This year we’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban film institute ICIAC, which arose in the aftermath of the revolution to improve Cuban society, and help educate the Cuban public.
Here, HGFF’s codirector Hugo Rivalta and Glasgow-based journalist explore the history of Cuban cinema, through Hugo’s choice of the 12 most important Cuban films. While Cuba and Scotland have very different histories and film cultures, they also have some striking similarities; both are small countries trying to assert their own cultures in the shadow of powerful neighbours, they both have their roots in documentary, and both have ongoing difficulties in funding and distribution. Against the odds though, both countries have succeeded in producing very distinctive, unique films that have gained international recognition and acclaim.
Now! (Santiago Alvarez, 1965)
Cuba has long had a conflicted relationship with both its larger neighbour, the US, and with race. If the revolution was supposed to have ended racism, by the early ‘60s the US was mired in the struggle for civil rights, a battle that has still far from been won. Santiago Álvarez was the top newsreel director on the island, and used an incendiary mix of photos and stock newsreel footage to castigate American racism in Now! Alvarez once stated, “”Give me two photographs, a moviola and some music and I’ll make you a film” – that’s essentially what he did here. Except that he was very lucky that leading African-American singer Lena Horne gave him her song “Now”, banned in the U.S., to use as his soundtrack. The combination of song and dynamic montage of images is overwhelming in what comes on like some agit prop proto pop video, and is the very model of an engaged, politically committed film. Its theme is still depressingly relevant, as, thrillingly, is its technique, which anticipates the current fascination for appropriating archive footage and imagery in artists’ film. BB
Por primero vez (For the First Time, Octavio Cortazar, 1967)
One of the principal aims of the Cuban Revolution was to achieve equality for the Cuban population, and education was regarded as one of the principal means to achieve this. Since much of the population was illiterate, due to education being beyond their financial means, the Cuban film institute ICIAC was tasked with a pedagogical function, making many classic short documentaries. However, some rural Cubans were so poor that they hadn’t even been exposed to cinema before, which is why cine móvils – mobile cinemas – were set up. For the First Time documents one of these mobile cinema’s arrival in a small town in one of the remotest regions of Cuba. The kids and locals are quizzed about their hopes and expectations for what a cinema screening might be like – when the big night arrives, no one’s disappointed. As the camera regards the viewers watching, reacting to and laughing at Chaplin’s Modern Times, the transformative and communal power of cinema is powerfully and movingly affirmed. BB
Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea 1968)
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film would be a landmark in the development and international reception of Cuban cinema. Set during the time between The Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis – a period of intense uncertainty for the island – the film tells the story of Sergio, a bourgeois dilettante who stays on the island while his wife leaves. His reason for staying seems not to be so much dedication to the Revolution as indolence, as he mooches around Havana spying on his neighbours, cursing the state of the nation and picking up young girls. From this premise the film spins a dense, self-reflexive web mixing documentary and fiction in a fashion as precarious as Sergio’s state. One of the most daring films to come out of Cuban cinema, and one of the most politically and aesthetically sophisticated films to emerge from anywhere in the late ’60s, it would be hailed (and misread) by American critics as a dissident work. In fact, Alea’s intention – as always – was to critique the Revolution from the inside. Some ’60 radical films seem to belong to a distant era; Memories of Underdevelopment still feels vitally relevant and prescient.
Lucia (Humberto Solas , 1968)
Director Humberto Solas believed that the position of women most accurately portrayed the state of a society. In the three stories that make up this film, passionate dramas are told that bring viewers closer to the struggles of Cuban women, during the different stages of revolutionary combat, to achieve national independence.
The three women in each of the stories are called Lucia, as if each one in their time was an extension of the previous one, putting each generation into relief, and demonstrating a commitment to continuity. In each of the three stories, photography, editing and female performances, take the viewer through a cinematic experience, where the passion of the protagonists carriesthe weight of the action, and guides the rest of the characters.
Lucia is an excellent work where female characters are allowed to shine; it is a story of women struggling to transform their lives and national history. HR
Coffea Arabiga (Nicolás Guillén Landrián. 1968)
Nicolás Guillén Landrián was the first Afro-Cuban filmmaker ever, his relationship to his poet uncle, Nicolás Guillén – the laureate of the revolution – certainly proving no barrier to success. Not even the prestige of his uncle could save Landrián from his ultimate fate, however. If his early documentaries won him favour, his later work would become daringly complex and critical of Cuban society, often perceiving it through the prism of race and marginalised communities, and be banned. After being sent to a rehabilitation camp, and undergoing ECT, Coffea Arabiga was his chance to prove himself – a propaganda film about the Cordón de La Habana, an initiative to encourage the people of Havana to grow coffee. What could possibly go wrong? Neither his rehabilitation nor the ECT had ‘cured’ him; mad as Hell, he made an aggressively irreverent film repurposing footage from his previous films, culminating in a heroic image of Castro, scored to The Beatles’ Fool on the Hill. Perhaps since the Beatles were banned in Cuba, nobody seemed to get it – and the film was released. Then, ironically, withdrawn when the coffee harvest was a disaster. Nevertheless, this film would prove a touchstone for Cuban filmmakers for its stylistic and thematic daring. BB
De cierta manera (One Way or Another, Sara Gómez, 1974)
This film has gone down in the history of Cuban cinema as the first narrative feature to be directed by a woman, who was also Afro-Cuban. However, this fine film is also an aesthetically significant work, because of its approach to the black and mixed-race neighbourhoods of Havana. Placing with mastery and transparency the focus on these people, previously marginalised, the film demonstrates how they must assume different positions in the new stage of changes after the revolution.
