FESTIVALS: Boomtime for Latin American Cinema: Havana's Year 23
by Hugo Perez
(indieWIRE/ 12.18.01) -- "This is the strongest year for Latin American cinema in the last decade, " said Ivan Giroud, the director of the 23rd Festival of New Latin American Cinema which took place from December 3rd through the 13th in sunny Havana, where the temperature never dropped below 70 degrees and the rum flowed as briskly as the gulfstream on the back terrace of the Hotel Nacional. "Usually, American films generate the most excitement, and this year we've seen a kind of enthusiasm and excitement for Latin American Cinema from our audiences that we have not seen in recent years," added Giroud.
Habaneros are avid, and at times, fanatic filmgoers (this year's ten-day tally of attendance reached 610,000), and every year one or two near riots engulf screenings of the most in-demand films. Cuban cinephiles came close to storming through the front doors of the Yara Movie Palace to see Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's coming of age road film "Y Tu Mama Tambien." "Anything with sex draws a big crowd," commented a harried usher with a wink. Sex aside, "Y Tu Mama" was very well received as part of what has emerged as not just a Mexican new wave, but a Latin American new wave. The movement has transformed Latin American cinema in the last few years, with work from just about every Latin American country including Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay.
This year, Cuban cinema seems to be making its way out of its recent doldrums with strong films by new directors Juan Carlos Cremata and Humberto Padron and old lions Orlando Rojas and Humberto Solas. Cremata's first feature "Nada" is one of the revelations of the festival, the co-winner of the prize for best first feature. It is the story of a mail worker in a small Cuban post office that begins to steal mail and correspond with the letter writers. It is a stylized, and at times deliriously over the top, sly commentary on bureaucracy and the sense of alienation in contemporary Cuba. "Nada" pays homage to the work of the great Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea ("Memories of Underdevelopment"), and brings a strong new voice to Cuban cinema.
Fellow Cuban filmmaker Humberto Padron, director of "Video de Familia," the winner of the prize for best short film, is a recent graduate of the film school founded just outside of Havana in 1987 by author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "Video de Familia" purports to be a family video made for a cousin who emigrated to the United States four years ago. A family secret is revealed to great comic effect as the "home video" unwinds in this clever and well-executed effort by a young director who is very highly regarded by his peers.
"Nights of Constantinople" is the first film in over ten years by Cuban director Orlando Rojas, a Billy Wilder-esque comedy about the descendants of an aristocratic family that pillage the valuable art collection of their aged matriarch's home when she lapses into a coma, and then have to cover up their skullduggery when she awakens. Also of note is Humberto Solas' "Miel Para Oshun," the tale of a Cuban emigre's return to Cuba after 32 years to find his mother.
Argentina was represented at this year's festival by a strong roster of films including film festival darling "La Cienaga," a first feature by Lucrecia Martel, which took prizes for best film, best director, and best actress. Also on exhibition was "Nine Queens," Fabien Bielinsky's tale of grifters in contemporary Argentina, which played this years' New Directors/New Films festival to much acclaim. An Argentine film, which played to little fanfare, but packed a punch was Israel Adrian Caetano's "Bolivia," the tale of a Bolivian immigrant working as undocumented labor in the kitchen of a seedy diner. The bleakness of our protagonist's struggle to survive attains Fassbinder-like levels at times, and is mirrored in the wonderfully gritty black and white photography, which makes it feel as if dirt and grime are about to spill out of the screen. Havana's Audience Award went to another Argentine film, Juan José Campanella's "Son Of The Bride" ("El Hijo De La Novia"), a bittersweet comedy that was Argentina's submission for the Academy Awards.
The exploitation of the downtrodden is also a major theme in Chilean Director Andres Wood's "Loco Fever," the story of a grifter who convinces an old friend to return with him to their home town for a business venture involving shellfish named Locos worth their weight in gold. "Loco Fever" manages to convey the Garcia Marquezian quality of life in a small fishing town without lapsing into magical realist cliches. It also creates a social commentary without being didactic, and orchestrates a large ensemble of colorful, believable and meaningful characters. Another strong effort from Chile is Orlando Lubbert's "Taxi For Three," an edgy comedy focusing on robbers who hijack a taxi and force the driver to accompany them on a crime spree.
