The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.
The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.
Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.
The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?
Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.
Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.
Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.
This Cuban offering during ¡Viva! is an example of the sometimes confounding nature of Cuban art and culture. I looked in vain in the end credits for any mention of the Cuban state film agency ICAIC, but it didn’t appear. I learned afterwards that although the script for the film was accepted in 2014 (and I think won an award) the completed film has been disowned by ICAIC and denied a proper release in Cuba. It was also withdrawn from official competition at the Havana Film Festival in New York with claims that this represents pressure from ICAIC on the Festival which would suffer from losing such support. (The director then withdrew the film completely from the festival.) On the other hand, the film has been shown at major festivals around the world, starting at Toronto in September 2016. It looks like a cock-up by ICAIC, giving ammunition to right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami. So what’s the problem?
Santa y Andrés, directed and co-written by Carlos Lechuga, is a film set in rural Eastern Cuba in 1983. It presents a narrative in which a well-meaning but naïve woman, Santa (Lola Amores), is ordered by her boss Jésus at the collective dairy farm to watch dissident writer Andrés (Eduardo Martinez) for three days. Jésus has been told to make sure Andrés does not attend the Regional Forum where he might speak to foreign journalists as he would seem to have done in the past. Andrés is doubly marked as both a dissident writer and a gay man. Santa sticks to her task. She is resolute in sitting on her chair outside Andrés’ shack and then taking him to the local hospital when he is injured in an altercation with a local rent boy. Eventually she cracks and discovers that she and Andrés have much in common and she puts on a dress and tries to build a relationship with him. (I think her change to a dress is an attempt to ‘soften’ her image and show she is not ‘on duty’.) We then learn more about both characters and their life in Revolutionary Cuba. The cinematography by Javier Labrador Deulofeu captures the feel of the locations very well.
This is quite a slow-moving narrative but the film held my attention. We gradually realise that the story is as much about Santa learning about herself as it is about what will happen to Andrés. The chair is a nice touch (i.e. how she carries it around as a representation of something about herself?) and in a sequence later we see a truck arriving in the village carrying a load of chairs and dropping off just one at a shack before driving on. In a later scene between Santa and Andrés there is mention of a ‘shape-shifter’ character and a few minutes later a brief appearance by a character dressed as what I took to be a shaman of some kind. These two incidents are contrasted with more realist/documentary shots of Santa at work in the cow-shed or buying clothes from a trader who arrives in the village by train. I should mention here that there were problems in screening the DCP at HOME (something I’ve not seen before). It froze on a couple of occasions and was difficult to restart. We might have lost a few minutes and I can’t be sure of all the details of the narrative. The overall mix of elements in the film reminded me of a range of Cuban films from earlier periods including the satirical/metaphorical films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío (whose name appeared in ‘thanks to’ credits at the end of the film). This was Lechuga’s second feature and later I realised that I’d seen his 2010 short, The Swimmers, which was in the same tradition as Alea and Tabío’s films with its ironic commentary on Cuban sporting facilities, economic shortages and social divisions. If you search carefully online you can find several examples of Luchaga’s work.
The real question is why did this film upset ICAIC so much? Films which critique the revolution in different ways have a long tradition in Cuba since 1959. Usually, however, in such ‘critical’ films most characters are supporters of the revolution who find fault with aspects of daily life. This film presents us with Andrés who is still writing in secret (although we don’t know what it is that he is writing). I don’t think his gender orientation is the real problem. I do find this kind of situation very difficult. In the Summer of 1983 I marvelled at all the help Cuban workers, teachers and advisers were giving to the Revolutionary Government in Grenada. I’ll always support the Cuban revolution, but I despair at the attacks on dissident writers and other artists. I can understand the arrest of counter-revolutionaries who directly threaten the state and could damage the society, but once a state starts persecuting writers, it begins to lose credibility. The health of any society is judged by how it deals with criticism and this just feels like an over-reaction by ICAIC. What is being exposed in the film are the petty bureaucracies of the system and, if I understood the truncated final sequences, the inefficiencies of a system that allows some people to go unpunished for criminal behaviour (i.e. not ‘political’ crimes). The final outcome for Andrés seems a sad conclusion. Overall, I enjoyed watching Santa y Andrés and I thought the two central performances, by actors who have no previous credits listed on IMDb, were excellent.
