A film festival in Havana...hold the popcorn
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
March 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
March 2011

I started writing this blog more than a week ago before earthquakes, tsunamis and the possibility of yet another war made the world an even scarier, shakier place.  How can I write about film in Cuba at a time like this, I thought, and wanted to abandon the effort.  But then I  remembered the calm resolve on many faces in Japan in the wake of the unimaginable horror they are suffering, the determination of people in the Middle East to struggle for democracy, and the ability of Cubans to find humor in even the most challenging situations. So…I offer these impressions of life in Cuba (as reflected in the movies) in that spirit.


A Film Festival in Havana…hold the popcorn


            Every weekend during the month I visited Havana this winter, I was invited to a Cuban film festival at my friend Anita’s apartment.  Anita has been my closest friend on the island for almost twenty years and I love spending time with her family.  Her daughter Rocio, my goddaughter, who was eight years old when I last saw her, has grown up to be a lively, sophisticated 18 year old art student with strong opinions about everything.  Cubans love going to the movies and it is an affordable entertainment—costing the equivalent of a few U.S. pennies—so Rocio has seen a lot of movies.  She has amassed a stack of bootleg DVDs for our festival, and is full of suggestions about which films to see based on her own critique about what I will love, what I just have to see, which one is comicisimo. 

            We settle in on a Saturday night to see the first selections.  The black couch and matching chairs in Anita’s living room are homemade—banged together out of scrap wood and pleather upholstery fabric by her husband Jorge.  They are hard and lumpy now, more than ten years after he built them, and it is difficult to get comfortable.  My joking request for popcorn is met with a look of dismay by Jorge who has just made dinner and cleaned up, and I feel terrible when I realize that he has taken me seriously.  There will be no palomitas de maiz at this film festival, but we do have small cups of espresso and a little while later are treated to mariquitas, salted plantain chips piping hot off the stove.  Anita is a serious actress who has studied drama and knows much about Cuban cinema, so our Havana film festival is informed by her knowledge.  Her chain smoking friend Maria, a director of film and television dramas, joins us to offer her commentary. 

            Anita recently turned fifty and has an impressive body of work in Cuban telenovelas, or soap operas, made for TV dramas and children’s theater.  She also teaches acting classes at the University.  I didn’t realize how well known she was until we took a walk one evening in Old Havana, the colonial part of the city where many tourist attractions are located.  On Calle Obispo, the pedestrian mall that runs all the way to Havana harbor, I kept noticing Cubans noticing us---casting quick glances our way, staring, smiling, waving.  I was used to being marked as an extranjera, or foreigner, and provoking curious looks or greetings, but this was different.  Finally a group of young boys called out “Hola, actor.  Actor, como estas?” and I realize that Anita was recognized as a TV personality everywhere we went. No one asked for her autograph, though one group begged for a picture with her.  They treated Anita more like a long lost relative they haven’t seen for awhile.  She played the role of a campesina, a much-burdened peasant from the country, in a production last year and sometimes people give her advice about how to deal with her brute of a husband, mistaking her for her character.

            Rocio lays out an array of DVDs and I begin to sort through them to pick our first selection. Cuba has a rich cinematic history and films are often at the cutting edge in exposing the fault lines in the socialist economy and bureaucracy. Issues like housing shortages, bureaucracy, the black market, prostitution, people leaving Cuba on rafts or marrying foreigners—all have been addressed in Cuban films over the last few decades.  Rocio recommends Guantanamera, which pokes fun at the Cuban pastime of piling regulation on top of regulation to the point of absurdity in an attempt to solve a problem.  In the film, an elderly and much beloved Cuban singer dies in the far-west province of Guantanamo (now famous for the reviled prison camp still waiting to be closed).  Her body must be transported back to Havana for burial.  Because of the severe fuel shortage, a new regulation requires each province to provide gas for the journey and she is transferred from hearse to hearse on the long drive back to Havana.  A Shakespearean comedy of errors ensues with bureaucrats piling on and the hearses filling with every black market item available. But I’ve already seen this film and want to start with something new.

