It's Cuba!

Festivals
by Sydney Levine
March 15, 2013 1:15 PM
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The Karl Marx Theater
It’s Cuba!  Where else would The Havana International Film Festival’s Opening and Closing Night take place except in The Karl Marx Theater? Opening with music by Cuba’s greatest salsa group, Los Van Van, the 34th edition is still headed by its founder and Fidel Castro’s teacher in Communism, Alfredo Guevara, who dedicated this edition to the new generation of filmmakers which represents the future of cinema.  The 10 day festival showcased a broad range of new and not-so-new films from Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Peru and fellow Caribbean nations, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Curacao and others whose cinema is being aided by their governments and whose youth is creating a new international cinema with the support of Europe and even, sometimes, Asia.

While this edition paid homage to the youth, also present and recalled were the members of the generations from the ‘60s like Aldo Francia, Chileans Miguel Littin, Patricio Guzman, Jorge Sanjines, Fernado Birri, Fernando Solano, Cacho Pallero, Santiago Alvarez, Glauber Roch, Carlos Diegues, Leon Hizsman, Juaquim Pedro, Tomas Guierrez Alea, Mario Handler, Walter Achugar and many others who in the years ‘67 and ‘68 were themselves inspired by such luminaries as Joris Ivens.  Together they were the originators of the phenomenon El Cine de America Latina or New Latin American Cinema influenced mainly by Italian neorealism and other movements of social cinema. Its function was to go against U.S. models and to illuminate the troubled realities of Latin America in the hope of restoring cinema of the continent.  Its key moment was the meeting of Latin American Cinema 1967 , which had its impetus in the Chilean Aldo Francia , the Cinema Club of Viña del Mar , the Cuban Alfredo Guevara, the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Film (ICAIC) and the Argentine Edgardo Pallero

Illuminaries such as Annette Benning whose film The Kids are All Right was screening there and Hawk Koch, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, wrote fan letters to Fidel and Raoul and then mixed and caught up with the top critics and journalists of Latin America and festival participants in the gardens of the Hotel Nacional.   Miguel Litten and spouse, the parents of Chile’s Christina Littin, one of Chile’s current top producer/ distributors, were often seen there.  Their presence reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Clandestine in Chile about the time when Miguel disguised himself to reenter Pinochet’s Chile from whence he had been exiled.  So many stories of exile and return mark the modern history of Latin America.

The first day of the Havana festival was devoted to EICTV, the international film school that Gabriel Garcia Marquez founded in 1986 with his Nobel Prize money on land donated by Cuba.  Today it is headed by Rafael Rosal who in his own country, Guatemala, set up the first infrastructure for a film industry – a film school, a film festival and production facilities.  

EICTV has a student body from everywhere in Latin America, Europe and even from North America.  Last year as the emissary for Woodbury University in Burbank CA, I brought them their first agreement with a U.S. institution and exchanges between students and staff have already begun, bringing TV documentary filmmaker Rolando Almirante for a second time to teach documentaries.

EICTV’s event at the Festival de Cine Nuevo en Habana is Nuevas Miradas, 12 chosen projects whose producers and directors present themselves to the industry and compete for three awards.

Coincidently with the lateness of this blog which I wrote from the Palm Springs International Film Festival --  some of EICTV’s staff’s and students’ films were among PSFF’s 22 Latino projects vying for the Cine Latino Prize being offered by Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara.  This fact along shows a new unity of purpose among the Latino countries and their festivals (Cuba, Guadalajara and Palm Springs, which as part of the Coachella Valley, has the largest Latino population in the United States.)  Among the 22 candidates for PSFF’s Best Iberoamerican film were Clandestine Childhood (Argentina/ Brazil/Spain) by Benjamín Ávila, who was the coordinator of Fiction at EICTV and screenwriter Marcelo Muller also participated in EICTV; La Voz Dormida (España) of the emerging filmmaker Benito Zambrano,  and 7 Boxes (Paraguay) co-directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia, a student in many of the workshops of EICTV.  EICTV considers this exchange of ideas and talents as globally important.

The winners of Nuevas Miradas should be watched as one or several reach fruition.  Last year The Visitor (Chile) won and has since raised the budget for a feature length film debut.

The projects, Un Viejo TrajeMoora Moora directed by Australian Rhiannon Stevens and produced by Chilean Esme Joffre, Tus padres volverán directed by Uruguayan Pablo Martínez and produced by Virginia Hinze, Cocodrilos tomando el sol, Cuerpos Celestes by Mexican director Lorena Padilla and producer Liliana Bravo, Revolución de las polleras by Bolivian director Sergio Estrada and producer Valeria Ponce received recognition and free software from Assimilate.

The documentary, Un Viejo Traje (aka The Old Suit), by Cuban director Damián Saínz (a student of EICTV) and producer Viana González received a $2,000 prize.

Fiction project, Cocodrilos tomando el sol, directed by Colombian Carlos Rojas and the Venezuelan producer Carolina Graterol, received a $1,000 prize and a course in directing at EICTV.

A film package for those interested in Cuban film programming

Ann Cross, a Scottish woman married to a Trinidadian is always in Havana.  She programs the best selection of current Cuban features for U.K. distribution.  This year she gave me this list of her favorites and many people concurred with her. 