Here’s the Toronto Festival trailer:
Also available on YouTube is a collection of ‘Making Of’ episodes. Here’s one with Lola Amores (they all have English subs):
The great leader of the Cuban Revolution and an iconic figure for progressives will be mourned by many. As in life, in death he divides people. The most extreme being the rather nasty celebrations in Miami. Whilst in Cuba the majority of citizens recognise both the loss and his great contribution. The media coverage so far has been predictably inadequate. The BBC echoes the political establishment whilst Sky News could not even gets the dates of the US boycott correct. Even Al Jazeera suggested Cuba “brought the world to the brink of nuclear war”: actually it was the USA in the recurring war-mongering mode. In the UK the best comment has been on the RT Channel (113 on Freeview].
Whatever the failings of the Post-revolution society under Fidel it did liberate the Cuban people from US neo-colonial exploitation and was a beacon for other National Liberation struggles round the world. Hence tributes have been pouring in from the oppressed peoples and nations. Certainly there are few other leaders in the second half of the 20th century who maintained such a resolute resistance to US imperialism and neo-colonialism.
There were many progressive aspects of the Cuban Revolution, notably the work of Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos / The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) founded immediately after the revolution in 1959.
At ICAIC Julio García Espinosa produced the key manifest ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969). And numerous films in the early stages illustrated how relevant this was. A key film would be, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A later and equally fine film by Alea is La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). I particularly like Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968). Then there are the newsreels and documentaries of Santiago Alvarez: notably Now (1965) and 79 Springs / 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969. And there is the rarely seen work of Sarah Gómez including her final film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Of more recent films there is the fine La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle, 1998) directed by Fernando Pérez. This was part of a season of then recent Cuban films programmed at the National Media Museum. My colleague Roy Stafford was involved and introduced several of the films.
Alongside the films went the vibrant and politically alive poster art work. And a number of films were graced by the modernist scores of Leo Brouwer. The cultural and educational aspects of ICAIC are best presented in the excellent and inspiring For the First Time (Por primera vez, 1967), which made a fine introduction to a screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
The progressive work from the Cuban film movement is part of the anti-colonial cinema in Latin America. Cuba provided a base for the Festival to celebrate New Latin American Cinema. They also supported progressive filmmakers of the continent as with Patricio Guzman’s three-part La batalla de Chile / The Battle of Chile (1975-1979).
A number of influences fed into the film work at ICAIC. But a key model for them was the classic Soviet Montage. We are nearly in 2017 and the centenary of the Great Proletarian Revolution. So the radical Cuban films offer excellent accompaniment to re-visiting the masterworks from the 1920s.
The title of this documentary in English is something like ‘Together and Blended’, but the official English title is Side by side, eye to eye, which doesn’t seem to mean quite the same. The second part refers to ‘El Mejunje’, a cultural centre/club based in a former hotel donated to the community by the Cuban government. The club offers children’s shows, rock concerts and other forms of light entertainment and it is also a meeting place for the local LGBTQ community in Santa Clara, a city of 250,000 people in Central Cuba.
Spanish director Nicolás Muñoz Avia has produced a 66 minute account of the club and its members divided into nine sections or ‘ingredients’ as the English subs call them. These refer in different ways to ideas about self-worth, relationships and community, expressed through titles like ‘self-love’, ‘mother’s love’, ‘lovesick’ etc. We are introduced to a range of characters, each of whom we see in observational mode with friends and family, but also as ‘witnesses’ to the activity of the club, speaking directly to camera. Finally, we get to see some of these characters performing in the clubs walled courtyard (see above). In addition, there are several more formal interviews with people who give us deeper background on the club. The image quality of the film is good. The soundtrack is a little rougher at times, but perfectly serviceable.
