was equally delighted to see the many Cuban and Latin American directors and actors and full productions team that participate, taking the stage for brief conversations and rounds of applause.

Cine Yara, on Calle 23 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 retained a 35 mm projector to allow screening of classic films. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cine Yara is huge inside but its narrow spacing of rows makes for slow entry and exit. 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

Contemporary Cuban movie posters, with their bold and saturated colors, are masterpieces of graphic design which tend to focus on concepts in the film, not on the actors. They are sold at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and displayed and sold at most of the festival’s screening venues.

 

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 some 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.  As for fuel, there is no “to-go” coffee but basic inexpensive snacks—chips, cups of popcorn, nuts, candies and fruits—are sold outside the theaters in huge shopping carts. One mitigating delight is that each theater displays and sells wonderful movie posters, very artfully designed, and t-shirts for a song and you’ll be tempted to stock up.

38th edition highlights:

exploring depths of the Latin American psyche:

Mexican actor Gael García Bernal appeared in two big films in Havana, Pablo Larraín’s “Neruda” and Jonas Cuarón’s border drama, “Desierto.”

For those intrigued by the lyrical, the sinister and the outrageous factors that have come to shape Latin American identity, they need look no further than Chilean director Pablo Larraín, whose work is deeply appreciated in Cuba.  In 2012, his No won the top award for fiction film.  In 2015, his The Club won the Coral Prize, the festival’s top prize.  For the 38th festival, Larraín screened his new films Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and his semi-fictional Neruda, starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and Chilean actor, Luis Gnecco, who first appeared together in Larrain’s No.

Neruda lays out the struggle between political authority and the creative impulse in a detective story about the 1948 political exile of the Nobel-Prize winning poet and Chilean Communist Party Senator, Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who lived in hiding in Chile before fleeing to Argentina and then on to France.  Bernal plays the obsessive detective, Peluchonneau, who is hot on Neruda’s trail but instead is undone by the chase.  Neruda, embodied brilliantly by Gnecco, is a complex, hedonistic larger-than-life figure whose identity is fueled by his own mythology.  Everything about this philosophical drama played well in Havana.  The audience was familiar with both Neruda’s poetry and his January 6, 1948 denouncement of Chilean President Gabriel González Videla which made Neruda a target of the same anti-repressive policies he was fighting as a senator.

A scene from Colombian director Víctor Gaviria’s “La Mujer de Animal” which uses graphic violence to denounce violence.

Looking beyond those films that had big splashes at European festivals was eye-opening. The violence in several films that came highly recommended was hard to stomach. Columbian director Víctor Gaviria’s La Mujer de Animal (The Animal’s Wife, 2016) was most extreme in depicting the utter terror of living with unrelenting  domestic violence.  The abuser is Animal (Tito Alexander Gómez), a revolting, rage-filled criminal who dominates the shantytown he lives in and abuses everyone he comes in contact with. When he becomes obsessed with innocent 18 year-old Amparo (Natalia Polo), he kidnaps her, rapes her, forces her to marry him, and soon impregnates her.  Powerless, she becomes his whipping post and the entire community, out of fear, turns a blind eye to his horrific abuse which escalates after their daughter is born.  Had I seen this in the States, I would have had my fill and walked out.  In Havana, despite being numbed out, I opted to stayed for some insight into the context—the dire and marginalizing poverty—that had bred such evil and complicity.  Cringing in my seat, I waited to see if she would muster the strength to retaliate and kill this monster.  To my surprise, Gaviria walked away with the festival’s award for best director.  After a chat with a Colombian sociology student about the aesthetics and complex role of violence in Latin American cinema, I saw the film differently but would hesitate to recommend it.

Another soul-crushing domestic violence drama was Brazilian director Marco Dutra’s Era El Cielo (The Silence of the Sky, 2016).  The violence in this one was easier to stomach but its psychological chill lasted for days.  Set in an entirely different economic strata—a gorgeous middle class home in Montevideo, Uruguay—the story presents a husband’s unexpected response to his wife’s brutal rape.  The film takes a captivating twist into his obsession and the rape becomes more about him than her.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (L) and Gael García Bernal (R) in a scene from Mexican director Jonas Cuarón’s border drama “Desierto” (2016), awarded the festival’s top prize.