Tales of grifters, of young people trying to find themselves, and of the down and out were recurring themes in many of this year's films. Mexican director Gerardo Tort's "De La Calle" ("From the Street") the story of a 15-year-old drug dealer named Rufino who is on the run from the police as he is trying to find a father he never knew, is an edgy film which makes one look forward to future films from this filmmaker. Also from Mexico, and also dealing with the lives of young people in Mexico is "Perfume de Violetas" ("Violet Perfume"), Mexico's candidate for Academy Award consideration. It tells the story of two adolescent girls who form an intimate friendship that is torn asunder when one of the girls is sequestered by her family. Moving and well executed, "Violet Perfume" promises to be popular on the arthouse circuit -- and remains without U.S. distribution.
Rounding out the list of notable features this year is Brazilian director Luiz Fernando Carvalho's "To the Left of the Father," which received a special jury prize as well as prizes for best actor, and best cinematography. It is the transcendent story of two brothers trying to come to terms with their relationship with their parents and with their religious beliefs.
What one is struck by again and again at the festival is how involved Latin American cinema, both mainstream and independent, is in dealing with the social issues and ills confronting Latin American countries today: class inequality, poverty, prostitution, drugs. In the best Latin American films, these themes are woven into the fabric of the story, commenting without proselytizing. This tendency towards confronting social issues cuts across the fiction, non-fiction divide.
Documentaries were once again strong at this year's festival, with Cuban American Juan Carlos Zaldivar's "90 Miles," a personal essay on his family's reasons for leaving Cuba and on his experience returning to Cuba, took the prize for best documentary. The special jury prize went to Spanish Filmmaker Hector Herrera's "One Dollar," which chronicles life on the mean streets of Panama ten years after the invasion, streets which are fought over by teenage drug gangs. A documentary on a lighter note is the elegiac "Rerum Novarum" by Argentinian directors Sebastian Schindel, Nicolas Batlle, and Fernando Molnar, which tells the story of the "Rerum Novarum" Music Band from the small county town of Villa Flandria near Buenos Aires. A kind of proletariat worker "Buena Vista Social Club," the old time musicians are all factory workers who continue to play together after their factory is shut down.
While Latin American cinema is the major thrust of the festival, the influence of the U.S., U.S. culture, and U.S. film is strongly felt. For the sixth year in a row, the Sundance Institute has sponsored a sidebar of North American Independent Cinema at the festival, this year bringing down Deborah Hoffman and Francis Reid's "Long Night's Journey Into Day," Kate Smith's "Southern Comfort," and Chris Nolan's "Memento," among others. Diane Weyermann, the new director of Sundance's International Programs headed the Sundance delegation commented, "We feel very strongly about pursuing our collaboration with the Cuban Film Institute in the interests of creating a greater dialogue between filmmakers, audiences, and countries."
Greater dialogue was also the motive for attendance at the festival by a delegation of North American writers that included William Kennedy, Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje, and Frank McCourt. Banks felt strongly that the key to greater dialogue between filmmakers was better distribution. "I think we need to create an alternative distribution system that would incorporate all of the countries of North and South America, and provide an outlet for high quality independent cinema that otherwise would only get seen by very few people."
Alfredo Guevara, longtime head of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), in his closing remarks made note of the largest North American contingent of festivalgoers in the festival's history and of the growing exchange between Latin America and North America, "Our America grows. Its spirit spills over the borders of Mexico, of Cuba, of Columbia and Central America, of Brazil and Argentina. Its spirit spills over into the forty million Latin Americans living in the United States and makes the United States another meeting place for Latin American cinema."
With Winston cigarettes running promotions in Cuba, and everyone drinking Coca Cola; with Continental and American Airlines flying (unofficial charters) in and out of Havana more frequently; with the first commercial transaction between the U.S. and Cuba in 42 years taking place this week (food bought by Cuba to feed the victims of Hurricane Michelle); with the Hotel Nacional filled to the rafters with Americans here on business and on vacation; it seems to this writer that it is only a matter of time, and not very much of it, before relations between Cuba and the U.S. are normalized.