The various club members/visitors include a local trans performer who is the first officially elected local government representative of the community, a rock band and a dance band of older players, a couple of schoolgirls, an older lesbian couple and a local man who is an alcoholic and who relies on the club and community to look out for him. This latter episode involves ‘tough love’ by the club who ban the man for a week and urge him to clean up his act (club members have already cleaned out his room for him). There is another family group with some ‘issues’ about a feckless young man but on the whole this is not an exposé or a sensationalist reality TV type of documentary. Instead it is a relatively conventional doc about a cultural centre that gives potentially marginalised groups a social space. What was most striking for me was to see a portrait of Cuba without either tourists or the set agenda of many reports that always seem ready to criticise or undermine (this is especially true of some reports on the BBC and in the supposedly left-leaning Guardian newspaper). The documentary here stresses the official sanction/donation of the building and several of the organisers profess their solid support for the revolution, perhaps over-emphasising this when a performance takes place in front of the national flag and portraits of Fidel and Che (which don’t appear on other clips of the club on YouTube). On the other hand, when a revolutionary speech plays on the PA during a performance, the younger members of the audience look bemused or indifferent. It’s telling too that a young guy in a rock band tells us that he’s just spent all his money to keep his amp working. “What else can we do?” he says, “We just want to play our music”.
It’s good that this portrait of Cuban life doesn’t come to us from Havana (though the opening images do – the film starts on the Malecon) because it gives us a different sense of Cuban society. With recent visits by the Pope and Barack Obama, the question of Cuba’s future comes ever more into the spotlight, so I hope this film gets more outings in Europe and North America as well as Latin America. This was its official UK première – another first for ¡Viva!
Useful trailer (but no English subs):
A ‘portmanteau’ film typically offers two or more short films collected together and presented as a single feature. The concept was once quite popular in Europe during the 1960s and is sometimes now used as a vehicle for directors commissioned by film festivals. 7 Days in Havana offers films by six well-known auteur directors plus the Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro with his second short. Each film is set in Old Havana, featuring the Hotel Nacional, the Malécon and the area around El Capitolio. A small group of characters appears in more than one film, but some of the films are completely separate in terms of characters and stories. Cuban writer Leonardo Padura wrote three linked stories with his partner Lucia López Coll; the directors themselves created the other stories. The production was supported by Havana Club, the Cuban rum producer involved in promoting Cuban arts and culture internationally. The film is stuffed with Cuban music, but strangely no ballet.
In Anglo-American film culture this type of film seems to be termed an ‘anthology’ film and it has a very poor reputation. It’s odd then that in the UK, the British Film Institute’s P&A fund should have supported the film’s release from Soda Pictures so that it has appeared for a week in the two multiplexes in Bradford rather than a limited number of showings in our specialised cinema. I feared the worst when the box office figures came out – and they showed a derisory screen average of £362 across 30 sites for the opening weekend. I don’t quite understand why Bradford’s two multiplexes were in that group. Perhaps Soda Pictures can explain why they did it?
A quick glance at some of the UK critics’ responses to the film reveals mainstream reviewers who don’t know much about French or Hispanic cinemas and are completely baffled by the best of the seven offerings from Elia Suleiman. In his segment the Palestinian director, always his own leading man, is a solitary visitor to Havana seemingly caught between Fidel Castro’s speeches on his hotel room TV set, the views out over the sea and the stately grandeur of the Hotel Nacional’s gardens. This segment has some glorious cinematography, catching the light perfectly. Lots of Europeans, including many Brits will have visited Old Havana and I’m tempted to say that, along with the music, the views of the city are themselves worth the price of a cinema ticket. And indeed some reviewers put the film down as simply ‘touristic’. But that’s misleading. Suleiman’s segment is an exquisite piece of art cinema and most of the other stories are more genuinely concerned with real social issues for the residents of the city than with tourist images.
