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At the logistic center of the festival — the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, in the modern part of Havana — Jorge Luis Neyra, a young film critic for the politics and culture weekly Invasor, insisted that “Cuban cinema always enjoyed expressive freedom.” This, he explained, was the result of the dispute within the ICAIC, at the end of the 1960s, between Blas Roca, a top member of the Communist Party, and Alfredo Guevara.
The debate, according to Neyra, focused on what kind of cinema Cuba wanted to create. More specifically, the question was whether to establish some form of Soviet-style socialist realism, or to allow for a cinema that was less rigid and more deeply rooted in Cuban culture. Guevara won the debate, and thus a Cuban cinema was born in which the merits and failings of the political-economic system could to some extent be shown.
Evidence of this freedom could be found in the film festival itself. In Juan Carlos Tabío’s Lista de Espera (“Waiting List”), one of two Cuban long-feature entries (it won the Best Screenplay Coral Award), a group of passengers is stuck in a provincial bus terminal while waiting for a spare part to arrive. The film wittily attacks the inefficiencies of the system while showing that a sense of solidarity, as well as a rediscovered inventiveness, are possible ways out of the ordeal. “If on the one hand solidarity is the road to happiness,” the director stated, “one should also be ready to break the rules.”
The other long-feature Cuban film presented (and winner of the Audience Award) was Hacerse el Sueco, directed by Daniel Diaz Torres. The film is a straightforward comedy about an enigmatic self-described Swedish literature professor staying with a Havana family, the head of which is a former cop who fought with Fidel in the first days of the revolution. Through him, Torres presents a compassionate portrait of an aging generation of Cubans stuck in a world of nostalgia and obsolete rules.
“If a society does not show its contradictions, it cannot grow,” said Torres. “Here in Cuba we have a tradition of aesthetic independence. That includes a dynamic appreciation of society’s changes. Probably the Cuban Revolution, along with Cuban cinema, survives because it is far from static.” Another reason for this survival, the director told me, is humor. “In Cuba, we are lucky because we have a great sense of humor, as well as a joie de vivre that is in direct contrast with the somberness I have observed in my trips to the former socialist countries of the East.” Or, as a Cuban friend reminded me, “We might be poor, but we’re certainly not miserable.”
Cuba obviously has a vested interest in letting the world know of its willingness to change. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the festival opened almost simultaneously with the unveiling of a monument to the once-reviled John Lennon (again, Fidel was there); or that this was followed by a concert at the Tribuna Antimperialista José Martí on the Malecon, right next to the tall gray building from which, in lieu of an embassy, “American interests” in Cuba are represented. Still, don’t expect a film like Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, the story of the persecution of homosexual Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, to be produced with Castro’s blessing. Not, at least, for now.
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