By Indiewire | Indiewire December 23, 1999 at 2:0AM
FESTIVALS: Havana Enthralls, Enchants, Protests -- And Has Time To Put On A Major Film Festival
by Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE
On December 3rd, I left the chilly climes of New York City, and embarked on an eight day trip to one of the last and proudest holdouts against American imperialism. . . Cuba. The U.S. embargo -- more accurately called an economic blockade -- has isolated this 800 mile long island from frequent contact with the United States for over 40 years, and as a result, Cuba is perhaps the only place to go in the world that is virtually untouched by the U.S. advertising and marketing culture. Sure, there are signs and billboards for Spanish hotels and Argentine cola, but the global dissemination of American products such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's has not yet tainted Cuba's shores.
Signs in Havana and surrounding areas are more likely to read "Hasta la Victoria Siempre!" (Forever Towards Victory!), "Patria O Muerte!" (Fatherland or Death!) and "Venceremos!" (We Will be Victorious!). Also, "Cuba si, Yanqi no" is a biggie. However, with all of the Revolutionary and anti-American sloganeering, the Cuban people are quite possibly the least hostile group I've ever encountered. I did not feel even the slightest hint of danger even once while walking through the streets of Havana.
As for the film festival, the 21st Festival of New Latin American Cinema is a gargantuan affair, screening some 400 films over 12 days, including virtually every film produced in Latin America over the preceding year. Of course, when you screen that many films, you are bound to screen some duds. In this respect it was fortunate for me that I don't speak enough Spanish to see these films. Unfortunately, that also means I couldn't see the quality films, among them the well-regarded and multiple award-winning "Rio Escondido," (next heading to Sundance 2000's World Cinema section), directed by Mercedes Garcia Guevara, the daughter of Argentine revolutionary (and saint of the Cuban people) Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and the Italian/French/Argentine co-production (also multiple award-winning) "Garage Olimpo" by Marco Bechis, which premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Unfortunately, except for a very few films that have screened in English-speaking markets, most filmmakers with works screening in Havana lacked the funds to subtitle their prints in English. As a result, acquisition executives from the world's largest financial market for film, The U.S., are nowhere to be found. The films are there, but until some companies pony up the dough for subtitling, most of these films will never be seen in the United States, and that's a shame.
I did get the chance to see Estella Bravo's "Fidel," an intimate portrait of the man who has led Cuba for over 40 years. Bravo, a native New Yorker who has been living in Cuba for over 30 years, offers an up-close look at one of this century's most charismatic leaders. "Fidel" delivers a brief history of the Cuban Revolution (began with 12 men in the southeastern mountains of Cuba) with riveting archival footage and interviews with revolutionary heroes. The film continues with a brief history of Fidel Castro's relationships with notable figures throughout the world, including an enlightening segment detailing the close friendship between Castro and Nelson Mandela, complete with a section describing how Cuban military intervention in Angola was instrumental in defeating Apartheid.
Interestingly enough, for such a long-running festival, the Havana event is one of the most disorganized around. Unfortunately, the country in which it is held is extremely poor, so government subsidies (not to mention corporate sponsorships) are not exactly overflowing. While the publication of a daily newspaper, complete with articles and screening schedule is an admiral feat that more festivals should attempt, it contained the only schedule of screenings. The result being that attendees and filmmakers only knew two days of screenings at any one time. Additionally, we could never get a straight answer about anything, and as a result, didn't know that one of the theaters in fact had simultaneous translation until a day-and-a-half before we left the country.
The Sundance Institute brought six U.S. films to Havana, including Todd
Solondz's "Happiness," Marc Levin's "Slam," "Darren Aronofsky's "Pi," Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine," Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack's "The Farm" and Rory Kennedy's "American Hollow" -- though due to a lost print, the Cuban audiences (who packed the evening screenings of the films) were not able to view Kennedy's look at a poverty-stricken family in Appalachia. At a press conference of the American filmmakers, Solondz commented that after seeing "Happiness," several Cubans approached him and commented that they were glad that they didn't live in the United States if it was anything like the world depicted in his film. Oh, if they only knew!
One thing I quickly learned in Cuba was that the population is significantly more politically astute than their U.S. neighbors (Cuba being only 90 miles from Miami across the Strait of Florida). When the matter involving young Elián Gonzales was heating up and hundreds of thousands of Cubans were demonstrating in front of the U.S. Interest Section, word from back in the States had the U.S. State Department pronouncing concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba. Of course, those of us actually in Cuba felt not the slightest threat. In fact, myself, Darren Aronofsky, "Pi" producer Eric Watson, Marc Levin and many other of the attendees of the 21st Festival of New Latin American Cinema felt the need to witness these "manifestacións" in person. In the U.S. it's not every day that you get even 10,000 people marching against or in support of something, let alone over 100,000. When you grow up politically active in a country as largely apathetic as ours, witnessing such a public response to a disagreeable situation is inspiring.
And before my email is flooded with those who would cry, "Forced attendance!" It's simply not true. Yes, Fidel did bus some folks from schools and suburbs, but many Cubans have no other way to attend these rallies. Imagine how impressive it would have been had the U.S. government provided free transportation to the various anti-apartheid marches of the 1980's, or civil rights marches of the 1960's! In Havana, there were plenty of those bussed in who immediately turned around and started to walk away from the demonstrations, with not the slightest hint of police activity forcing them to stay, yet the vast majority did stay.
So as to not overwhelm you with serious political discussion, let me also say that the number one "sport" for visitors to Cuba is drinking rum. Mojitos were the drink of choice for most of my compatriots, with most of the dollars we brought to the island going to fueling our inebriation. A Mojito is a concoction native to Cuba (as are Daiquiris, by the way), made of rum, sugar, soda water, lime, Angostura bitters, ice and yerba buena, a close cousin of mint. Interestingly enough, for all of you getting queasy at the thought of drinking so much sugar-based liquor, the Cuban rum is of such high quality that hangovers really weren't a problem. (N.B.: ALWAYS ask for your Mojito with "tres años," three year-old rum. If you don't, you'll get brand spanking new baby rum. Fire water. Pain.)
There is really no way to do a visit to Cuba justice, except to say that you must see it for yourself, especially before Fidel leaves power. Once that happens, I fear that Cuba will gradually become another third world outpost for the American consumer society. Being essentially isolated from the United States, the foremost industrial power in the world, has given Cuba the freedom to develop a real identity. The country is unlike any other in the region ... or the world, for that matter. Gaining freedom from the brutal dictatorship of Batista in 1959, and the ensuing strides the Revolution has taken to provide some basic needs for its people, has given Cubans immense pride in simply being Cuban. And that's not such a bad thing.