Daily Archives: January 17, 2009

Viva Cuban Cinema

Death of a Bureaucrat Unknown (dir Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Cuba 1966)

Death of a Bureaucrat (dir Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Cuba 1966)

January 2009 marks 50 years of the Cuban Revolution – an anniversary worth celebrating for many reasons and not least because it allows us to applaud the successes of Cuban Cinema in a post-colonialist, post-imperialist world, albeit one in which Cuba has had to steer a path around the obstacles of an American blockade and the uncertainty and then complete loss of Russian support.

The following notes (written by Keith Withall) were compiled for an event on Cuban Cinema held in Bradford in 2006 when a package of Cuban films toured the UK.

Selective Chronology of Cuba and its Cinema
Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492. By the end of the 16th century almost all traces of the indigenous Amerindian population had gone. Subsequently the tobacco and sugar industries were developed, largely dependent on imported African slave labour. Cuba was a Spanish colony throughout the 19th century, even as other peoples in South America gained independence. In 1898 the USA engineered a war with Spain. The US military occupied Cuba and a constitution was enforced which awarded nominal independence. For the first half of the 20th century Cuba was dominated by the US and was used as a research market for the North American communication industries. It also became a centre for tourism and US gangsters.

  • 1952   Batista overthrows the government and becomes effective dictator.
  • 1953   Fidel Castro leads a failed attempt to overthrow Batista’s government.
  • 1956   Fidel Castro and followers begin a guerrilla war.
  • 1959   The guerrilla campaign of the 26 July Movement forces Batista to flee. Fidel Castro becomes Prime Minister. There follows the transfer of land from large landowners to those who work it. The government expropriates US-owned sugar mills and plantations.
  • 1960   ICAIC founded. The mass literacy campaign is launched in rural areas. Soviet economic mission.
  • 1961   USA suspends purchases of sugar and severs diplomatic relations with Cuba. 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained by US military instructors, invade in the Bay of Pigs; an expected rising fails to occur and the invaders are killed or captured.
  • 1962   Cuban missile ‘crisis’, withdrawal of Soviet ‘offensive weapons’.
  • 1967   Revolutionary Che Guevara executed in Bolivia.
  • 1975   New constitution, ICAIC reorganised.
  • 1979   The International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema.
  • 1980   Mariel exodus to USA, prompted by disasters in the sugar and tobacco harvests.
  • 1985   Foundation and Film School.
  • 1990   Special Period in Times of Peace.

Cuban Film
A travelling Lumière cameraman screened films in Havana in January 1897. There were both early silent and sound films made by Cubans. However, the film audience was not really large enough to support indigenous productions: the Hollywood Studios dominated the distribution and exhibition industries. There were a few co-productions with the much more substantial Mexican film industry during the 1940s and 50s.

There were regular indigenous newsreels, but these were almost a form of ‘vanity publishing’, as the companies made their profit, not from admissions but from charging the individuals and groups that were featured. There were also occasional alternatives, including several editions of a newsreel by the Cuban Communist Party.

More significant was a continuing alternative film culture. There were numerous amateur ciné-clubs on the island. The University of Havana set up a Film Studies department in the 1940s. And there were vigorous and dissident cultural and film forums based there, which participated in the resistance to Batista’s police state.

In 1950 a key cultural group connected to the Community Party, ‘Nuestro Tiempo’, was formed. Its members included a number of names that were key in filmmaking after the revolution: Alfredo Guevara, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Santiago Álvarez.

Several activists with a keen interest in filmmaking travelled to Italy to study at the Centro Sperimentale where they encountered the ideas and practices of Neo-realism. On his return Espinosa directed a film in the neo-realist mould, El Megano (1956). This was a documentary that exposed the miserable conditions among the charcoal burners in the Zapata Swamps. The film was seized by Batista’s police and then banned.