Working out who had directed which segment was not too difficult. Del Toro’s features an American film student/novice actor looking for night-time ‘action’ and it was the least successful for me. With its film festival theme it set up Emir Kusturica the Serbian director playing a version of himself rather ungraciously receiving a festival tribute but bonding with his assigned driver, a trumpeter who takes his guest to a local jam session. This was a film by Pablo Trapero, the Argentinian director who is actually a big fan of the Havana Film Festival – one of the most important events for Latin American Cinema. Gaspar Noé played his usual ‘controversial’ card with a Santeria ritual carried out in an attempt to ‘cure’ a young teenage girl of her love for a girlfriend. I found this quite disturbing but compelling. Julio Medem offered star power in the shape of Daniel Brühl as a Madrid agent attempting to lure a night-club singer to Spain – effectively breaking up her relationship with her boyfriend, a baseball player who would rather take a raft to Miami. This led into the stories by the Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabio and French director Laurent Cantet, both of which offer narratives associated with particular aspects of Cuban society – doing more than one job, shortages of various foodstuffs and household goods, working together as a community etc. Stylistically these three stories become like a form of Cuban telenovela – and offer roles for well-known Cuban actors such as Mirtha Ibarra, Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz.
But what you want to know is “Is this as bad as the critics say?” No, it isn’t, these are all talented filmmakers, but the format is difficult to handle. It’s hard for me to judge perhaps because a) I know at least some of the work of all the directors, b) I support Cuban cinema, c) I like Cuban music and d) I’ve been a tourist staying in ‘Old Havana’. I couldn’t fail to find the film interesting and much of it enjoyable. If you are approaching the film cold, it may be more of an uphill struggle. Although artistically the two strongest segments, the contributions by Suleiman and Noé are separate from the other five stories which could be made to work together – but then why not have a single script and one director? Perhaps the other missing ingredient is a bit more fantasy that could be injected into the melodrama?
Is it possible to develop a sophisticated political discourse as part of a hugely funny and very gory zomcom? You bet! – and Juan of the Dead provides the evidence. I never expected to see a Cuban movie in a multiplex but now I have and with Metrodome handling UK distribution (it opens on 4th May) you’ll get the chance too (although only in ‘Key Cities’ as the current distribution jargon has it).
Inspired by both George Romero and Edgar Wright, director Alejandro Brugués offers us two middle-aged ‘jack the lads’, first spotted on their fishing raft a few hundred metres from the Malecón, Havana’s famous promenade. As Juan and Lazaro begin to despatch zombies in a matter of fact way, they see television announcements which refer to ‘dissidents’ who are causing trouble in the city. ‘Dissidents’ can only mean a yanqui plot as all Cubans know. The basic premise of the film is that in Cuba, there are three possible responses to any new problem for ordinary Cubans. First, consider opening a business, second, just ignore the problem and carry on stoically and third, steal a boat or build a raft and leave the country. Our heroes are going to consider all three and Juan is confident that he will make it since he has already survived the Mariel boatlift, war in Angola and the Special Period (after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cuban economy went into meltdown). Zombies offer just an opportunity to make some extra money but along the way Juan will have to consider what friendship and family mean to him.
This is a truly Cuban movie with a catalogue of jokes and sight gags with a distinctly Cuban flavour. When a car won’t start, it’s because it’s a Russian Lada. The characters who aid Juan include a very camp character and his hugely-muscled partner (with one fatal weakness) – sport and gay culture being concerns in various Cuban films. The only way to find the limited funds – a $1.6 million budget – to make the film was through a co-production with Spain which means that Juan’s daughter is played by a Spanish actress and the plot requires that her mother has not only left Juan but Cuba as well. There may be some audiences who recognise that the whole film is an allegory of the failings in Cuban society (the director jokes, rather like Simon Pegg, that the Cuban population often appear like zombies) and who wonder why the authorities allow this. But there is a long tradition of satire in Cuban Cinema, most famously in the work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio. The Cuban state film agency ICAIC was involved in the production and I’m sure they will be pleased by the success I feel sure that the film will find in international markets. Having said that there is a rather po-faced put-down of the film on IMDb, arguing that the film fails to offer the correct political message and thus is not a worthy successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Of course you don’t need to know anything about Cuban cinema to enjoy the film as a romp through cleverly re-imagined tropes of the zombie movie. The cast is very good, especially Alexis Diaz de Villegas as Juan. The special effects are endearingly naff but work very well – and do stay through the credits which feature Sid Vicious and some very nice graphics. I hope the film does excellent business and raises the profile of Cuban cinema.
I quite like this ‘teaser’ trailer (mostly because it doesn’t show all the gags in the film)