The premiere of Mexican director Jonas Cuarón’s border thriller, Desierto, earlier in the year had coincided with Donald Trump’s anti-immigration campaign rhetoric and it became a film of note at several festivals.   The plot is conventional and straightforward: it takes a truck full of Mexican migrants attempting to cross the US border illegally and introduces a crazed racist vigilante sniper, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who along with his vicious dog, is ready for a slaughter.  Most of the people are killed off early in the film but Moises (Gael García Bernal) becomes Sam’s primary target and a chilling game of cat and mouse ensues in the desert.  This was Mexico’s Foreign Language submission to the 89th Academy Awards and it won the festival’s top prize, the Coral for best film.  Seeing it in Cuba with a very sympathetic audience still didn’t convince me that it was anything more than an excuse to make a chase film with excessive gore.

Docs from far-flung corners:

A scene from Czech director Helena Třeštíková’s documentary “Marcella” (2007), a quiet masterpiece that feels like stepping into a memory of a family and a specific culture.

Exploring this festival’s broad selection of documentaries is always a pleasure.  I had never heard of Czech director, Helena Třeštíková, who was a special honoree this year.  She is legendary for Marriage Stories, her series of documentary films which explored 25 years of Czech society through the lives of six married Czech couples.  The series screened on Czech television and elicited rave reviews.  How wonderful to meet her in person in Havana and watch two of her insightful films.

Marcella (2007) begins with commonplace Marcella marrying Juri and it follows her for the next 26 years as she navigates her crumbling marriage and the agony and joy of raising a daughter who is developmentally challenged in a society that is churning in all directions as it emerges from an era of communist rule. Shot incrementally, Třeštíková gives us everyday occurrences as well as milestones (the birth and then tragic death of Ivanka, Marcella’s daughter, moving to another apartment) and weaves it all together with an incredible fluidity and empathy.  By the end of the film, we see Marcella as anything but commonplace, because we have witnessed the molding and emergence of her true self.  As for marriage, we witness that in the Czech Republic, in those pre-Velvet Revolution days, it required a team to function and going it alone was next to impossible. The decision to choose a mate was also pragmatic.  When you consider that Třeštíková was creating six of these marriage portraits simultaneously, you get a real sense of her artistry as well as her powers of organization, collaboration and patience.

The processing of historical memory and documentation of atrocities is an essential role of Latin American film and the festival always honors this with outstanding examples.  El Salvadorian journalist and director Marcela Zamora Chamorro’s sensitive documentary, The Offended (Los Offendios, 2016), offers poignant insight on the 12 year-long Salvadorian civil war in which 75,000 civilians died at the hands of government forces.  Through interviews with several victims of torture and imprisonment who tell their stories in their own words, some for the first time, a pressing narrative of El Salvador’s ongoing struggle for truth and justice emerges. Chamorro’s father, Rubén Zamora, led the Revolutionary Democratic Front during the war, went into exile, and was tortured by the Salvadorian National Police and his articulate and detailed re-telling of these events is the focal point of the film.

Andreia Horta is Brazilian legend Elis Regina in Hugo Parto’s bio-pic “Elis” (2106).

It’s not all heavy.  The festival introduces talented Latin celebrities who are not well known in the States, both as subjects of films and as actors.  Brazilian director Hugo Prata’s musical bio-pic, Elis (2016), introduced me to Elis Regina (1945-82) one of the biggest Brazilian singers of all times.  The film balances her singing career with her tumultuous personal life.  Brazilian actress Andreia Horta’s dynamic performance as this velvet voiced bossa nova and suadade powerhouse could not have been more captivating.

