Tag Archives: Cuban cinema

7 Days in Havana (7 días en La Habana, France/Spain/Cuba 2012)

Melvis Estévez is Cecilia, the young singer torn between a new future in Spain or staying with her boyfriend

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?

BIFF 2012 #2: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los muertos, Cuba/Spain 2011)

Juan (with the oar), his daughter Camilla, Vladi (with the baseball bat) and Lazaro

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.

Official website

I quite like this ‘teaser’ trailer (mostly because it doesn’t show all the gags in the film)


¡Viva! 15th Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

vivaIf you are interested in Spanish language cinema, there is only one place in the UK to be during the first half of March and that is Manchester, where Cornerhouse Cinema hosts the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival. But don’t despair, if you can’t get to Manchester you can still see some of the films on tour around the UK (and in Dublin) at various specialised cinemas.

The festival includes screenings (with a mini Cuban festival during this year’s celebration of 50 years since the Revolution), guest appearances, Q&As and special events, education events for Spanish language students and much more (including a salsa demonstration in the bar and Spanish-themed food and drink). Cornerhouse is helped to produce the festival by staff from the two Manchester Universities and the University of Salford plus the Instituto Cervantes.

It’s always difficult for me to get to festivals during term time, but this year I managed a day at ¡Viva! and relished the opportunity to enjoy three films and to feel the buzz of being in such a lively atmosphere. First up was a new documentary about one of my favourite directors, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the best known Cuban filmmaker outside Cuba and arguably one of the two or three most influential figures in the history of Cuban Cinema.

Tomas Gutierrez Alea

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

This 2008 documentary, a Cuban/Spanish co-production titled Titón, de la Habana a Guantanamera and directed by his wife Mirta Ibarra, is a memorial, a love letter and a celebration. It also offers a persuasive argument in favour of one of the great filmmakers of the last century who chose to work in revolutionary Cuba rather than move to North America or Europe – where it would have been easier to make films and to promote himself.

Through a combination of interviews, newsreel and film extracts, ‘home movies’ and photos, Ibarra has concocted an engaging and informative documentary record. I was particularly interested in the early material dealing with Alea’s time at the Cine Centro Experimentale in Rome and his subsequent career in primitive advertising films in Cuba prior to the 1959 Revolution. Most of his earlier films have not, to my knowledge, been available in the UK and it was fascinating to learn more about these. The documentary also provides more contextual material for any analysis of Alea’s better known work such as Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). Alea’s ‘middle period’ features in the 1970s and 1980s are also unfamiliar for most UK audiences and again I found that the documentary whetted my appetite for more.

Perhaps the most important achievement here is the presentation of Alea’s criticism of the Cuban Revolution as the positive supportive action of a man who believed in the true concept of ‘constant revolution’ – the only real way to support struggle is to keep arguing for more and better changes. Any of those puzzled American critics who still persist in seeing Alea’s best-known films like Memories and Strawberries and Chocolate (1993) as somehow subversive of the Revolution would do well to study Ibarra’s film.

The only slight downer in this screening was the poor quality of the archive material on show. It looks to me as if ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, must have transferred its archive of newsreel footage to video. The documentary itself, like many festival screenings these days was projected from Digi-Beta tape.

The Black Virgin(Venezuela 2008)
I don’t think that I’ve seen a Venezuelan film before and I found this one a bit of a struggle to pin down. Cornerhouse had a poster suggesting a romantic comedy. It certainly had its comedy as well as melodrama moments. It was also presented with what I must reluctantly assume was ‘magic realism’ (that term seems now to be so overused). The story is narrated (in an adult voice) by a young boy and he may of course be an ‘unreliable narrator’. He begins by describing his affection for his beautiful teacher and being mildly irritated by the attentions of his precocious classmate who expects to marry him. But the narrative’s main focus is the despair of a woman who thinks her husband is ‘playing away’. We then learn that this community lives in a unique ‘town of black people’ on the coast of Venezuela. In a sequence straight out of a ‘Columbus discovers America’ movie, we see a flashback to a Spanish woman arriving on the coast with her aged husband and the coffins of her three sons all killed in the Spanish Civil war. ‘Senora Isabel’ is played by Almodóvar’s 1980s heroine Carmen Maura on fine form (but in a rather limited role).

Francisco Díaz and Carmen Maura in La virgen negra

Francisco Díaz and Carmen Maura in La virgen negra

Senora Isabel has built the town and is responsible for its people. When the aggrieved woman seeks the help of a local woman with some form of magic power, she learns that the way to get a wish granted is to change the figure of the Virgin in the local church for a ‘Black Virgin’. Senora Isabel grants the woman’s wish. The Black Virgin appears and all kinds of wishes – good and bad – come true.

