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December 17, 1997 2:00 AM
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The Festival of New Latin American Cinema

The Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Marco Masoni




Havana, December 14, 1997. "Ocupado, ocupado, ocupado," is the chorus I
hear as some of the latecomers search for a seat to watch the Cuban
premiere of John Sayles' "Hombres Armados (Men With Guns)" and are told that
this or that empty seat is being reserved. Cuban theatres, vast as they
are, simply don't have empty seats, especially during the annual Festival
of New Latin American Cinema, which just recently concluded its run. In
fact, to accommodate the great demand for tickets, the festival extended
its screenings over the weekend, following the closing ceremony on Friday
night.


The Cuban public is one that knows its movies, too, foreign or U.S, and
they will do anything they can to see films during the festival -- forged
passes are not unusual, particularly among students. Not only are Cubans
passionate about seeing films, they also speak about them knowledgeably,
analyzing their structure, dialogue, even elements of their making -- all
critical skills developed by watching the myriad programs on Cuban
television devoted to the cinephile. One week it's a retrospective of
Humphrey Bogart films, with attention given to how his career developed.
The next it might be a breakdown of a big-budget Hollywood movie like
"Speed", which has been pirated for the purposes of broadcasting on Cuban
television.


A popular program called "24/7" has even been dedicating itself to the
analysis of the various film festival offerings, from features to
documentaries and videos, clips of which are shown during the show. Armed
with this information, the public decides which movies to attend, leading
to massive overcrowding at those which have received particularly good
reviews. In the case of John Sayles' movie, people were curious as they had
heard of a film shot in Mexico, with mainly Spanish dialogue, but directed
by a well-known independent film director from the United States.


Although the Festival of New Latin American Cinema is primarily focused on
advancing Latin films, it also seeks to present filmgoers with the works of
foreign filmmakers. This year, there have been special screenings of films
from Italy, Norway and Japan, to name a few, as well as retrospectives of
filmmakers like Robert Altman and the Kaurismaki brothers. Nor does the
festival ignore the many other arts that are intersect with filmmaking,
such as theater, music, literature and painting. The festival is replete
with concerts, plays, exhibits and book readings, all of which are designed
to complement the films themselves. For example, one exhibit features
paintings, all by different artists, that were inspired by well-known Cuban
films, including "Strawberry And Chocolate" directed by Cuba's most famous
filmmaker, Tomas Gutierrez Alea.


In spite of this artistic depth, the prevailing view is that the films in
competition this year are not equal in quality to those shown during other
years. But there are always a few standouts, mostly from Brazil, Argentina
and Mexico, which are traditionally the three dominating countries. For
instance, "Cenizas Del Paraiso", which won the prize for best screenplay, is
an Argentinean thriller that revolves around the investigation into the
mysterious assassination of a beautiful woman which implicates three
brothers, each of whom confesses to the crime and claims sole
responsibility. The investigation ultimately unravels political corruption
at the highest levels of government and business, while stopping short of
offering any facile conclusions, preferring to leave the spectator to
grimly realize that the corruption will never get exposed and the truly
guilty will remain unscathed.


The economic crisis which Cuba is experiencing as a result of the U.S.
embargo and the loss of East bloc patronage has hampered efforts to boost
film production in Cuba itself, and so there were only three features
produced by Cuban directors in the last year. Among these was"Amor Vertical"
by Arturo Soto, a pleasing and uncomplicated story about a young couple
looking for a place to make love, finding all kinds of obstacles along the
way, and finally resorting to building a little house atop a bridge. The
film has a universal quality, reflecting the need for youths to find their
own space, but some of the funniest moments in the movie directly relate to
the hardships Cuban face in a country where goods as simple as soap and
butter are often expensive and unavailable, unless you have the good
fortune of being able to earn dollars through tips or the underground
economy (the average monthly wage here is 150-200 pesos, about 7-9
dollars).


Politics, as always, intrude on the arts here, sometimes in both subtle and
obvious ways. "Los Zafeiros" is the first film produced in Miami and filmed
in Cuba. It is the story of a quartet of singers who rose to become the
Beatles of Cuba in the 1960s, only to fall as a result of their internal
dissent. The subject-matter of the film is interesting, the acting superb,
but the film is poor in context, probably a conscious attempt to avoid
controversy that might arise from presenting politically sensitive details.
One of the original Zafeiros illegally emigrated to the United States, and
consequently was not allowed back in for a visit by the Cuban government to
attend the premiere of the film.


Similarly, the censors disallowed a trailer from a new film, tentatively
entitled "Dance With Me", by Randa Haines ("Wrestling Hemingway"), to be shown
at a press conference as it featured a singer who had defected from Cuba some
years ago and become popular in Miami's Cuban community. Instead, the
publicists had to resort to the use of a series of clips from the film
which left out the blacklisted singer. Starring Vanessa Williams, Chayanne
(a popular Puerto Rican singer), and Kris Kristofferson, and written by a
dancer, the film follows a love story that develops against the backdrop of
Latin, and especially Cuban, dancing. With its combination of sensuous
dance moves and comical romance, the film looks poised to become a sort of
Latin "Dirty Dancing", once it is finished and released in the next year.


Numerous countries, among them Poland, Italy, Canada, Brazil and Spain, are
already in the know, and have been actively planning co-productions with
Cuba through ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematographic
Industry). A Polish director, Andrew Slodkowski, is preparing to shoot a
feature film next year that follows the careers of two dancers, one Polish
and one Cuban, as the Polish dancer rises to the top of her profession by
joining a classical ballet troupe, and the Cuban dancer accedes to Cuba's
famous, Vegas-style Tropicana cabaret. After meeting with representatives
from ICAIC and officials from the various governments that would be
involved in the co-production (Cuba, Poland and Canada), Mr. Slodkowski
plans to set up an operation in Havana that can be used not only for making
his film, but also for future productions.


Representatives from the Sundance Institute, including festival director,
Geoff Gilmore, have come down for the third year in a row to present films
at the festival ("Hurricane", "Love Jones"), scout the Latin American market
and generally help draw attention to the artistic wealth of the Festival of
New Latin American Cinema. By maintaining a presence at the festival, the
Sundance Institute is, perhaps, acting as a harbinger of things to come in
the way of U.S./Cuban co-productions. The island and its people certainly
appear ready for this. The general attitude among Cubans who work in the
film industry seems to be that the sooner the embargo is lifted and
relations with the United States are normalized the better. Many hope that
the visit by the Pope in late January, around the time of the Sundance Film
Festival, will create an opening for more cultural exchanges and
opportunities. But pessimism is equally entrenched, and the hope is
accompanied by a belief that such an opening will only be temporary, along
the lines of Fidel Castro's recently announced decision to allow Cubans
this year a one-time celebration of Christmas in order to honor the Pope on
his visit. Appropriately, one of the videos shown at the festival was a
documentary called "Habemos Papa (We Have A Pope)", which was commissioned by
the government to inform the Cuban people about just who the Pope is, what
he does and represents.


[Marco Masoni is a partner in Cinematografia Productions, which produces
CLIPS, New York's own industry showcase of works-in-progress and short
films, the next edition of which will be held on Thursday, December 18th.
For more info: 212.971.5846.]

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