One of the great success stories of the Cuban Revolution is the Cuban film industry. The Film Institute, known familiarly as ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), was set up by the new government in March 1959, only three months after the victory of the Revolution. Headed by Alfredo Guevara, it aimed to produce, distribute and show Cuban films to as wide a domestic audience as possible, to train film-makers and technicians, and to promote film culture generally. Open to anyone with an interest in film, excepting pro-Batista collaborationists, the institute built up an industry with an international reputation within 10 years, virtually from scratch.
Before the Revolution, films had been made in Cuba by foreign companies or amateurs. The staple diet of the Cuban filmgoer, even in 1959, was Hollywood movies. In the early 1960s, after the Bay of Pigs episode (1961) and the missile crisis (1962), several film directors (including Néstor Almendros), cinematographers and technicians, left the island, taking their precious equipment with them. Adequate government funding, which depended on the fluctuating Cuban economy, and state-of-the-art training and technology, became critical problems following the US trade embargo. The majority of the crew working on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s comedy The Twelve Chairs, for example (the assistant director, director of cinematography, camera operator, focus puller, camera assistant and continuity girls), were first-timers. Yet in learning to make the most of their scant resources, the Cuban film-makers introduced striking new techniques which, in addition to their youthful enthusiasm, improvisation and revolutionary focus, created a forceful impact on the world of film. Five Cuban films won international awards in 1960 alone. As Francis Ford Coppola remarked, “We don’t have the advantage of their inconveniences”. Measures such as the launch of the film journal Cine cubano, the inauguration of the Havana Cinemateca (1960), a national network of film clubs, and a travelling cinema (cinemóvil) showing films to peasants in remote rural districts, the nationalization of the film distribution companies, and the 1961 literacy campaign enabling 700,000 viewers to read the subtitles of undubbed foreign films for the first time, placed cinema at the forefront of revolutionary cultural innovation. Even the posters, designed under the auspices of ICAIC by individual artists, became world famous.
The types of films made during the 1960s were national, nonconformist and cheap. ICAIC aimed to keep as independent a criteria as possible over what constituted art, and encouraged imaginative, popular films, directly relevant to the Revolutionary process and challenging the mass culture of acquiescent consumption. The preferred format was the documentary shot on 8-mm or 16-mm film (40 were made in 1965), honed to perfection by Santiago Alvarez, but there were a good number of excellent features too: Cuba Baila (Cuba Dances), Historias de la Revolución (Stories of the Revolution), El Joven Rebelde (The Young Rebel, based on a script by Zavattini), La Muerte de un Burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat) and Aventuras de Juan Quinquin (The Adventures of Juan Quinquin), the most popular feature in Cuba of all time, until the release of Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate).
In 1967, the film director Julio García Espinosa published his seminal essay For an Imperfect Cinema which, with the work of Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas in Argentina and Glauber Rocha in Brazil, laid the basis of the New Latin American cinema movement, also known as Third Cinema, a key concept in film culture today. Cuban cinema reached its high point in 1968, with groundbreaking films such as Lucía (Lucia) and Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) and, in 1969, La Primera Carga al Machete (The First Charge of the Machete). Cuban film-makers, a number of whom had been trained in the Centro Sperimentale in Rome in the 1950s, were influenced predominantly by Italian Neorealism, French New Wave Cinema and cinéma verité – British Free Cinema (Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson), and the Soviet classics. Films shot on location, with hand-held cameras featuring ordinary people engaged in a revolutionary process, have remained the trademarks of classic Cuban cinema ever since.
By the 1970s, however, uncomfortable questions were being asked about the appropriateness of avant-garde art for the needs of the Cuban mass public. Tensions between creative artists and government bureaucrats exploded in the Padilla affair (1970), resulting in a five-year government clampdown. ICAIC’s production programme was reduced to three features a year, while young, often amateur film-makers (average age 36), were favoured over the more experienced. Nevertheless, important films were produced, tending to focus on women’s issues, historical and/or multiracial themes (particularly slavery and African-Cuban culture), with a view to consolidating a strong, cohesive sense of national identity. The black film director Sergio Giral’s El Otro Francisco (The Other Francisco) and Gutierrez Alea’s La Ultima Cena (The Last Supper), both depicting the courage and resistance of Cuban slaves, black director Sara Gómez’s De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another), highlighting the problem of machismo among black men, and Pastor Vegas’ Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa), denouncing sexist attitudes in post-revolutionary society, all date from this period.
In 1976, the Ministry of Culture was set up, ushering in yet another episode in Cuban film history. In 1982, Julio García Espinosa took over from Alfredo Guevara as the Head of ICAIC, and the organization was incorporated into the ministry. Until 1980 it had been self-financing. Nevertheless, despite the increasing influence of the Hollywood format (favouring sentimental melodrama and romance), perhaps indicative of a deeper crisis of belief, films still tended to be critical of Cuban social reality. Production figures increased to some six features a year during the 1980s, many of these co-productions with countries such as Mexico and Spain. By the end of the 1980s there were 60 million film goers, each Cuban visiting a cinema on average six times a year. The Cuban audiences, mostly young white-collar workers, technicians and specialists, tend to be educated and demanding. A network of video clubs and libraries were set up in the 1980s to meet their needs.
