Tucked in teeming South Beach, the Miami International Film Festival brought over a week’s worth of movies and movie lovers to the Florida peninsula. The festival offers many things, among them a temperate climate, salve for post-awards season exhaustion, a chance to catch up on buzzy circuit titles, and a survey of Ibero-American films we’d never see otherwise.
But most exclusive is a new wave of Cuban independent films that broke on our shores courtesy of this colorful and lively festival. “The process of beginning this idea of building a tribute to Cuban indie filmmakers started a couple years ago,” said MIFF director Jaie Laplante, “when we screened ‘Juan of the Dead’ and ‘The Swimming Pool’ which were the first internationally exposed Cuban films that were made without the participant of the government.”
The key to getting these movies quite literally off Cuban ground and away from the auspices of the government is foreign money. MIFF’s Emerging Cuban program this year dished up Cuban narrative features, shorts, docs and works-in-progress with coproduction money from Spain, Germany and Argentina and beyond. “These are the first examples of Cuban films being made the way they are in other countries, with other producers coming onboard to supply funds and equipment,” said Laplante.
The idea to host Cuban films in Miami “was born out of highlighting the movement rather than the individual.” How was MIFF able to wrangle these films? First, they secured the sponsorship and support of Related Group, whose chairman Jorge Perez “has a great passion for younger filmmakers working under difficult conditions, and with that in hand we started going about asking, ‘How do we legally bring all the filmmakers here and cover their expenses?'” The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba helped the festival do just that.
Miami programmers tapped four filmmakers, two men and two women, all under the age of 40 “that were producing this type of work. The films are all made with masking tape and glue and paper clips, the way a lot of independent films are, really cobbled together. What was extraordinary was the cohesiveness of these visions and what they were saying,” Laplante said. The filmmakers “were approaching their situation and societal conditions from the viewpoint of art rather than agit prop politics.”
The process of getting these films — including the North American premiere of maverick Cuban indie director Carlos Machado Quintela’s work-in-progress “The Project of the Century” (clip below) — was not without snags, and required some guerrilla maneuvering within the inveterate Cuban film industry.
“The biggest issue was format. Digital projection didn’t come to the island until very recently,” said Laplante, who also noted that DCP was used back in December 2014 at the most recent edition of the Havana Film Festival, which was established in 1979 to give voice to Latin American filmmakers.
“[Cuba is] lagging a bit behind the rest of the world. Mostly these films didn’t have digital copies so there was a process of upgrading the quality of the image and converting to DCP. You can’t ship from Cuba so we had to rely on personal deliveries. Anytime you’re working with Cuba there are a lot of extra steps involved logistically. We were ready for that,” said Laplante.
So what’s next for these films and how can you see them? Shot and set on the Caribbean, black-and-white father-son drama “Project of the Century” is an Argentine/German/Swiss co-production that premiered in Rotterdam, meaning that the film is able to move through the festival circuit. You need someone in another country to negotiate and book film festivals, and worldwide sales representation. Without foreign money, Cuban films are pretty much stuck in their home country. Director Jessica Rodriguez brought clips from her upcoming feature “Dark Glasses,” about a blind woman’s relationship to Cuban history, to Miami and with foreign co-producers attached should be able to get the finished product to us soon.
“This is the first time that we put together this series of artists working independently, which is quite amazing. You feel change in the air. It was illuminating,” said Laplante. “When you see change onscreen, you know that change in the real world is part of that, and not far behind.”
Ryan Lattanzio is a staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.