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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March 3, 2018 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

 

February 12, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment