Havana Glasgow Film Festival 2019 Review


Hace calor en La Habana – Roberto Chile

Havana Glasgow Film Festival’s come a long way in five years – so far, that this year the festival went as far as celebrating its first iteration in Havana. Looking back at this year’s Glasgow leg, it was undoubtedly one of the most diverse and fascinating lineups of films and events that the fest has hosted.

As always, there was lineup of pre festival events to get you in the mood, one of the most successful being As I See Cuba, a pairing of one of Cuba’s most famous photographers, Roberto Chile, and Glaswegian photographer Dougie Souness, who has been documenting the festival for the last few years. The exhibition, at Street Level Photoworks, which also went on tour to Havana, paired work by both photographers in a stimulating dialogue exploring common themes and locations, with its roots in street photography.

Future Champ low res

Future Champ – Dougie Souness

Roberto Chile has a long, storied career as a photographer, including a gig as Fidel Castro’s photographer of choice. He’s also worked on film, and was present at a screening of his short documentary on one of his peers, Alberto Korda. Korda was one of Cuba’s most celebrated photographers ever; if he worked as Castro’s personal photographer, he would be forever associated with the photo he took of that other poster boy of the Revolution, Che Guevara. Guerillero Heroico would become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, being disseminated through posters and ripped off and riffed on in advertising. Simply Korda was a short, yet revealing film, where Korda spoke frankly about his experiences with Guevara, and how the Revolution galvanised him from being a fashion photographer with an eye for women to a chronicler of the Cuban people’s struggle.


Alberto Korda with Guerillero Heroico

The most significant artistic outcome of the revolution was the founding of ICAIC, the Cuban institute for film production, whose 60th anniversary was celebrated, and whose aim, that film could change the world, was reflected in the festival’s theme, ‘Film Can Change the World’.

Julie Valdes from ICAIC was at the festival and helped present a programme of some of the finest Cuban shorts, alongside newer work from the top Cuban film school. The opener, Por Primero Vez (For the First Time) immediately entranced the audience, documenting the work of cine movils (mobile film units) taking cinema to a remote region of the island for the first time. After asking the prospective audience about their expectations of cinema, the film shows their ecstatic response to the film, Chaplin’s Modern Times. I can think of no film that better demonstrates the communal, transformative experience of cinema, nor better illustrates ICAIC’s mission to use film to reach people.

Por Primera vez

Por Primera Vez

If some of these films could be described as propaganda films, they were remarkably discursive, experimental ones. Nicolás Guillén Landrián’s  Café Arabiga may have been commissioned to promote a coffee harvest around Havana, but his self-reflexive film brilliantly pokes fun at the very form of an educational film, taking swipes at Cuba’s race relations – and even Castro himself – along the way.

The festival’s opening film, Fatima of Fraternity Park, explored a Cuba very different from Castro’s vision for the island. A recent film exploring the life of a young transsexual sex worker, it moved the audience for its sympathetic portrayal of his plight, although the Morning Star’s critic, reviewing the festival, regarded the film as a critique of “homosexuality as a male fantasy to be commodified.” Certainly, Cuba, under the pressures of the American embargo, has a revival in sex tourism since the Special Period. This was the first of two films at the festival to be directed by Jorge Perugorria, whose star turn in Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) would be instrumental in changing Cuban attitudes to homosexuality, and promoting tolerance. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s classic film, screening on its 25th anniversary, is set in the dark days of the late ’70s, when homophobia and machismo were rife on the island, both on the part of the people and the state.

Strawberry and Chocolate

Fresa y Chocolate

Perugorria excels in the role of Diego, a flamboyant, individualistic gay artist who initially comes under suspicion from David, a committed young Marxist student, before winning him over with his humanity. If the character is as camp as a row of tents, and perhaps symptomatic of somewhat outdated attitudes toward homosexuality, the film’s wit and humanity were unalloyed gaining it an ecstatic reception at the festival. This was only equalled by the warmth extended toward the film’s stars, Vladimir Cruz who played David, and Mirtha Ibarra, who plays Nancy, the concierge who successfully seduces David. Both stars were full of telling anecdotes about this landmark film, which instantly sold out two 5000 seater cinemas at its premiere, so eager were Cubans to embrace this previously taboo subject.


Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Mirtha Ibarra

Ibarra would be present, and great company, throughout much of the fest. The collaborator and widow of Alea, arguably the greatest of Cuban directors, she also presented a film she made about his legacy, Titón: De La Habana a Guantanamera. This was a thorough documentary tracing his place in Cuban film history, from one of the founders of ICAIC to a constantly inventive critic of Cuba and the Revolution from the inside. Memories of Underdevelopment and Strawberry and Chocolate are the two most internationally famous Cuban films, but clips from lesser known works such as A Cuban Fight Against Demons and The Survivors looked tantalising – Ibarra’ s announcement that all his work is being restored is very welcome news indeed.

One of their greatest collaborations was Hasta Cierto Punto (Up To a Certain Point), which sees Ibarra in her prime playing Lina, a feisty female dock worker who becomes the subject, and then the love interest for a filmmaker making a documentary on gender relations in Cuba. He unwittingly enacts the sexism he criticises in his work, leading to a sharp critique of machismo in the society.


Death of a Bureaucrat

Ibarra has said that “All of ‘Titón’s movies are a mixture of love, tenderness and acid humour”, and humour is certainly to the fore in Death of a Bureaucrat, which provided a riotous closing film. This was the film that made Alea a force to be reckoned with, a stylistically adventurous film packed with parodies and homages from Harold Lloyd to Bunuel (an Alea obsession) in high sixties style, the work of a young filmmaker clearly enthralled by his medium and its possibilities. Parodying the labyrinthine complications of bureaucracy in a Communist country through its story of a model worker buried without his correct papers, and the increasingly crazy antics of its central character to get him properly buried, the film had a packed, diverse, Saturday night Glasgow audience in stitches –but the absurdity of bureaucracy is a universal subject, after all. This has to be not only the funniest ever made in Cuba, but the funniest film ever to come out of a Communist country, full stop.


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