By Amy Nicholson
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”The weak submit, while the strong go forward: This is a task for the strong.“ Those words, by Jose Marti, appear on a notice board in the 1993 Oscar-nominated Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate. Next to the notice board is a mailbox into which Diego, the film‘s main, gay character, fatefully drops the letter in which he complains to the authorities that his best friend’s artwork has been banned.
The film, co-directed by the late Tomas Gutierrez Alea, a.k.a. Titon, and by Juan Carlos Tabio, marked a new phase in the history of Cuban cinema. The story of an unorthodox friendship between a member of the Communist Youth movement and a gay dissident, set in the late 1970s, the film also symbolized a ”new dialogue“ between Cuban filmmakers and the Castro government.
Cuba may be one of the world‘s few surviving Communist states, but it has precious few of the cast-iron ideological trappings and symbols associated with the former Soviet bloc. It occurred to me, while I was in Cuba recently for the 22nd International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, that Jose Marti is more of an icon in Cuba than either Marx or Lenin. Busts of the venerable patriarch of Cuban independence are everywhere, as are his quotations. If communism in Cuba were abandoned tomorrow, a fierce sense of national pride and autonomy would remain. As the landlord living next door to the apartment I was renting in Old Havana told me, ”I’m not a Communist, but I can‘t tolerate anybody outside my country telling me what to do.“
Both the festival’s opening and closing nights took place in the 2,000-seat Karl Marx Theater in the presence of ”El Comandante“ himself. (At 77, Fidel Castro appeared to be in good form, and was certainly ubiquitous -- I saw him three times in two weeks.) In his poetic opening and closing speeches, festival president Alfredo Guevara (no relation to Che) addressed both the crowd and Fidel himself as friends and brothers, rather than as comrades, and went so far as to venture an analogy between El Che and Jesus Christ. He insisted on the importance of strengthening and developing Latin American culture in a world dominated by the United States: If Latin America couldn‘t conquer ”the northern giant“ economically, it could nonetheless infiltrate it spiritually. ”I have nothing against Mickey Mouse,“ Guevara remarked later, ”but I’m against globalism as banalization.“
Although the majority of films presented at the festival were Latin American, a selection of new French, Spanish, Italian, German and Canadian cinema was offered as well. There was an homage to actor Vittorio Gassman; a Robert Bresson retrospective; a series on the Jewish presence in Latin American films; and an overview of contemporary international cinema. There was also an impressive number of American films in the festival (Being John Malkovich, Agnes Browne, Legacy, Ghost Dog, Cookie‘s Fortune, Girlfight, among others), as well as a delegation from the Sundance Institute. Interestingly, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Havana just before the end of the festival, not a single Russian film was shown. A cabdriver joked that the only thing Russians have left on the island are their ancient Volga and Moskwitz cars.
Along with health care and beating the U.S. in all sports, education is a traditional imperative in Fidel‘s Cuba. Cinema is seen as a crucial element in the formation of culture, and both Marti and Castro stressed, in their different ways, that without culture there can be no freedom. Indeed throughout the festival, theaters were filled to capacity, while policemen kept eager filmgoers left outside at bay. (Tickets cost just 10 cents each.) In the afternoons, you could find housewives in line who not only knew all about the actors in a film, but were savvy about the director and writer as well. A cursory reading of any Cuban film publication reveals a high level of intellectual sophistication.
The engine of Cuban cinema is the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC). Like Cuba itself, the ICAIC seems to have overcome the extreme difficulties of the so-called ”Special Period,“ when the demise of the Soviet bloc brought the island’s economy to its knees. At the height of that unhappy phase (1993--95), film production almost came to a halt. So it was with understandable pride that the institute announced a slate of six new feature films -- some already completed, some scheduled for completion -- for the coming year.
The Cuban economy‘s painful recovery over the last five years only partly explains Cuban cinema’s current renaissance. Since the early 1990s, the ICAIC has successfully explored the path of co-productions, not only with Latin America (read Mexico), but also with Spain, France and Germany. It‘s a choice that mirrors the state’s own mushrooming economic ventures with foreign partners, especially in the field of tourism. For example, both Strawberry and Chocolate and Guantanamera, Alea‘s last film (co-directed with Tabio), were co-productions. The key to survival, for both Castro and Cuban cinema, has been flexibility -- one born of necessity, perhaps, but also of a pre-existing attitude that predates the Special Period and its apparently insurmountable constraints. To understand the true meaning of this flexibility might also help us to answer the Big Question: To what extent is there artistic freedom in Cuba?
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