Like the 11 million citizens who have to hustle to make ends meet in an otherwise enticing Cuba, the 27th Havana Film Festival (December 6-16)--officially the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema -- validates the cliche that necessity is the mother of invention. Fest director Ivan Giroud and a year-round staff of four, working on a budget under $150,000, program hundreds of films--dramatic features and shorts, animation, and documentaries. The movies, primarily from Latin America, are shown in 21 cinemas spread throughout metropolitan Havana (pop. 2.2 million), a gorgeous but decaying city of royal palms, broad avenues, and striking Spanish colonial, Deco, and neoclassical architecture. All of the theaters are packed with viewers who pay the equivalent of 10 cents per film in a country where culture is accessible to all and diversions are few. "There is no money for exhibitions throughout the year, so the festival is like a supermarket," says Giroud. His staff also presents retrospectives, international sections, a poster competition, and several substantial seminars during the fest.
Giroud's team is necessarily frugal. Much of the international program is determined by what Spanish-subtitled prints are available from empathetic distributors in Spain and Argentina. When the lights went out at one crumbling cinema, a director introduced his film with two men perched above beaming flashlights onto his face. Between the economic failure of Cuban Marxism and the damaging four-decade-old U.S. embargo, impoverished but highly literate Cubans have learned to create something out of nothing. Everyone is a conjurer.
The best Cuban directors make their magic on low budgets, all of which comes from foreign investors. Both Pavel Giroud's "The Age of the Peseta" (an untranslatable idiom meaning the preteen years), not in the festival but which I saw unfinished on a moviola, and Juan Carlos Cremata's "Viva Cuba," which was in the official 20-film competition, have at their centers children and the touchy subject of emigration. (The New York Times reported on December 18 that the number of Cuban migrants intercepted at sea by the U.S. in 2005 doubled over the previous year.) Both films also have fabulous soundtracks.
Pavel Giroud (nephew of Ivan), who at 33 is the finest director of his generation, wowed festgoers two years ago with his haunting segment of the omnibus film "3 x 2." (His "Omerta," a fragmented story about an old ex-gangster, won this fest's top prize for Best Unproduced Screenplay.) In "The Age of the Peseta," set in the late '50s as Castro's forces approach Havana, a 10-year-old boy is stunned when his single mother and her boyfriend decide that the three of them will leave for the States. "One thing is revolution, another is Communism," says his mom's lover. Working from Arturo Infante's screenplay, Giroud puts his personal stamp on the boy's irrational dream sequences. His deft direction of the intentionally exaggerated '50s milieu is, however, a tad fetishized.
Cremata, whose first feature "Nada" made the festival rounds three years ago, constructs with co-screenwriter Manolito Rodriguez a contemporary tale of two 10-year-old Habanero friends, Malou and Jorgito. They run away from home to search for Malou's father, who abandoned the family and lives in a lighthouse on the other side of the island. They don't want him to sign the document that would allow his ex-wife, now married to a foreigner, to take her to the U.S. "This country is suffocating," complains Malou's mom. For their part, the kids are content to stay. "What is interesting about 'Viva Cuba,'" says Cuban film critic and fest selector Alberto Ramos, "is that it is ambiguous. It can be taken as a positive view of emigration, or a negative one: The kids head geographically east, in the direction opposite to that taken by the patriots during the revolution." Cuban-born Spanish citizen Benito Zambrano also raises the emigration topic in the crowd-pleasing Spanish/Cuban co-production "Havana Blues,". A hustling musician ultimately gives into his estranged wife's wishes and allows her to take their two young children by boat to Florida.
With "Fruits in the Coffee," co-written with Alejandro Brugues, Humberto Padron ("Video de Familia") became the first independent producer in modern-day Cuba. The film follows three Habaneras trying to survive against the odds of a bad economy and bad men: a prostitute battered by her pimp (Cuba's ubiquitous prostitution has generally been a cinematic no-no), an artist whose parasitic boyfriend hawks her paintings by the seawall known as the Malecon, and a woman who sells black-market merchandise and is turned in by her by-the-book cop husband. Padron captures the colorful textures of the city, but the film has too much of a soap-opera feel.
It's not accidental that Cremata's and Padron's works were made outside of ICAIC, the government-sponsored umbrella organization for producing and exhibiting films. "ICAIC has shifted from controversial subjects like emigration to safer topics, like musicals, period pieces, and family dramas," says Ramos. "The controversial subjects are now appropriated by the independents, like Padron, Cremata, and Alejandro Brugues, whose upcoming "Personal Belongings" is about a couple who disagree about leaving Cuba." (Though Giroud's "The Age of the Peseta" is produced by ICAIC, it is set safely just before Castro's forces win the revolution.)
The dramatic feature competition was won by a film from Argentina: Tristan Bauer's "Illuminated by Fire," a well-made but very conventional story about the horrors endured by young Argentinian recruits during the 1982 Falklands war. (Topping the doc/animation competition was the riveting "Black Bull," by Mexican directors Carlos Armella and Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, who got unbelievable access to a troubled indigenous bullfighter). Ivan Giroud, however, sees the newest Latin American wave shifting away from Argentina. "Though it has a relatively small production, something is brewing in Chile," he says. Chileans Alicia Scherson and Macarena Lopez, director and producer, respectively, of "Play"--which garnered Best First Film honors and is a fine, nicely shot expose of class conflict about a poor country girl obsessed with a wealthy urban wimp whose briefcase she has found -- explain over lunch why Chile is on the cusp. The country has had democracy only since 1991, they say, and, since most directors before then made movies toeing the government line, it has taken all these years for a new generation of filmmakers to make their mark.
Besides Scherson and the more experienced Gonzalo Justiniano ("B-Happy") and Andres Wood ("Machuca"), who did not have films in this year's festival, 26-year-old Matias Bize ("Sabados"), who did, leads the coming Chilean wave. His masterful second film, "In Bed," garnered third prize for Best Film and won Best Screenplay for Julio Rojas. Shot with two DV cameras in one tacky motel room, "In Bed" is about a young man and woman who have just met and are spending the night together. It opens with a bang, literally: the pre-credit sequence is an act of heavy-duty lovemaking bordering on porn. The remainder of the film is a microcosm of a long-term relationship: The two verbally hurt each other, confess intimate details about their lives, get it on all over again, and talk about their futures. For authenticity, Bize rehearsed the nude or barely clad actors for one year, shot chronologically over 15 days, and used a tiny crew. "In Bed" is almost as seductive as Havana itself.