FESTIVAL: In Havana, Contradiction Reigns
by Howard Feinstein
“Cuba is not a beacon!” A thirtysomething woman is shrieking at her older, idealistic, ’68-era lover and his lifelong friends, a couple hardhit by Argentina’s economic morass, in Alfonso Aristarain’s “Lugares Comunes” (Common Places). The comment is cruel, but it does highlight contrasting views toward Cuba in other countries, and is in fact applicable to ruptures within the island nation itself. Contradictions, you must understand, are endemic to life in a contemporary Cuba that defiantly defies deconstruction.
“Lugares Comunes” was one of 21 fiction features in the main competition — and one of 505 films of varying length presented in toto — at the 24th Havana Film Festival, a/k/a Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano (December 3-13). The event is arguably the world’s most popular domestic film festival, with 400,000 people of all ages attending this go-round, frequently filling 23 cinemas all over town — not to mention the cinemas around the island that also present some of the films.
To get a dose of the country’s unique disparity, you only had to attend the two sidebars devoted to Cuban works. (The fest had an amazing 17 side sections, including a retrospective devoted to veteran Argentinian actor Federico Luppi.) A large selection of docs made over the past 40 years about Cuban music entitled “Nosotros, la Musica” celebrated the richness and diversity of local talent. (The festival’s daily took a jab at foreign Johnny-come-lately Wim Wenders and his hugely popular “Buena Vista Social Club.”) In the section “Made in Cuba,” on the other hand, a plethora of films and videos by young directors (many of them students at the famous EICTV, the libertarian film school 45 minutes from Havana) openly addressed controversial issues that would not have been up for public perusal even at last year’s edition.
The major rediscovery of the musical section was undoubtedly the film that gave the exhibition its title. (Rumor has it that it will be shown in New York sometime next year.) The one-hour “Nosotros, la Musica” (We Are the Music) is a 38-year-old, black-and-white freeform musical variety show peppered with infusions of French New Wave form, cinema verite, and seminal Cuban documentarian Santiago Alvarez, and a soupcon of revolutionary fervor. First-time filmmaker Rogelio Paris, now 66, honors anonymous singers and dancers on the streets of poor barrios with the same gusto he bestows upon such well-known musicians as songwriter/pianist Benny More and chanteuse Elena Burke, established nightclub acts of costumed dancers doing the rhumba, and groups such as el Septeto de Ignacio Pineiro.
Paris shifts frenetically between overhead and medium shots, and almost always includes the performers’ audience — not surprising from a man whose previous experience had been directing Cuban musical revues on stages all over the world. (The energetic Paris proudly told me that he also directed a live program for Cuban TV called “El Show de Arau,” hosted by Mexican filmmaker-to-be Alfonso Arau, of “Like Water for Chocolate” fame, and photographed by the late Nestor Almendros.) Scenes of Havana itself, its colonial and Deco architecture as well as residential courtyards, have rarely been matched. The musical docs shown that were made after the ’60s were much weaker: not surprising, given that the enthusiasm of those who stayed and believed in Cuba waned as harsh realities set in: increased Soviet influence, domestic inequities, and the social and economic effects of America’s cruel embargo, to name but a few.
A mile up the major thoroughfare known as La Rampa, and from the large theater of the same name where the musicals were screened, is the more modest Cinema 23 X 12, where you could check out the more somber works of “Made in Cuba.” The most startling, and among the best made, were two short videos about the country’s increasing drug problem. Pavel Giroud’s slick “Toda Para Ella” (All About Her) follows a model student over an evening as he steals, sells himself, and kills just to buy a few lines of coke. The standout, though, was “En Vena” (In the Vein), by EICTV student Terence Piard. Piard crosscuts between two interviews about heroin, one in a static setting with a former addict who went through rehab and rebuilt his life, the other in a car moving through Havana with an unrepentant junkie speaking openly, his face uncovered, about his love of the stuff. He backs up what he says: In the last shot, about seven minutes long, he shoots up in a shocking game of hit-and-miss from which most spectators in the cinema averted their eyes. (I stared, frozen at the sight.)
The great surprise in features turned out to be Argentinian films, especially given the dire, precarious socioeconomic conditions in that nation. Besides Lugares Communes, the fest showed Diego Lerman’s extraordinary “Tan de Repente” (Suddenly), a low-budget road movie that undermines absolutism in female sexual orientation, the co-winner of the fest’s first-place Coral Prize; and Carlos Sorin’s delicious “Historias Minimas” (Small Stories), three poignant tales set in the huge, vacuous, windy region of Patagonia, winner of the third-place Jury Prize.
Rounding out the top fiction prizes were Brazil’s superglossy, love-it-or-hate-it (I belong to the latter club) “City of God,” by commercial director Fernando Meirelles, co-winner of the Coral; and Argentina’s disappointing “Un Oso Rojo” (A Red Bear), by Israel Adrian Caetano, which took the second-place Special Jury Prize. Best doc Coral deservedly went to American Lourdes Portillo’s “Senorita Extraviada” Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s superb widescreen existential study of a potential suicide, “Japon,” won Best First Film in the “Opera Prima” competition.
Sadly, and not so ironically, no Cuban features were anywhere in sight; the film expected to be the island’s standard bearer, “Habana Suite,” by acclaimed director Fernando Perez (“Madagascar,” “Life Is To Whistle”), was not quite ready. All in all, there is no hard currency in Cuba to make features. The nation has a double economy that has developed since the beginning of the “Special Period,” a ridiculous, politically expendient moniker for the economic ruin since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. There is a dollar economy for tourists, a peso one for the locals — economic apartheid. So, in order to make a Cuban film, a foreign co-producing partner must shell out 100 percent of production costs, with Cuba’s many talented techies holding up its end of the co-production pact. (Note: Access to culture is, however, available to all Cubans. Residents pay the equivalent of 10 cents to see a festival film, and not much more year round.)
Things are looking up, at least according to the bureaucrats at ICAIC, the state umbrella organization for all film and TV production, distribution, and exhibition. (ICAIC was created soon after Castro’s victory over the dictator Batista in 1958. Inspired by the Russian revolution, Castro recognized cinema as a medium accessible to the masses, and one with enormous political utility.) At a seminar in the grand, neoclassical Hotel Nacional, the festival’s current base and the Mafia’s pre-revolutionary one, ICAIC announced a slate of five features — coproductions all — for 2003. Three are musicals, or quasi-musicals — a far cry from the topic of illicit drugs. Marx’s dialectical materialism is less relevant here than a law of Einstein: To paraphrase the physicist, for every action there must be some kind of reaction.
Which leads us to the suspenseful Spanish doc “Balseros,” co-directed by Carlos Bosch and Josep M. Domenech. An extension of Bosch’s 1994 doc of the same name about a few of the desperate multitudes who built dodgy rafts to escape from Cuba and reach Florida that same year, the film revisits the seven individuals (“balseros”) Bosch had focused on six years after they reached the land of the free. Divorce, drugs, domestic abuse, backbreaking jobs: Was it worth leaving wives and, in some cases, children behind? Only one has ended up with anything remotely approaching the life each thought would make the perilous journey worthwhile — and he dons an apron at Home Depot. Cuba IS a beacon, but one toward which, or from which, you might run — depending on where you are coming from.