Batista’s regime collapsed before the popular revolution led by Castro. The Liberation forces made extensive use of the media, with their own illicit radio station in the mountains. They also set up a Military Cultural School, which started work on two short films. And the first major cultural act in 1959 was the setting up of ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos – Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry) with Alfredo Guevara at its first director. From its inception the Institute had a fair degree of autonomy, whereas the State authorities closely controlled Press and Radio. There were a number of competing sets of values; between those who supported the old society (many of whom emigrated) and those who supported national independence; and between groups who were in favour of a socialist system, including the Communist Party, who looked to the Soviet model, and more liberal groups, like ICAIC, in favour of experimentation and difference. They argued from Fidel’s maxim, “dentro de la Revolución todo; contra la Revolución, nada (within the revolution, everything: against it, nothing).”

The equipment for the Institute and the experience of its new cadres was uneven and extremely limited. They did receive assistance from visiting filmmakers, who in the 1960s included the French directors Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, and the Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. After the rupture with the US and the arrival of economic assistance from the USSR there were several co-productions with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The most famous is Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964 Mosfilm), directed by Mickhail Kalatozov. However the Cuban themselves were fairly critical of the representation of their country in this film.

From its inception, ICAIC produced a series of documentary films and newsreels. These varied from shorts to feature length films, and ranged over the educational, the informational, celebratory, didactic and overt propaganda films. Several films dealt with the important and groundbreaking literacy campaign in rural areas that was launched in 1960. The films dealt not only with the Cuban revolution but international issues in the non-aligned movement and anti-imperialist camps.

The key figure in documentary and newsreel was Santiago Alvarez. His output and style is large and varied. But he is particularly noted for his use of montage, in the sense used by the classic Soviet directors.

Hanoi martes 13 (Hanoi Tuesday 13th) was filmed by Alvarez in Vietnam during a visit in 1966. The attack by US warplanes took place on 13 December at 2.50 p.m. The film also counterposes ordinary life in North Vietnam and an explosive montage of US President L.B.J. and US prisoners of war.

The score for Alvarez’s film is by Leo Brouwer, a key composer in ICAIC. He had made his debut in Cine-Club Vísion, sited in a working class district of Havana. The development of Cuban music was another arm of ICAIC. There was also the Graphics department were artists were encourage to experiment and develop the dazzling posters that advertised Cuban film. And there was a skilled and creative animation section.

For the first two decades ICAIC produced an average of about 40 documentaries a year. New or inexperienced recruits developed their skills first in this area. There were also feature films, averaging about five a year. The early examples celebrate the revolution in a neo-realist style. But as ICAIC developed other influences encouraged experimentation, especially the French Nouvelle Vague and associated Left Bank Group. A number of directors worked on important features including Espinosa and Alea.

Memorias del subdesarollo (Memories of underdevelopment, 1968). Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes the film’s main plot is set between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It studies a bourgeois man, Sergio, who cannot bring himself to leave Cuba for the US like his family, but also is unable to commit himself fully to the Revolution. The film uses a complex range of narrative and cinematic devices, some reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague. It created an impact both in Cuba and internationally.

Another important film from that year is Lucia, directed by Humberto Solás. It deals with stories about women; gender along with ‘race’ remained a key contradiction in Cuban Society. There were important films addressing these issues by several filmmakers, including the black director Serge Giral (who later emigrated) and Sara Gómez, who sadly died at the end of filming her first feature.

Later films that confronted such contradictions were Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa, 1979) directed by Pastor Vega and dealing with marriage and machismo. Alea directed two films that dealt sucessively with machismo and then gay sexuality.

In 1956 box office takings were 22 million pesos spread over about 500 cinemas, about 120 million admissions. Roughly this figure was maintained in the 1960s, though it fell in the 1980s to around 86 million. Ticket prices remained at about the same level over this period.

However, there was also a thriving 16 mm exhibition circuit, comprising mobile cinema vans, cultural clubs, schools, colleges and similar where admission was free. In the 1980s video salons replaced this circuit.

