“The weak submit, while the strong go forward: This is a task for the strong.” Those words, by José Martí, 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 Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a.k.a. Titon, and by Juan Carlos Tabío, 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.

The Republic of 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 Socialist Bloc. It occurred to me, while I was in Cuba recently for the 22nd International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, that José Martí 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 possible sports, education is a traditional imperative in Fidel’s Cuba. Cinema is seen as a crucial element in the formation of culture, and both Martí 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 were forced to keep at bay eager filmgoers left outside. (A ticket cost 10 cents.) 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 Cinematográficos (ICAIC). Like Cuba itself, the ICAIC seems to have overcome the extreme unhappy 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 difficult 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 Tabío), were co-productions. The key to survival, both for Castro and for 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?

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.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.