Interview: Zita Morriña, Programming director, Cuba’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.