A number of films from ICAIC garnered audiences of over a million in both the 1960s and 1970s. These included films by Alea, Espinosa and Peréz also Vega’s Retrato de Teresa and Solás’ Lucia. In the 1980s three films achieved over two million, including Tabio’s Se permuta (For Exchange or House Swap, 1983).

In 1989 The International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema was instituted in Havana. This was followed by an International Film School and Foundation for Film. The title of New Latin American Cinema had arisen in two film festivals held in Chile in the late 1960s. It included not only Cuban film but important movements in Brazil (Cinema Novo), Argentina, Bolivia and Chile itself. There were frequent contacts and discussions and whilst the movements each had a distinctive approach there were also clear influences between them. There were also manifestos for this new political Cinema, the most famous being ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in Argentina.

ICAIC had developed its own journal in its early days, Cine Cubano. It included reviews, discussions and theoretical articles. Two seminal articles were Espinosa’s ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ and Alea’s ‘The Viewer’s Dialectic’.

In 1980 Humberto Solás directed Cecilia, an adaptation of a well-loved 19th century Cuban novel by Cirilo Villaverde. The film, a European co-production, was far more expensive than other ICAIC productions. The adaptation of the novel was disliked and heavily criticised; the film lost money. Following this Guevara was sent as ambassador to Paris and Espinosa became the director of ICAIC. This was a difficult period, apart from the large migrations; the Cuban economy was suffering from its restricted nature and the effects of the US boycott. However, co-productions with other Latin American countries helped maintain a fairly high output of films, both features and documentaries.

Alea’s Hasta cierto punto (Up to a point, 1983) directly addresses contradictions in the revolution by looking squarely at the problem of machismo. Filmmakers are planning a film and research it among the Havana dockworkers. Alea filmed actual dockers’ meetings on video as part of the research for the film and then incorporated them into the final production.

Younger directors were making a mark in ICAIC and there was a relatively new approach using comedy to both criticise and laugh at the problems of life under siege.

!Plaff o demasiado miedo a la vida (Plaff!, or Too much Fear of Life, 1988), directed by Juan Carlos Tabío, is an anarchic film both a parody anda film that  “allegorises the nation through their female characters. In this comic reduction of the nation’s problems to the conflict between mothers and daughters-in-law . . .”

The extreme changes in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s created severe economic and social problems in Cuba. There was a revival of private enterprise, the appearance of major international companies and a return to the dollar. Almost at the same time there was a crisis when an ICAIC film became the object of severe criticisms. Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (Alice in Wondertown) directed by Daniel Díaz Torres won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival. But it scandalised numbers of people including senior members in the Communist Party. The film was withdrawn from exhibition and it was proposed that ICAIC should be merged with Cuban Television. The united opposition by ICAIC members prevented this but Espinosa resigned and Alfredo Guevara once more became director.

Filmmaking in the 1990s was difficult and parsimonious. Reputedly ICAIC could not afford to print some films up on celluloid and they had to be viewed on video. There was an increase in International co-productions, which generated income. Lista de espera (The Waiting List, 2000) directed by Tabío, is a Cuban, Mexican, German co-production. But a number of artists and craftsmen had to leave ICAIC, and often Cuba. In the 1980s ICAIC had generated some $7 million from international sales and services. Now, when subsidies had ended, they only managed under a million in one year. Even so, as can be seen in this Cuban season, ICAIC and Cuban filmmakers are still producing interesting and distinctive features. And there is a growth in amateur and independent film using video and digital formats.


The Cuban Image by Michael Chanan, bfi Publishing 1985. A detailed study of Cuban cinema in the first two decades after the revolution.

Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan, C4/BFI 1983. This includes a brief overview and includes some of the important manifestos from the movement.


www.cubacine.cu/ (in Spanish)
www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc46.2003/chanan.cuba/index.html (‘Letter from Havana’ by Michael Chanan)

Over the next few weeks, we’ll try to cover as many Cuban films from the last fifty years as we can.