Sara Gómez, at times utilising documentary techniques, manages to raise the voice of the humblest with this fiction, representing her own conflicts. The story, filmed in many difficult neighbourhoods of Havana, and with the performance of the neighbours themselves, fulfils the staging of authenticity, approaching the status of an anthropological study, which allows the viewer to discover ways of thinking, ways of life, and the customs prevailing in some of the slums of the Cuban capital, during the 60s and 70s. HR
Ritrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa, Pastor Vega 1979)
A woman, as a fundamental member of the Cuban family, discovers with the Revolution in 1959 that, in addition to fulfilling her roles as a wife and mother, her roles as a worker and social being become essential. Determined, Cuban women faced the challenge, unleashing conflicts between their traditional intimate world -the family- and their new social environment.
Pastor Vega, in his interesting feature film, recreated with his camera this new conflict of Cuban women, taking the debate to the public stage. With her decisions, Teresa, protagonist of the film a wife, mother and worker, faces men in the face of this dilemma of accompanying women with dignity in this new scenario, or staying anchored to old prejudices that feed discrimination against women.
With his film, the filmmaker undresses the camouflage of machismo, discovers subtle aspects of society that oppress women, and shows above all a courageous character, determined to change their life and the world around them. HR
Vampires in Havana (1987 Juan Padrón)
In all lists of Cuban cinema, this film by Juan Padrón inevitably appears, representing Cuban animated films amongst the island’s revered documentaries and fictional works. Vampires in Havana is a funny, if politically incorrect film, that tells the fight of a mad scientist and his nephew to prevent evil vampires from monopolizing the vampisol formula, a product created to allow all vampires in the world to enjoy life in the sun.
With great ingenuity from the script to the staging, the director achieves a lot of fun action scenes, mixing a diverse group of international vampires and gangsters with ordinary mortal Cubans, revolutionary fighters, who fight in the streets against Batista’s dictatorship.
The influence of this movie continues to this day; several phrases from the characters are used daily in the speech of Cubans, the supreme merit for any communicator. This is because Vampires in Havana is a classic of Cuban cinema, due to the agility of its narration and the wit of its characters, entertaining spectators again and again over the passing of the years. HR
Strawberry and Chocolate (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993)
Immediately, this film became a national event, then achieved numerous awards at the world’s leading festivals, until obtaining a nomination for the coveted “Oscar”. This sincere and tender story tells of the carefree friendship between Diego, an intellectual and Havana homosexual, and David, a young man from the countryside, a member of the communist youth and fervent defender of the Revolution.
The film develops its action during difficult years – the ‘70s – where sexual stigmas prevailed, causing fear and silence; however, more than a song in favour of respect for homosexuals, the work is a denunciation of intolerance and authoritarianism that represses different people, whether for political, sexual or any reason.
In spite of the impact generated by denunciations of the film, the officials and authorities of the island tolerated it, since it encouraged a respectful debate, in tune with “the new Cuban socialism”. Strawberry and Chocolate – with its celebration of friendship and tolerance – opened doors, allowing the different, the marginalised, a triumphant entry onto the Cuban public stage. HR
Madagascar (Fernando Pérez, 1995)
This was the fiction film that best captured the spirit and essence of the convulsive ‘90s in Cuba, a time of total crisis, euphemistically known as the Special Period, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and strict trade embargoes from the U.S. This was a time when the government and its people, disoriented, came to distrust the direction they had set for their collective project.
Through its protagonist, Laura – a university professor – and the relationship she develops with her teenage daughter, Perez, uses a poetic language of metaphor and symbol to reflect the clash of generations, the process of acute existential reflection and questioning that people lived through during those years, struggling every day to bring food to the table while maintaining dignity amid such chaotic circumstances. HR
Suite Habana (Fernando Pérez, 2003)
The lives of several Cubans are reflected in this documentary, through which its director shows us the complexities of Havana and Cuba, marked by a prolonged economic crisis, which results in emigration and family separation, but at the same time the desire to resist, and that desire to win that Cubans possess in the midst of adversity.
Pitched between documentary and fiction, this movie tells real stories of humble people, which are sometimes represented through fictional cinematic codes. Exquisite photography captures the anguish of its characters and their city, none of whom speak at any time, but rather express their dramas and conflicts through a visual concept that seduces the viewer.
Suite Habana achieved a huge success at the box office, reserved for the best fiction films. Film critics hailed it as the most important Cuban film in years, able to represent with a mixture of sharpness and tenderness Cuba’s images and sounds in the first years of the new century. HR
Conducta (Ernesto Daranas, 2014)
This intense drama from 2014 shows the difficult life of a child who tries to survive after abandonment by his father and the alcoholism that consumes his mother. The protagonist, moulded by a hostile environment, trains fight dogs – an illegal activity in Cuba – to make ends meet. Can his life change when he finds, in an understanding but severe teacher, a lifeguard who tries to keep him afloat, in contrast to the more traditional methods of his other teachers, who seek an easy way out of a complex situation?
This film by Ernesto Daranas was the biggest critical and commercial success in Cuba of the decade, through developing with mastery the relationship between its characters, teacher and student. However, the film goes much further, by criticising society and proposing a much more agile and open educational system.
The film, making ordinary Cuban boys and girls the protagonists, once again gained Cuban cinema attention on the international festival scene, including the first ever Havana Glasgow Film Festival, where it received its UK premiere. HR