I’m assuming that many of the allusions and references in the film (e.g. the presence of a Brazilian in the village) have specific meanings in Venezuela. I found myself drawing on my limited knowledge of other Hispanic Caribbean/African communities such as Cuba and Nicaragua to make sense of the cultural mix and especially the use of religious imagery and music. The photography is very stylised with extensive use of filters or digital manipulation to create the magic realist tone. The film ended abruptly after the intrusion of a second narrative associated with an external threat to the town. I think it would be difficult to release this film in the UK, so I was grateful for the chance to see it. We get too few opportunities to see how other cultures attempt to use cinema to tell local stories.

Luis Fernando Peña as 'Memo' in Sleep Dealer

Luis Fernando Peña as 'Memo' in Sleep Dealer

Sleep Dealer (Mexico/US 2008)
This terrific ‘speculative fiction’ movie combines an impressive array of contemporary developments in both technological and political activity to produce a genre picture with real soul.

‘Memo’, the neatly named protagonist, is a youth in a village in Oaxaca in the far south of Mexico. His father has a small agricultural plot – a ‘milpa’ where beans are grown as a combination crop with corn. But life is hard. A US multinational company has damned the river and taken ownership of all the water – the campesinos must pay to irrigate their land and the dam is protected by robot guards with video cameras and machine guns.

Memo is bored and sets up an illegal satellite dish hacking into phone lines around the globe. One night he is listening in on a conversation when he realises hat he has been detected and he immediately shuts down. Shortly after, he and his brother set off on a short trip, but watching TV in a bar they suddenly realise that the reality TV show which shows American security forces blowing up the hideouts of suspected terrorists has detected Memo’s satellite dish and a ‘drone fighter’ piloted by a controller in San Diego is set to demolish their home. They are too late to save the shack and their father who is shot down as he tries to escape.

In despair, Memo heads for the North to become a sleep dealer in Tijuana. The border with the US is closed but Mexicans still do the work for Americans. They go to factories in Tijuana where they jack into a neural system and operate robots carrying out all kinds of tasks in US industry and services. This work eventually makes the worn-out workers blind. The final main narrative idea is that neural bloggers offer ‘memories’ for the nostalgia industry on the neural network and Memo has his own memories ‘uploaded’ without his knowledge. How will he react when he finds out?

All of these ideas leap off the news headlines. Water as a commodity, private security, US drone strikes in Pakistan etc. are ripe for exploitation. There are obvious reference points to Phil K. Dick (he would have loved the neural blogging of memories as an idea) and to films like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. This a really clever script with its play on the Mexican-American cultural experience. I was also reminded of the first Robocop movie when seemingly outrageous ideas were delivered in TV broadcasts. It’s a cliche now perhaps, but as in Paul Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, there is still mileage in hearing a reality TV announcer warning you that there is extreme violence coming up and then exhorting you to make sure that your youngest kids don’t miss it! This and similar sick jokes got big laughs at the screening.

A Sundance-supported film, this Mexican-US release (largely in Spanish) looks like it has been picked up by Fortissimo and might well get a UK release. Director Alex Rivera is American with Latin-American parentage who decided on a Spanish language production with Hispanic characters (in America and Mexico). I’d urge you not to miss it if it does appear. With the earlier La Zona this is further proof of the strength of popular Mexican cinema and its ideas about speculative fiction.

The screenings of both La virgen negra and Sleep Dealer were close to full houses and this added to the fun of watching the films. ¡Viva! is a festival well worth supporting. See you there next year in March? And don’t forget the tour!

Un Paraíso bajo las estrellas (Paradise under the stars, Spain/Cuba 2000)


I thought it was a bit of a gamble buying this Region 1 DVD and I was still not sure after an opening cabaret performance. However, when the narrative got going, I realised that this was quite a find in terms of genre cinema and Cuban representations.

I take the film to be a comedy melodrama related to the television telenovela, so popular across Latin America. Others have compared the film to the similar Spanish comedies of Pedro Almodóvar in the 1980s and I can see this as well. The whole point of the telenovela/melodrama is to offer a complex web of relationships, many of them family relationships that are not known to the family members involved. These relationships are then revealed in scenes that are sometimes farcical. In this film, Sissy is a young woman who wants to become a cabaret dancer – just like her mother before her. But her father, Candido, who was a cabaret singer himself, now drives a truck and is separated from his wife. He doesn’t want his daughter to join the family business. Sissy goes behind his back and impresses Armando, the cabaret owner/impresario. At the same time she meets Sergio (Vladimir Cruz, star of several Cuban films of the period) and immediately falls in love. The other major characters are Sonia (Armando’s young wife who also seems to know Sergio), Mabel (Daisy Granados, grande dame of Cuban Cinema) who is another ex-cabaret performer and a ‘creole’ couple, Promedio and Josefa, close friends of Candido and godparents for Sissy.

