The NewsHour’s Global Health Unit kicked off a three-part series from Cuba on Monday, reporting on the country’s economy and health care system. NewsHour producer Cat Wise filed this additional report for Art Beat about Cuba’s highly regarded film festival.
The grand lobby of Havana’s historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba was humming with activity earlier this month as documentary filmmakers, directors, actors and producers from around Latin America gathered to pay homage to their craft at the the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.
The “who’s who” crowd of regional cinema spilled out onto the hotel’s back patio and mingled over cigars and mojitos in the cool ocean breeze. Now in its 32nd year, the festival is one of the region’s largest and most prestigious. On opening night more than a thousand filmgoers crowded into the Karl Marx Theater in downtown Havana to watch a series of short films about the Mexican Revolution.
Cubans love going to the movies. Tickets cost the equivalent of a handful of U.S. pennies, providing affordable entertainment for everyone. Life can be tough on the island, but during the 10-day festival there’s an upbeat vibe in Havana. Walking back to my hotel after a late movie one night, I stumbled on a big concert outside the University of Havana. Hundreds of college-age Cubans danced in the street with bright red, yellow and blue lights illuminating the crumbling buildings surrounding them. I was told that many people take a week off from work so they can see three or four films a day, often waiting for hours in line to get in.
The festival provides Cubans a window to the rest of the world, according to City University of New York professor Katrin Hansing, who submitted a film last year about Che Guevara. “In the early decades after the revolution, there wasn’t a lot of information coming into the island,” Hansing said. “The festival was the one time of year when lots of visual images from different places and realities would be accessible to Cubans. Although Cuba is today somewhat less isolated from the rest of the world, the film festival still plays an important role in bringing images and ideas from elsewhere to the island.”
I met one of Cuba’s most prominent directors, Fernando Perez, in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional. As we were trying to find a quiet spot to chat, he was repeatedly stopped by fans congratulating him on his recent movie about Cuba’s independence fighter and national hero, Jose Marti; the film won him the best director and several other awards at the festival this year.
Perez believes the country’s love affair with film began shortly after the revolution, when the government trucked mobile film projectors to the most rural areas of the country to disseminate culture. One popular film shown back then was Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Perez called the festival a “magic moment” for people who love film in Cuba and told me that filmmakers are allowed “more space” in Cuba to express themselves, unlike their colleagues who work for newspapers, radio and television.
Longtime festival director Ivan Giourd suspects most Americans don’t know much about Cuba’s rich cinematic history, and he hopes there will be more cultural exchanges between the two countries. “For a period of time we showed Sundance films, but when Bush was elected, opportunities to exchange culture were closed. Things are slowly opening up again with the Obama administration.”
Giourd also told me the festival is an important opportunity for Latin American filmmakers to showcase their work because U.S. films often dominate theaters in countries like Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. Giourd said he would welcome more U.S. entries in the festival and listed off several film stars like Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro and Francis Ford Coppola who have attended over the years. This year’s big name from the United States was Kathryn Bigelow, who directed “The Hurt Locker.”
Another American drawn to the festival this year was Betty Park, a 33-year-old, first-time documentary filmmaker from New York who heard about the festival a few years ago and was excited when her film was accepted. Park’s documentary, “Mamachas del Ring,” highlights indigenous Bolivian women who wrestle “WWE style” in colorful, traditional skirts. Park said she spoke with Cubans on the street and was impressed with their knowledge of films and dedication to the festival. “You’d never see these long lines in New York,” she said.
You can watch the trailer to Park’s film below and, yes, the blood is real. There’s also graphic language.