In the late 1980s, ICAIC recovered its independence and was restructured on the basis of three ‘creation groups’ each under an experienced film director in charge of encouraging and training young film makers. But, as Cuba moved into the special period (1990-1994) in response to the fall of the Eastern block and the intensified US trade embargo, ICAIC faced another crisis. After the release of a controversially critical film, Alicia en el Pueblo de Maravillas (Alice in Wonderworld), in a climate of political tension, moves were made to incorporate the Institute into Radio and Television, directly controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This strategy was actively resisted by leading filmmakers, such as Gutiérrez Alea, the plans were scrapped, and Alfredo Guevara was appointed director once more. Paradoxically, at a time when resources were scarcer than ever before, ICAIC produced its most successful film, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1993), suggesting, perhaps, that the best Cuban films are made when circumstances are at their worst.
Daniel Díaz Torres followed his Alicia hit with Kleines Tropikana (Little Tropicana, Cuba/Germany/Spain, 1997), a hilarious pastiche of Gutiérrez Alea films and a fitting homage to the master. This satirical snapshot of Cuban xenophobia, played by the actors starring in Alicia and Vladimir Cruz (Fresa y Chocolate), features a detective fiction writer, a dead German tourist and a British hippy girl, cleverly targetting European audiences. Music, laughter and social critique dominate the scene. Films of the late 1990s to watch out for are Fernando Pérez’s award-winning La vida es silbar (Life is to whistle, Cuba/Spain, 1998), Manuel Herrera’s Zafiros locura azul (Zafiros [Sapphires], Blue Madness, 1998) and Juan Carlos Tabío’s El elefante y la bicicleta (The Elephant and the Bicycle, 1998), all of which starred Luis Alberto García (‘Plaff!’ and ‘Adorables mentiras’). The first film is yet another sharp-edged comedy about life’s illusions and disappointments, a bitter-sweet genre that the Cubans have made their own. As might be expected, the three protagonists (a dropout, a nurse and a ballet dancer) all have sexual hang-ups and are seen attempting to make sense of their chaotic lives in today’s Havana. The second film is a musical biopic partly produced in the USA, again starring García. It tells the story of Miguel Cancio (the producer’s father), founder of the 1960s quartet Los Zafiros who developed a unique blend of up-beat r&b and bolero music.
The international explosion of Cuban music, old and new, has led to a trend in Cuban musical documentaries. The film that has made the greatest impact in recent years is without doubt Wim Wender’s documentary Buena Vista Social Club (Cuba/Germany, 1998), a nostalgic reconstruction of the lives and times of the band of the same name, whose original members are now in their 80s and 90s. The late Rubén González’s piano playing, Ibrahim Ferrer’s crooning, accompanied by Ry Cooder on guitar (with his son, Joaquín Cooder, on drums) practising for two gigs in Amsterdam (April 1998) and New York (July 1998) and – above all – the stunning colour photography are quite unforgettable. Two Grammy Award-winning CDs are available: Buena Vista Social Club (WCD050) and Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (WCD055). The rhythmic soundtrack of Tropicola (Cuba 1998), directed by Steve Fagin, is exciting too, although this film is more concerned with today’s problems in Cuba: the harmful effects of tourism and the dollar economy. Entirely different, but just as Cuban, is the wonderfully evocative short Misa cubana (Cuban Mass, Cuba, 1998), a collage of 16th- and 17th-century sacred music with a score written by maestro José María Vitier.
Cuba has once again hit the headlines in several films made about the island in the USA and elsewhere. First there was Cosas que dejé en la Habana (Things I left in Havana, 1998) by Spanish film director Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón starring Jorge Perugorría (of Fresa y Chocolate fame). The film, funny yet critical, tells the story of three Cuban sisters who come to Madrid in search of a better world but are exploited by their aunt who, among other things, tries to marry the youngest girl to her gay son. Then Roger Donaldson’s political thriller Thirteen Days starring Kevin Costner, released in 2000, presented yet another version of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was pushed to the brink of nuclear war. Despite its length (over two hours), the film received favourable reviews and was screened in Cuba. Costner and the producers were invited to dinner with Fidel and then collaborated with ICAIC to get the film put on in the island. Costner is still a frequent visitor to the island.