Y sin embargo (aka Nevertheless) by Rudy Mora also won the Beijing Film Festival prize which is surprising in that it is about school children challenging the school system, and challenging any systems in China (and perhaps in Cuba as well) is highly problematic.  The child actors are exceptional.  The type of burlesque comedy is typical of Cuba.  Produced and ISA (international sales agent) is the Cuban government film group ICAIC.

Irredemediablemente Juntos (aka Irredeemably Together) by Jorge Luis Sanchez Gonzalez is brave and challenging.  Purportedly about classical music and Cuban music and the conflict between the two, it is really about race and the synthesis between black and white, Cuban and European Classical is reached in the story.

Cresciendo en la musica is about teaching music to children.

El sangre en la casa, en la escuela y en la calle (aka Blood in the House, in the School and in the Street) is a British-Cuban coproduction about Matanza, a town just outside of Havana where Cuban music roots are.

La piscine (aka The Swimming Pool) by Calvo Machado might not stand alone in the U.S. but would be good in a package.

Binchi by Eduardo Galano is about the 2 classes clashing in prison.

At the top of Ann’s list and on top of many others’ lists is Melaza.

What I saw and liked

It was also a time for me to catch up of Latin American cinema I have missed.  My favorite was Chilean film Jueves a Domingo (aka from Thursday to Sunday) by Dominga Sotomayer.  This road trip by a young couple and their 7 year old son and 11 year old daughter tells a story through the daughter’s eye of a loving family’s vacation and their father’s decision to move from Santiago to the countryside.  We never know what he is getting away from (Pinochet?) but we see what is supposed to be a vacation transforms the family’s wholeness.  The loving light touch of Sotomayer reminds me of Eric Rohmer’s four films of the seasons.

Lucie Malloy’s Una Noche was mobbed by the Cuban public wanting to see this film about two young defectors from Cuba; the police were called to break up the crowd and the overflow had a special screening set up.  We hear that the young woman star who defected with her costar on the way to the Tribeca Film Festival and who landed up in Las Vegas is now in “exile mode” bewailing how she misses her family.  La probrecita!!  Yet another exile story.  Had she waited a month, travel from Cuba would be legal.  Una Noche is now here in Palm Springs as well, competitng for the Cine Latino Prize.

Other films I saw and liked

El Limpiador and Ombras were both without subtitles (as was Pablo Lorrain’s closing night film No) and so I could only watch a part of them.  However I did see El Limpiador here in Palm Springs and was impressed with its simplicity and its authenticity and loving heart.  A low tech take on a mysterious illness killing people in the Peruvian city of Lima, the film was simple, sometimes funny and in the end very satisfying.

A film which divided the audience neatly between men and women was the Brazilian feature Brecha Silencia (aka Breaching the Silence) about domestic violence from which 3 siblings barely escape.  The subject of violence toward women was also the subject of a short which showed in every public screening.  Called YA NO, this short Latin American backed PSA brings public awareness to the unacceptable violent behavior of men toward women often found in schools, in dating, and in homes.

Desde de Lucia playing in Palm Springs also takes on the subject of bullying, this time in a bourgeois Mexican school and centering on a teenage girl who has recently lost her mother.

Taken by Storm

The next segment of the festival was taken up with Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival (t+tff).  Emilie Upszak, Artistic Director of t+tff, whom I had met in Havana last year through ICAIC’s Luis Notario, and Bruce Paddington the founder and exec director of t+tff were in Havana with a delegation of filmmakers and their films.  Since I had missed them all during the extraordinary experience I had at t+tff, I got to see Storm Saulter’s Better Mus Come which has been picked up by the new African Diaspora film distributor for U.S. AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement).

Storm is Jamaican and took film courses at L.A. Film School, that large private film school on Sunset near Vine, across from the Arclight Theater, where many foreign students go and where many vets go seeking to learn filmmaking.  Storm, however, had been making films since he was a kid using super 8mm and at the ripe old age of 27, he has since formed a collective in Jamaica called, the New Caribbean Cinema. His new fiction feature Better Mus Come screened at Trinidad + Tobago film festival and showed here in Havana as well.  He will be announcing an international sales agent and a U.S. distributor very soon.

What fun and interesting days and evenings and nights I had with the t+tff folks.

We heard live music, I danced salsa with a Puerto Rican Actor/ Director who dances salsa and has a short in the festival.

Salsa in Havana seems to be losing steam. Reggaeton closes every dance event as the drunken, monotonous final act before going home.  However in Jamaica it is transforming itself into Dancehall (what could be more sexual than that except for sex itself?).  There is also Rumba, the traditional dance of Afro-Cubans.  It is now taking new forms as the newest generation of Cuba takes the stage.  Woodbury faculty, in Havana on a hosted tour with the Jose Marti Cultural Institute, led by my friend Cookie Fischer were invited to the top of the Lincoln Hotel on the night the world was to end (remember the Mayan calendar prediction?) and we danced the night away to the live music of Septeto Nacional a 70 year old group.  Son was my dance of choice there.  For those of you who want to see Cuba before the transition is over, now is the time.  You can travel legally from L.A. and Miami, Mexico or anywhere else in the world with a general license.  Take advantage of it NOW as it is going to get more crowded with tourists.  For us film folk, we get a privileged perch, so plan on next December taking in a week of films plus another week or two to see a country whose land and people are unique in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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