Special Guests

Brazilian actress Sônia Braga at a press conference for “Aquarius” at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. In “Aquarius,” Braga plays Clara, a retired music critic, and widow, who is striving to hold on to her beachside apartment in upscale Recife, Brazil. When developers buy up all the apartments in the 1940’s-built complex with the intent of bashing it down, Clara holds her ground. A stand-off ensues with the developers and her children both pressuring her to sell. The film is a metaphor for present day Brazil with Braga as its inspirational and unshakable heroine. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Afternoon press conferences with Oliver Stone and Sônia Braga at the Hotel Nacional were packed and included lengthy and enjoyable Q & A’s with the celebrities.  Oliver Stone spoke passionately about his bio-pic, Snowden (2016), pointing to the villainy of the US intelligence community and Snowden’s heroic outing of our appalling post-9/11 lack of privacy.  Experiencing Stone slickly field questions from the impassioned journalists in attendance, many from countries who had been the puppets of US policy, was an unforgettable experience.

Snowden’s gala screening at Cine Yara was packed with an audience eager for a hefty exposé.  Sorely missing in the evening was an in-depth on-stage conversation with the multi Oscar-winning Stone, who had also had extensive interaction with Fidel Castro, the subject of two of his films.

Brazilian actress Sônia Braga captivated journalists at her press conference for Aquarius, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new film that has garnered numerous festival awards the world over.  She told journalists that she identified deeply with her character, Clara, because “she expresses much of what I need to say as a citizen” and the film “is a metaphor for both Brazilian and international resistance against global dynamics which bolster the wealthy.”   At the festival awards ceremony, Braga was honored with the Award for Best Female Performance and Aquarius went on to receive the Signis Award, granted by the World Catholic Association for Communication, and the Fripresci Award, of the International Federation of Movie Critics.

Cuban Film

The festival’s vast selection of  Cuban cinema was enticing—85 films!  I got my list of must-sees from Cuban editor Nelson Rodríguez who, since the 1960’s, had worked with all the leading Cuban directors and several prominent Latin American directors.  He steered me first towards the four classics in the festival’s new “Restored Classics” programming.  Three of these were directed by Tomás Gutierrez Alea (1928-1996), Cuba’s most influential director who was largely responsible for catapulting Cuban cinema into the international limelight.  Rodríguez explained that, even 20 years after his death, Alea still permeates Cuban film culture.  He walked the line with his witty, allegorical portraits of Cuba and his gaze reflected both a dedication to the revolution and a critique of how contemporary society measured up.  I attended all the screenings in this category.  The theaters were packed and the audience enthusiastically cheered the cast and creative teams who came on stage and spoke about their experiences.

Memories of Underdevelopment  (Memorias del Subdesarrollo, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1968)   

Sergio Corrieri as Sergio in a scene from Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s fifth film ” “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), one of Cuba’s most important and beloved films. Recently restored via the collaboration of several global film foundations.  Sergio’s family flees to Miami shortly after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion but he chooses to stay in Havana.  The plot follows Sergio’s thoughts and experiences as he is confronted by the new reality.  He lives as an alienated outsider, disdainful of his bourgeois family and friends and highly skeptical of those who believe naively that everything in Cuba can be transformed suddenly.  He sustains himself as a rent-collecting property owner and chases women until he is accused of rape.

The Survivors (Los Sobrevivientes, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1979)

A scene from Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s “The Survivors” (1979), a biting portrait of a clan of Cuba’s pampered and childish aristocrats, set in post-revolutionary 1960’s Cuba. In order to evade the contamination that has befallen society, an extended family decides to hole up from the outside world (with their servants) in total isolation in their large villa and live the good life.  Over time, the family experiences a total reversal of fortune corresponding to the phases of capitalism. They begin their exile in capitalism which degenerates to feudalism, then to slavery, and in the end, all out barbarism.

The Cuban classic films were restored in collaboration with Cinema House of Cuba and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and with the financial and technical assistance of several international film foundations and dedicated individuals.  Representatives from these organizations participated in the festival’s well-attended informative public symposium on restoration, an issue of importance throughout Latin America. Cuba’s problem: the island’s humidity is hell on celluloid and many important Cuban films have deteriorated entirely and many more are in jeopardy, each a vital chunk of Cuba’s cultural heritage.  Cuba needs both money and technical experience to preserve these films.  Using Memories of Underdevelopment as the main example, but drawing on other films too,  panel members spoke of their painstaking involvement with the film’s restoration and issues associated with digitization and audiovisual patrimony.

contemporary Cuban film:  It’s Not Like Before (Ya no es antes, Lester Hamlet, 2016)

