FESTIVALS: Ten Days in Havana; "Me You Them" Wins, Cubans on the Rise
by Hugo Perez
(indieWIRE/ 1.2.01) -- "The festival gives us a chance through cinema to get in touch with what is happening in Latin America, to form an idea of its future, of where we are going," says Ariel Dorfman, the award winning Chilean writer best known for "Death and the Maiden," and the president of the jury selecting the award winners at this year's Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which was held December 5 - 15 in sultry Havana, where winter temperatures did not dip below seventy degrees. The festival, in its twenty-second year is the longest running film festival in Latin America, and is considered the most important.
The glamorous and old world Nacional Hotel overlooking the Havana Harbor is the headquarters for the festival. According to hotel literature, major historical figures have spent their leisure hours here: Winston Churchill, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kate Moss. Every morning festival-goers and participants gathered on the back terrace to nurse their breakfast cocktails as peacocks strolled the grounds. Ugly Americans chain-smoked cohiba esplendidos, pausing between puffs to comment on how good the rum is.
Despite an embargo restricting American travel to Cuba, there are more Americans in Cuba today than there have been since the fifties. Roughly three hundred of the fourteen hundred credentialed foreigners at the festival were from the U.S. including representatives from various U.S. studios, as well as the Sundance Institute, which has had a large presence at the festival for several years.
"I come every year, and never see the films." said Al Lewis, best known as Grandpa Munster and Green Party candidate. Lewis has become a regular at the film festival, haunting the back terrace of the Nacional and regaling festival-goers with tales of hanging with Meyer Lansky in Havana back in the day. "I come for the people," he added. "I've made a lot of friends here over the years."
At this year's festival, no one Latin American country dominated. Strong entries from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Cuba lead the way in a truly diverse array of cinematic offerings. Over 350 different films were screened in twenty different venues over the course of the festival in Havana's fifties era cinema palaces. Cubans are renowned for their love of cinema, and enthusiasm for the films reached such a feverish pitch that at times near riot circumstances erupted as large crowds gathered for the most popular entries.
The Gran Coral for best film this year went to Brazilian Andrucha Waddington's "Me You Them," which has already been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and whose U.S. premiere will be at Sundance next month. Lead actress Regina Case was given a special mention for her performance as a strong countrywoman who has children by each of the three men that she lives with. "Me You Them" represents a very old measured kind of storytelling which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Brazilian Roy Guerra's "Disturbed." a highly stylized surrealistic, nightmarish tale of seven days in one man's descent into madness, and a perverse, corrupt world. It is a powerful, yet ultimately unsuccessful film, which demonstrates the talents of a filmmaker who has great promise.
The much-praised "Amores Perros" by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarittu was the most popular of Mexico's entries and garnered an award for best film by a first time director. Also from Mexico, Luis Estrada's dark comedy "Herod's Law" was very popular with audiences, and Arturo Ripstein's contemporary version of "Medea," "That's Life," was presented with a Special Jury Award for excellence.
"Coronacion" by Silvio Caiozzi, and "Time's Up!" by first time feature director Cecilia Barriga represented different aspects of a strong Chilean presence at this year's festival. 'Coronacion' is a slowpaced, moody nouveau gothic tale of a wealthy man's fall into loneliness, longing, and despair which the Bronte sisters would have been proud of, masterfully directed by Caiozzi. "Time's Up!" is a refreshing drama which chronicles the life of a Chilean therapist living in New York City, and was shot on location in New York with an international cast.
"Nueces Para el Amor" by Argentina's Alberto Lecchi garnered a best actress award for Ariadna Gil's luminous performance. The film chronicles two star-crossed lovers whose lives intersect at various points over the course of thirty years against the backdrop of political unrest in Argentina. Although forced and overly theatrical in its direction, it is a moving film and popular with the festival audience. On a lighter, more comic note, the Argentinian film "A Night with Sabrina Love" stars Latin American diva Cecilia Roth as a pornstar talk show host who is the object of a teenage country boy's desire.
The documentary category was particularly strong this year. "Van Van: Empezo La Fiesta" was by far the biggest crowd pleaser in a post-"Buena Vista Social Club" boom of music themed docs. The film combines concert footage with interviews to present a portrait of Los Van Van, the godfathers of the Cuban Salsa scene and perhaps the most influential Salsa band in the world. More transcendent, however, is Cuban film director Jose Padron's "Leo Brower," an instant classic that documents the music of Leo Brower, virtuoso guitarist and composer, who was recently voted the most important Cuban musician of the Twentieth Century and who remains relatively unknown in the U.S. And from Brazil, "The Little Prince's Rap" by Paulo Caldas and Marcelo Luna is a highly stylized examination of the lives of violent urban youth in the favelas of Brazil and the way in which they express themselves through Hip Hop.
The U.S. was represented by a number of documentaries, notably Haskell Wexler's "Five Days in March" chronicling a collaborative concert between Cuban and U.S. musicians that took place in March of last year, and "Cuba: Island of Music," Gary Keye's examination of the roots of Cuban music in everyday life. "The revolution has given Cubans a sense of pride that comes out in everything, especially in the music and that's what I tried to show," said Keye.
The big news at the festival this year was the return of Cuban cinema, which since the death of the great Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea has struggled to redefine its direction. Daniel Diaz Torres' scathing satire "Playing the Swiss" comments on the way in which everyday Cubans have adapted to the great influx of foreigners and tourists of the last ten years, and comically skewers the culture of street hustlers that has arisen as a response. Best screenplay award winner, Juan Carlos Tabio's "Waiting List" is a lighter comedy which functions as a farcical socialist fable about how a group of Cubans deal with being stranded at a bus terminal where buses do not stop.
These two Cuban films are at the forefront of a number of highly anticipated Cuban films on the horizon. Veteran directors Humberto Solas and Orlando Rojas have new films in the works, and first time feature director Juan Carlos Cremata, who is considered by many to be the strongest voice in the next generation of Cuban cinema, will probably premiere his debut film "Nothing" at Cannes. Expect to catch this trio of new Cuban work at various festivals throughout the spring.
The festival came to a close with an awards ceremony at the Karl Marx outside of Havana, at which commandante Fidel Castro made a surprise appearance as a member of the audience. Alfredo Guevara director of the ICAIC, Cuba's film institute, closed the festival by remarking to the audience, "The future of new Latin American Cinema is in your hands . . . the hands of the audience."
[Hugo Perez is a freelance documentary filmmaker and writer who splits his time between the Berkshires and Havana, Cuba.]