The Cuban dissenting blogger Yoani Sanchez has written a somewhat cynical blog about Havana’s Film Festival, or to give its full title, the International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema, whose 35th edition closed on Sunday, in which she comments that
“The Festival” (period… as we call it), had a clear ideological focus from the beginning to promote creations filled with social criticism, a reflection of regional problems or the historic memory of the dictatorships that plagued Latin America.
I laughed when I read this because the last of those — well, that’s me, folks, in the shape of my new documentary, Interrupted Memory, which premiered at the Festival. OK, it wasn’t the only film on the subject. All I can say is that I’m very happy to have been screened in such company, even if Yoani didn’t bother to come to the screening.
However, she’s not wrong to say that the Festival no longer has the same prominence it had when it was founded 35 years ago. I was there myself at the founding festival in 1979, the year the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua (the festival premiered the first Sandinista newsreel), and I can testify to the terrific buzz of those days, when Cuba was opening up again to the world after a grey decade; and throughout the 80s, when I attended regularly, and the prestige of Cuban cinema still ran high both at home and abroad. It’s definitely not the same today (although they’re still making good films). All the same, I gather that this year’s Festival attracted some 700 people from abroad, and it still serves as a showcase for the films that matter from across the continent. But perhaps the difference was especially marked because this was the first Festival since the death earlier this year of its founder and director, Alfredo Guevara, and sad to say, the Cuban film community has suffered several other losses this year, including the director Daniel Díaz Torres and the producer Camilo Vives. Sanchez praises Guevara for the way ‘his drive and his personal relations shaped this film festival each December’, but understands absolutely nothing about the values he placed on cinema, the reasons why he founded the Cuban film institute, the ICAIC, with Fidel Castro’s backing, just three months after the Revolution took power in 1959 — because cinema is not just entertainment, diversion and fantasy but the universal art form of modern times, capable of the deepest sentiments, the sharpest critique, the highest aspirations. (The Festival celebrated Guevara’s heritage by screening his list of ten best, submitted some years ago to Sight and Sound: you can see it here.
As far as the Cuban audience goes, it isn’t just the political culture around cinema that’s changed. So has the entire mode of consumption of cinema, just like everywhere else, but with characteristics particular to Cuba. While the US blockade against the island became on both sides an obsessional fetish of US-Cuban relations, it failed to cut the island off from the products, either hardware or software, of new technologies which didn’t even exist when the blockade was imposed. By the 90s, Cuba had a flourishing informal trade in video cassette rental and home-burned CDs, and would experience little delay in adopting the DVD. The spread of computers allowed domestic copying, and small-scale piracy flourished. People go around with flash drives in their pockets in case a friend has something worth copying. (‘We Cubans’, claims Sanchez, ‘are true “Pirates of the Caribbean”.’) Meanwhile, the economic collapse which brought the country to its knees after the fall of the Soviet bloc decimated film exhibition as cinemas fell into disrepair. There was no money for their renovation and they shut down, with the result that domestic viewing greatly increased. Including the latest movies and TV shows from the US, which often arrived with remarkable speed (notwithstanding the lack of good enough internet connections for downloading) while the Institute’s own production programme was severely cut back.
Now there’s another new and peculiarly Cuban twist. Over the last year or so, as the state has liberalised the economy and allowed a large measure of small-scale business and self-employment, a new phenomenon has appeared in the shape of what Sanchez calls ‘non-institutional programming’. In a word, people who started out running domestic video-game parlours began adding home movie theatres with 3D on 200-inch screens as the latest fad. As another Cuban blogger recently wrote,
Cuban entrepreneurs have quietly opened dozens of backroom video salons over the last year, seizing on ambiguities in licensing laws to transform cafes and children’s entertainment parlors into a new breed of private business unforeseen by recent official openings in the communist economy.
Sanchez says that the Festival cannot compete with the range of films that are now available in the informal market, but she completely ignores the other side of the coin: the same technological innovations have also created another new breed of non-state activity unforeseen by the political authorities, although astutely predicted by Julio García Espinosa, filmmaker and President of the ICAIC in the 1980s: a thriving independent video production sector, with a strong presence at the Festival, which in the last few years has graduated from video art and shorts to very-low-budget features, including international successes like Juan de los muertos (Alejandro Brugués, 2011). Again just like other countries, maybe more surprising in Cuba, these developments raise inevitable questions about the movement whose celebration is the Festival’s raison d’être, but nor was this swept aside, and at the centrepiece seminar, in which I was privileged to be one of the panelists, we were asked to discuss the three-in-one question ‘New? Latin American? Cinema?’ (which I’ll report on separately).
The Film Institute is perfectly aware of the problems these developments have created in Cuba itself, including various anomalies, like the fact that the fellow on the street corner selling pirated DVDs is legally self-employed, but the independent film-maker is not — although that doesn’t make them illegal. According to one source, Cuba now has around a hundred independent ‘production houses’, which are tolerated without being legal entities. Like the private movie salons — until a few weeks ago when the authorities decided they’re illegal, because they charge admission without paying rights or getting approval to screen the films they show. The issue is now under review, but the independent film-makers are in any case on safer ground, and their legal recognition is in process of being drawn up.
This is the result of a remarkable series of events earlier this year, when the Culture Minister, Rafael Bernal, just over a year in the job at the time, announced that the ICAIC is to be ‘restructured’ — a euphemism for slimming down, in line with reforms across the state-owned economy. The announcement immediately prompted an open meeting of filmmakers, attended by members of the Film Institute and independents alike, who gathered on 4th May at the Institute’s cultural centre, Fresa y Chocolate (named after the film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, one of Guevara’s top ten), where they elected an action committee, quickly dubbed the group of 20 (or g20 with a small g, to distinguish it from the big G20). By all accounts it was an extraordinary moment: the first time that Cuban filmmakers of all generations, old and young, members of the Institute and independents, have assembled together to discuss a series of problems which have been troubling them for several years. At previous moments of institutional crisis this kind of response has taken place privately, behind closed doors, with very little said to outsiders. This time it’s more open, I’ve had several conversations about it with people involved, and the documentation is on the internet.
Everyone agrees that the Institute’s operations need to be overhauled, and it now has a new President, Roberto Smith de Castro, a Vice President of the Institute since 2002, to oversee the changes. The official commission and the action committee are working together on a series of proposals, not all of them compatible with each other, but they’re not rushing it. They know that there are no quick fixes. But this is in line with the process of reform being undertaken by the Cuban state under Raúl Castro. Perhaps the most pertinent comment about this process that I heard was a remark made in conversation afterwards by one of the other seminar panelists, Ignacio Ramonet. The author of a book of interviews with Fidel Castro about his life and a renowned and astute observer of Latin America, Ramonet explained the fragility of this moment in Cuba’s trajectory by citing a remark of de Tocqueville’s to the effect that the most critical moment for a government is when it begins to reform. The implication was that the Cuban Government knows this, and is resolved not to lose control, but it’s also a warning. Actually de Tocqueville wrote ‘the most dangerous moment for a bad government…’, and this is exactly what’s at issue: it’s a big ask, but if the reforms can be managed without loss of control — and without sacrificing the fundamental principles of social justice — then history will not judge this to have been a bad government. Meanwhile, let the cameras continue to roll!