The most controversial film about Cuba in recent years (when aren’t films about Cuba controversial?) is Julian Schabel’s Before Night Falls (2001), which is loosely based on the autobiography of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ Antes que anochezca (Barcelona, 1992) (Before Night Falls, London, 1993). Arenas was born near Holguín in 1943 and was self-taught. After the Revolution he was given posts in the National Library and as editor of the famous Gaceta de Cuba (1968-1974). His first novel was published in Cuba in 1967, but in the early 1970s he ran into trouble with the authorities and was imprisoned for two years (1974-1976). He left Cuba in the Mariel exodus of 1980 and was employed in the USA as a literature professor. He contracted HIV and committed suicide in New York in 1990. His autobiography, although beautifully written, is hyperbolical (he boasts of having had 5000 gay sexual encounters before the age of 25) and especially hostile to Castro. It should not be read as documentary fact, as several of Arenas’ Cuban friends and colleagues have since pointed out. The film represents events at an even further remove from historical reality, yet has been widely reviewed as the most recent indictment of Castro’s apparently brutal government. In other words, the film is deliberately politically biased. This is not to say it is not a good film; it is, but it is fiction and should be viewed as such. The Spanish actor Javier Bardem, playing Arenas, is powerful and convincing; the film also features famous Hollywood actors (Sean Penn, Johnny Depp) in cameo roles. Although the camera work is excellent, if you don’t know Arenas’s story you may be confused by the complex plot.
At the 2002 International Film Festival, the largest crowds queued to see Balseros (Rafters), a film documentary about seven Cubans who set sail for Miami in 1994, a time of economic crisis when Castro allowed thousands to flee on any home-made craft for Florida. Their stories show the pain of leaving families behind and the culture shock of living and working long hours in the USA. Directors Carles Bosch and Josep Domenech presented a frank account of the poverty driving Cubans to leave, but also the harsh reality of life elsewhere. In 2003, one of the most talked about films was a silent movie directed by Fernando Pérez, Suite Habana, a documentary of a day in the life of the city and its inhabitants, with a sound track limited to music and city noises. It can be interpreted as either a subversive criticism of Castro’s system, or as a tribute to the courage and resilience of Habaneros, struggling against all odds to survive without losing their revolutionary dreams.
The big foreign film of recent years is the monumental Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008), which was so long that it was divided into two films, Che Part 1: The Argentine, and Che Part 2: The Guerrilla. This blockbuster biopic of Che Guevara, starring Benicio del Toro, who won the Best Actor Award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, was filmed mostly in Spanish for veracity. The first part covers the Cuban Revolution, but was filmed in Mexico and Puerto Rico because of the US embargo. The second part is about Guevara’s attempt to export revolution to Bolivia, with disastrous consequences. The film was shown to huge acclaim in Havana as part of the 2008 Latin American Film Festival, although Benicio del Toro was understandably anxious about such a knowledgeable audience. The state newspaper, Granma, gave del Toro a glowing review, while the 2000-strong audience at the Yara cinema gave him a 10-minute standing ovation.
In Cuba, meanwhile, Cuba mourned the death from cancer of film-maker Humberto Solás (1941-2008). He had a prolific output but first came to international attention with his 1968 film, Lucía, charting the lives and fortunes of three women called Lucía in different stages of Cuban history. It was filmed in Gibara, north of Holguín, a small town with which he maintained a long association. Solás was the first Cuban director to be nominated for an Oscar, with his film Un Hombre de Exito (1985). In 2001 he brought out Miel para Oshún (Honey for the Goddess Oshun, 2001), the story of a Cuban, Roberto (played by Jorge Perugorría, yet again), who was taken to the USA as a child after the Revolution and returns 30 years later to find his mother. Like Alea’s Guantanamera, this is a road movie, more notable for its outstanding photography of the Cuban landscape than for its penetrating character analyses. Some of this film was again shot in Gibara and in 2003 Solás founded a festival for ‘poor’ cinema to be held annually in the town. The festival is dedicated to movies made against seemingly overwhelming odds and no film shown there has cost more than US$300,000 to make. After Solás death the film festival was renamed in his honour as the Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre de Humberto Solás.
Lovers of wry humour at the expense of the Cuban predicament should seek out the films of Juan Carlos Tabío. His 2001 award-winning comedy, Lista de Espera (Waiting List) was scripted by Senel Paz and Arturo Arango and stars Vladimir Cruz (of Fresa y Chocolate fame) and Jorge Perugorría (now playing a blind man). The action takes place in a remote, dilapidated bus station. The passengers wait and wait for a bus but they are all full so they try and repair an old Soviet wreck in a collective effort to repair the broken dream. The bus is a metaphor for the better times that never materialize and the passengers’ solidarity a comment on the resilience and blind optimism of those that try to make things work despite all odds. Tabío’s more recent comedy, El Cuerno de la Abundancia (Horn of Plenty, Cuba/Spain 2008), again starring Jorge Perugorría, follows the hopes and aspirations of the extended Castiñeiras family from a small town in Cuba who hear they’ve inherited a fortune from the 17th century, left to them in a bank in London by three nuns. To escape the poverty and stagnation of their lives in Cuba they go through bureaucratic hoops to prove their parentage, squabbles between different factions of the family, love affairs driven by greed, but it all comes to nothing when they hear it has gone to a branch of the family in Miami. They are left with debts and broken marriages but at the end there is new hope of an inheritance and the cycle starts all over again.
In short, the Cuban film industry is progressing well in the 21st century and the International Film Festivals (Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, http://www.habanafilmfestival.com,
Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre de Humberto Solás, http://www.festivalcinepobre.org
) are major events that should not be missed.