Finding Images of Cuban Identity at the 2003 Havana Film Festival
by Howard Feinstein
On a stucco wall in the guest house at Finca Vigia, the glorious 10-acre Cuban farm occupied by Ernest Hemingway from 1940 to 1960, hangs an enlarged photo taken in 1959 of the fisherman/writer and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, both beaming broadly. Taken on the only occasion the two met -- the awarding to the Comandante of second place in the Hemingway Trophy competition for catching the largest marlin -- the striking image oozes machismo, power, and skill. A picture is worth a thousand palabras.
Of the numerous symposia taking place during the 25th Havana Film Festival (December 2-12), a nearly 500-film and -video event celebrating recent works from all over Latin America, the prize for irony goes to "A Country Without Images/An Invisible Country" -- especially (but not only) in light of recent Cuban fare. It's mind-boggling that some new projects are so accomplished in a nation with virtually no hard currency, depending as it does for 100 percent of its funding on Spain and other non-embargo-mad countries. You can suppress human rights, but not talent. And Cuba, which hosted an artists' biennale at the same time as the fest, is rife with the latter.
Visuals and sound are equally masterful in 28-year-old Pavel Giroud's section, the first of three by different auteurs, in the work-in-progress "Tres Veces Dos" (3 x 2). According to Camilo Vives, head of production of Cuban film umbrella ICAIC, "Tres Veces Dos" will be transferred from digital video to 35mm, and then will be the first Cuban film released in the new year. Influenced by Hitchcock and Chabrol, Giroud follows a young photographer haunted by a phantom in the shape of a beautiful woman that appears in pictures shot around a particular Havana building -- the invisible made visible, at the risk of stretching a metaphor. Giroud also captures the textures of the city's streets. Unfortunately, the second and third sections do not hold a candle to this brilliant accomplishment.
Giroud may prove to be the finest Cuban director of his generation, but 59-year-old Fernando Perez ("Life Is To Whistle," "Madagascar") holds that title for his generation. His "Suite Habana," about which this writer wrote in October from the Marrakech Film Festival, is a documentary, an ode to the city shot on Betacam and transferred to 35mm. The sounds and images of Havana are leitmotifs in this affecting work. In this modern-day homage to Walter Ruttmann's "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" (1927), Perez interweaves the routines of a dozen Habaneros over the course of a 24-hour period. A world apart from Giroud's psychological horror narrative, Perez's film makes visible individuals who have been denied visibility, both on film and in life.
"Suite Habana" doesn't show drivers of '50s-era cars, guys reeking of male ego, or senoritas in body-hugging Spandex, the stereotypes we often find in films and videos, domestic and foreign, about Cuba. Perez grants grace to a 10-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome and his family, a young man who is a hospital worker by day and a performing transvestite by night, an old woman who sells peanuts outdoors to help her and her senile husband eke out a marginal existence, a nondescript homeboy who is also a ballet sensation.
No one was surprised when "Suite Habana," which has already had a theatrical run in Cuba, took best film, best director, and best sound prizes in the 21-film official festival competition. "We thought we would release it for two weeks in the Charles Chaplin cinema," says Vives. "It ran for six." (Second prize for the festival's best film went to Chilean Gonzalo Justiano's "B-Happy" and third to Argentinian Marcelo Pineyro's "Kamchatka," while Brazilian Hector Babenco took a special jury prize for "Carandiru." Claudio Assis's "Mango Yellow," also from Brazil, garnered best first film honors.)
Caveat: Not all new Cuban works are so perfect. Perhaps the worst film in the festival was Rigoberto Lopez Pego's "Smell of Red Oak," which is, at best, smelly. This period piece about the love affair between a German aristocrat and a free black woman is an overwrought, misguided effort at breaking into the international market. Enrique Colina's "Hurricanes" is a middling attempt at neo-realism set in the wake of a damaging storm. And Juan Carlos Tabio's "Even Though This Is Far," the tepid tale of two Cubans and a naturalized Spaniard in Spain trying to get a script off the ground, was poorly received, as was Juan Padron's animated "More Vampires in Havana."
Other Latin American films did in fact succeed in shining light on images that many would prefer hidden. Peruvian director Fernando Lombardi's "Eyes That Don't Want To See" focuses on the personal dramas of 10 individuals against a backdrop of scandal: In 2000, Presidential advisor Vladimir Montesinos' videotapes depicting bribery brought down the Fujimori government. Argentine Gaston Biraben's "Captive" is the story of a confused teenaged girl, based on the actual revelation to youngsters beginning in the mid-'90s that their biological parents were leftists made "disappeared" in the late '70s and early '80s.
The audiences, however, are most enthusiastic about movies from Cuba. "Cuban cinema should preserve Cuban identity, even when the films are commercial," Vives maintains. He explains that, even if Cuban films were at one time financed by the income generated from other Cuban movies, they must now recover the required investment from other countries. As more Girouds emerge, their work soaked in Cuban-ness and palatable to audiences in Cuba and abroad, such an achievement is likely. Images will continue to resonate in the home country as well as countries on the other side of the world.