In Lester Hamlet’s “Ya no es antes,” seasoned Cuban actors Isabel Santos and Luis Alberto García play former lovers Mayra and Esteban who are in the second halves of their lives and are grappling, very awkwardly, with how to let down their guards and explore their feelings for each other.  Separated since their teen-age years by immigration, they meet again in Cuba four decades later when Mayra comes back from the States and meets Esteban, who remained in Cuba.  The tender drama is an adaptation of Cuban writer Alberto Pedro Torriente’s’ beloved play from the 1980’s, “Weekend in Bahia.”  It explores a question very relevant in today’s Cuba—is it possible for people with different world views and life experiences to put all that aside and take a chance on love?  The wonderful chemistry of this Cuban duo, especially in their neurotic freak-outs, evoked belly laughs and tears.  The film won the festival’s Popularity (People’s Choice) Prize and Luis Alberto García was awarded festival’s Best Actor prize.

For the past ten years, the festival’s experimental film section, “Cine Experimental” has been in the hands of San Francisco experimental filmmaker, Dominic Angerame,  who has rigorously taken his enthusiastic audiences through the history of experimental cinema, showing them important gems they would have never encountered in Cuba were it not for his dedication. This year, celebrating his decade of Havana programming, he outdid himself with eight separate programs featuring dozens of important experimental and avant-garde films.  I spent an afternoon catching the lyrical “Programa No.5” that featured 15 films, six of which were by Guggenheim Film Fellowship winner Lynne Sachs, working solo or in collaboration with Mark Street, or Noa Street.  The high-point of the afternoon was seeing one of Angerame’s vintage experimental films shot in Havana some 20 years ago.

Details: The 39th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-17, 2017 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on securing 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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Interview: Zita Morriña, Programming director, Cuba’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

Zita Morriña, Programming director, Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Zita Morriña, Programming director, Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema. The 38th edition of this popular festival is December 8-18, 2016.

As I travelled to sunny Havana, Cuba last December for my first visit to the  International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, I had a myriad of questions about what goes on behind the scenes to bring over 650 films from 49 countries to Havana.  Virtually unknown to most Americans, this 10 day festival, which is always held in the first two weeks of December, keeps getting bigger and better each year and is one of Havana’s and Latin America’s most anticipated annual events.  I spoke with festival Programming Director, Zita Morriña, who has handled programming for the past 37 years.

The 37th edition of the festival received roughly 1500 films that were submitted from the region for consideration, the biggest year ever.  The festival also seeks out prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.  Morriña and her team of four energetic programmers turn all of this into a 10-day program that runs in 14 historic theaters all across Havana.  They also organize the festival’s awards program which involves 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.  I meet with Morriña mid-way through last December’s festival in a large house in the Havana suburbs, owned by the festival; it was raining cats and dogs and the place was absolutely chaotic, with a stream of very wet people coming and going.  Confident at the helm, Morriña gave me the lay of the land.

What is the philosophy of programming?  How many submissions do you get and what are your standards for what you accept?

Zita Morriña: This year, we had over 1500 submissions.  Every year, we usually get over 1000 but after the digital system of film became more popular, we started getting many more submissions from all over the world.  Our philosophy is to emphasize Latin films so the areas of competition are only open to Latin American films.  Some are submitted and some are by invitation.  We always open our submissions in January or February.  Including me, We have five programmers here and we have a budget for travel that’s not very big, but allows us to go to the big festivals—Berlin, Cannes, San Sebastian, Rotterdam—and some that are not so big but which are important for Latin film.  We go to the principal countries—Argentina, Chile Brazil Venezuela and sometimes Colombia—and then we will go to a festival in Lima, Peru, and two to three festivals in Brazil.  We’ve also attended Bogota Audiovisual Market (BAM) where they screen films. We invite the films that win the awards and get recognition.  It’s always a combination of films we want and films they send us.  This year, the majority is by submission not invitation.

How has the festival grown over the years in terms of participants?

Zita Morriña: In the beginning, the festival was more Latin American than international.  In Latin America, almost all the countries have participated and that has just solidified and broadened.  In the beginning, everything was in the contest.  That worked for awhile but then it grew so much that the jurors couldn’t watch 40 or 50 films, so we decided to have separate contests and limit the number of films.  We started with the fiction film category for the contest and, within that, created a prize for the first fiction film and the best short film.  As we grew, and first films became more important, we created the contest for first films.  This year, we have over 21 films full-length feature films, 21documentaries, 21 shorts, 21 first films, 21 animation and over 40 long and short features in fiction.  We also have a script contest and we receive more than 100 every year.

Are you free to accept films of any subject matter?

Zita Morriña: Not for the contest.  We decided that it would only for Latin American films or films with Latin American subjects.  Outside the contest, we accept everything.

How is the jury selected?

Zita Morriña: It varies but it’s always a different jury each year.  Sometimes, we select filmmakers who have received the award in the past.  We try to make each jury a composition of many countries so there is balance.

What are you most proud of about this festival?

Zita Morriña:  Our programming.  We show the very best films produced in Latin America.  This year in our “Gala” section we have a few films produced by Latin American directors that do not have a Latin American theme or subject per se, but we feel they are so relevant that they have to be shown.  Our “First Film” category keeps better each year.  These films are as good as or better than the other films we are showing.  Over the years, we have had 500,000 people attending this festival and that’s very gratifying, very good.

Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ “Desde Allá” (“From Afar”, 2015) picked a Coral award for best “Opera Prima” “debut film” at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this richly textured first feature explores the relationship between a lonely middle-aged man (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) who trolls the streets of Caracas looking for young men for sex and meets his match in a young bi-sexual hustler (Luis Silva) who has a girlfriend. The young man manages to shift the balance of power between the two and the story takes unexpected twists as their emotional baggage is laid out.

Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ “Desde Allá” (“From Afar,” 2015) won a Coral award for best “Opera Prima” (debut film) at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this richly textured first feature explores the relationship between a lonely middle-aged man (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) who trolls the streets of Caracas looking for young men for sex and a young bi-sexual hustler (Luis Silva) who becomes much more than a hook-up.  The young man manages to shift the balance of power between the two and the story takes unexpected twists as their emotional baggage is laid out.

This year, there are a lot of films addressing sexual and gender orientation.  Is this intentional, to use film as a vehicle to explore these topics in Cuban society?

Zita Morriña: For the past five years, these themes have been very present in all the films throughout the world but, in Latin American films, we’ve have about 10 to 15 films that deal with homosexuality, trans, so forth.  This is not a theme we are seeking; it comes to us.  Our criteria has always been if the film is good we take it, never mind the topic.  But, in our large panorama of subjects/categories, we do have one for diversity.  There, we show films that address all sorts of topics beyond sexual and gender orientation like albinism.

I’ve seen an uncanny number of psychologically intense and dark films at this festival.  Is this a characteristic of current Latin cinema? 

Zita Morriña: Right now, yes it is.  I think it’s a reflection of the social and political situation in Latin America right now that has given rise to this type of story.   They are moving from the militant films that we saw up until the 1990’s to films that are more socially engaged and delve into heavy psychological issues that are often the result of the environment in these countries or of events in history.

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 Latin 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.

Has new film technology presented any special problems here in Cuba?  I attended about five screenings here where the audio did not work correctly or where they had to switch the film and show another that wasn’t scheduled due to technical issues.  How are you tackling these issues so that the people are not disappointed?

Zita Morriña: Technology is one of our greatest challenges that will be solved only by time and money.  Until about two years ago, cinemas in Cuba only screened 35mm and Blu-ray because we didn’t have any digital projectors.  Last year, 2014, we introduced this technology in two theaters—Charles Chaplin and Yara.  This year, we have fve theaters but, on the human side, we need to train our projectionists and technicians.   Also, we need to improve film transport for receiving the films.  There’s no Fed Ex here in Cuba; the films still have to come by DHL, which can take 10 to 15 days.  Right now, a week into this festival, we are missing a film from the Dominican Republic, which is just 200 miles away but I still don’t have the film.  And on the new technology side, there are problems everywhere but, here in Cuba, it’s triple.  We have a film from Mexico, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles, a very good film about the Mexican cartels, which we can’t get to open and play, so we can’t screen it.  Naturally, we always ask that films be sent ahead of time so we can work these things out but sometimes they tell us that the only copy they have is at another festival and they end up carrying the film with them when come. Also, we don’t pay any fees for films and charging a fee is very common nowadays so we have to deal with that money factor which gives us a lower priority.

Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez Jiménez’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned,” 2014) is Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission and picked up numerous awards at Latin American film festivals. The director is known for tackling on social issues and this subtle thriller is about a naïve young woman (Natalia Arias) from a traditional family who is engaged but embarks on a clandestine relationship with a prison inmate. The film was inspired by a 1973 documentary of the same name about prison conditions in Costa Rica that was filmed by his father, Victor Ramírez. This is Ramírez’s second film to become Costa Rica’s nominee for an Academy Award. In 2005, his “Caribe” was the country’s first entry.

Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez Jiménez’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned,” 2014) is Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission and picked up numerous awards at Latin American film festivals. The director is known for tackling social issues and this subtle thriller is about a naïve young woman (Natalia Arias) from a traditional family who is engaged but embarks on a clandestine relationship with a prison inmate. The film was inspired by a 1973 documentary of the same name about prison conditions in Costa Rica that was filmed by the director’s father, Victor Ramírez.  This is Esteban Ramírez’s second film to become Costa Rica’s nominee for an Academy Award. In 2005, his “Caribe” was the country’s first entry.

 

What are the awards─are they money or recognition?

Zita Morriña: Just recognition.  One of our awards, however, a script award, has financial support from Spanish institutions so that we can give money to the writer so to develop their idea.  There’s also a post production award we give that supports films that are already done but need to be finished, so we do give some money for that.

The Cuban cinema here has been fantastic. Does the festival, extend financial support through the Cuban Institute for Cinema, to commission any films?

Zita Morriña: No.

For the past ten years, San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame has presented an important experimental and avant garde film program at the festival.  He started with a historical retrospective of experimental films from the 1920’s and, covering a decade each year, has worked his way up to contemporary experimental filmmakers. “Cuban audiences are in awe of avant garde film, “ says Angerame. “They want to understand how certain things are done and have been eager to explore cinema as an art form,” says Angerame.  Photo: Dennis Letbetter

For the past ten years, San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame has presented an important experimental and avant garde film program at the festival. He started with a historical retrospective of experimental films from the 1920’s and, covering a decade each year, has worked his way up to contemporary experimental filmmakers. “Cuban audiences are in awe of avant garde film, “ says Angerame. “They want to understand how certain things are done and have been eager to explore cinema as an art form,” says Angerame. Photo: Dennis Letbetter

How does the festival survive financially?

Zita Morriña: (Outburst of laughter) We have this house, which is ours and a small full-time staff which is here year round.  We have about 20 people including four programmers, the director and we have economic and administrative staff and maintain a video-library with copies of all the films that have been in the festival.

I met the American experimental filmmaker, Dominic Angerame from San Francisco and he told me that he’s been bringing films here for the past 10 years.  How has it been collaborating with American’s over the years?

Zita Morriña:  It’s been very easy.  You know in our 7th festival, some 30 years ago, we had Jack Lemmon here and we opened our festival with Costa Gavras’ Missing (1982) about Allende and the missing or disappeared people.  We awarded Jack Lemmon the Coral of Honor, so we have always been there collaborating and communicating.  So now, let’s say, it is legal.  The Academy (Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences) has been sending delegations here for years.  Annette Bening came in 2010 with The Kids Are All Right.  We’ve had Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Milos Forman and Spike Lee. Harry Belafonte came many times. The former president of the Academy, Sid Ganis, was here and was very supportive.

Are you ready for the onslaught of Americans that will want to attend this festival?

Zita Morriña: We are more or less ready but I’m not so sure about the country.

 

To read ARThound’s previous coverage of the 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (Dec 3-13, 2015), click here.

Details: The 38th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-18, 2016 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on securing plane and hotel reservations at least 2 to 3 months 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, purchasing a festival pass is advised.

September 15, 2016 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

¡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