This is a standard cast list for the genre. What makes the film particularly interesting is the discourse on race in Cuba. Armando is African-Cuban and all the characters know each other. You can probably guess that it is all a question of who is really the child of who else. The general confusion also raises the possibility of incest and in a sense ‘plays’ one taboo against another. The complex racial composition of the Cuban population is also presented in economic terms when a Spanish impresario says that he’d like to book Sissy, even though the market usually demands black or mulatto stars.

I found the film genuinely funny and quite brave in its discussion of race (which also includes some references to Cuban Catholicism and an African spirit medium). I confess that cabaret dancing doesn’t do anything for me, though it looks well done and there is, I think, a genuine Tropicana club in Havana with a show titled ‘A Paradise Under the Stars’. The film is directed by a veteran producer/director, Gerardo Chijona and is a co-production of the Cuban state film organisation ICAIC and two Spanish companies, Ibermedia and Wanda. It’s not particularly ‘filmic’ and seemed to me to be more ‘televisual’ in aesthetic terms, with the ‘clean’ and ‘cold’ look of a television telenovela. The acting and pacing, however, overcame any of my qualms about the look of the film and I’d recommend this to anyone prepared to enjoy the preposterous narrative events and to engage with Cuban culture. The ‘special period’ of economic privation was lifting a little by 2000, but Cuba still has serious problems. This isn’t a ‘serious’ film as such, but the discourse about race in Cuba is interestingly presented for a popular audience.

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (Cuba 1967)

Julio Garcia Espinosa and Julio Martinez (Juan)

Julio Garcia Espinosa and Julio Martinez (Juan)

This extraordinary but enjoyable film was made by one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary Cuban Cinema, Julio García Espinosa (born 1926). He was one of the few Cuban directors in 1960 to have been formally trained and became one of the founding members of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute. In 1969 he wrote a famous essay on the concept of ‘imperfect cinema‘. Up until his retirement in 2007 he was the Director of the International Film and Television School in Cuba. There is a useful Jump Cut essay by Anna Marie Taylor that analyses the film in terms of imperfect cinema. This is quite a detailed essay and so here I’ll just try to introduce the film in relatively simple terms. It is now available on both Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs. My comments refer to the Region 2 disc from Network, a company specialising in archive UK TV material, but presumably with a deal covering material from the old East German studio DEFA as well as ICAIC.

The film opens in Black & White CinemaScope and immediately made me think of Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) with small groups of horsemen riding over rolling hills in long shot. But instead of Barbara Stanwyck in leathers we eventually get introduced to Juan and his sidekick Jachero. With some interesting graphics in the title sequence and a score by the leading Afro-Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, my first guess was that this was some kind of Cuban take on the ‘spaghetti western’. It takes a few moments to realise that it is not going to be a linear narrative as we switch between several different ‘adventures’ with the same three or four central characters in each (Juan and Jachero, the heroine Teresa and the moustachioed villain). There are also mismatches between sound and image, jump cuts transforming characters and objects etc.

I watched it with Nick and we were both puzzled for a while until we got into it and began to deconstruct the film. Clearly we have a traditional Spanish hero and his partner – a kind of peasant version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or perhaps the Cisco Kid and Pancho. The sequences are shown out of presumed chronological order, but we are offered Juan and Jachero in various situations in which they are forced to challenge an oppressor (the same villain) in the role of police chief/mayor/sugar mill owner etc. as well as stand up to the Church. Eventually they will join the revolutionary guerillas and take part in the capture of a village (in a sequence offered as a training film – even though our heroes are sometimes quite inept). The situations are typical of a colonised culture (staging a bull fight) and the presentation modes act as a critique of conventional genre films (including a kind of spoof James Bond, complete with ‘oriental villain’). But overall the film remains a comedy and we laughed on several occasions. According to some commentators this was the most successful Cuban film of the time attracting 2 million admissions – a very large figure given the population of Cuba (around 10 million) in the 1960s.

The concept of imperfect cinema refers to the need to steer revolutionary film away from the ‘perfection’ of Hollywood cinema and its ‘closed’ narratives with conventional genres and character types. It is better for audiences to have to do some work to ‘finish off’ the story, providing their own insights. This is similar in some ways to the ideas behind Brecht’s approach to theatre. ‘Imperfect’ does not imply, as detractors might claim, an impoverished and amateurish low-budget cinema. ICAIC budgets were not large, but the films were well-made and looked and sounded fine. Taylor’s essay suggests that Juan’s adventures might have proved popular, but that they were unlikely to have had the political impact that Espinosa called for two years later. (She suggests Espinosa’s 1970 film about Vietnam was more successful in these terms – but it is not available on DVD.)

Another Jump Cut resource is this translation of Espinosa’s essay on imperfect cinema by Julianne Burton.

Quite a good overview of different periods of Cuban film is available on FilmReference.com

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.