            The first cultural act of the Cuban revolution in 1959 was to create ICAIC, the Instituto Cubano des Arte y la Industria Cinematograficos, a sort of National Film Board that both funds, oversees and distributes films.  In the law creating ICAIC, film was hailed as "the most powerful and provocative form of artistic expression, and the most direct and widespread vehicle for education and bringing ideas to the public".  Many of the first Cuban films produced after the revolution were documentaries and stirring historical dramas.

            I first traveled to Cuba in 1971, but I had already seen the groundbreaking Memories of Underdevelopment, directed in 1968 by Tomas Gutierrez Alea (the director of Guantanamera, and Fresa y Chocolate or Strawberry and Chocolate, one of Cuba’s best known films and the first to be nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards).  This film takes place in the period between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis and tells the story of Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, who decides to stay in Cuba even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. The film is a complex character study of alienation during the turmoil of social change, told through a collage-like narrative that weaves in documentary footage.   It is a departure from the more didactic revolutionary films of the 60’s.

            Starting in the 1970’s, ICAIC slowly gained independence from the government and began to make films dealing with and at times critical of the socio-political reality of Cuba.  I remember hearing about one controversial film that was very critical of the Cuban government on my first trip back to Cuba in 1991, Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas Everyone was talking about it and some bootleg copies were floating around, but I never got to see it.  Eventually the film was officially released in Cuba.  Of course, I don’t know how difficult it is to get films like this produced, or how many more may never have seen the light of day.

            In the 1990s, at the height of the “special period”, Cuban film, like everything else in the country, suffered greatly from lack of resources.  ICAIC managed to weather many storms, but its budget was severely reduced and far fewer films were released, with politics definitely playing a role in decision making about what films would get made and distributed.  Joint venture films with Spain, France, Mexico and Canada among others helped keep Cuban film-making afloat during this difficult time and are a significant factor today.   It will be interesting to see how the expansion of the private sector in Cuba affects Cuban film-making.

            In Anita’s living room, I choose Lista de Espera (2000, Juan Carlos Tabio) as our first film and we settle in to watch on Anita’s small TV.  The film takes place in a small provincial bus station where a group of passengers are waiting for a bus to take them east to Santiago or west to Havana.  The “waiting list” of the title is both arbitrary and whimsical and allows only one person at a time to depart on infrequent buses, so the abandoned passengers set up an alternate society within the station.  It is a hilarious send-up of Cuban bureaucracy and at the same time a wistful and idealistic vision of collective action and stars some of Cuba’s best known actors, some of whom Anita and Maria have worked with.

            The second film of our double-feature, Suite Habana (Fernando Perez, 2003) was shown in the U.S. in 2006.  It is a documentary-like, almost silent ode to the daily lives of ten ordinary people in Havana that unfolds in bits and pieces from the darkness of early dawn to the after-hours on the city’s silent streets.  A woman roasts peanuts and slides them into paper cones, a father gets his 10 year old son who has Down’s syndrome ready for school, a young male ballet dancer wakes in his crowded apartment and gets ready for the day.  The “actors” are real people and the scenes are from their real lives, but there is no dialogue and they are clearly being directed.  The film has a meditative poetic quality, and Anita’s living room is silent as it unfolds on the screen.  Jorge interrupts our silence at one point to point out, “They can’t censor this because it has no words.”  It is true that the film is shocking in its honest and raw look at the struggles of life in Cuba (and perhaps by implication the failures of the government), but is it controversial enough to create problems?  Later I find out that in fact it has won numerous awards, both in Cuba and in the international film world.  As Suite Habana draws to a close, the characters are asked to share their dreams.  The peanut seller, a retired woman of about my age, says “I have no dreams.  My dreams are all gone,” and at that point there is not a dry eye in Anita’s living room.

             It takes awhile after we turn the TV off for conversation to start up again, and then we quietly prepare for bed.  I am struck by the similarities of our nighttime ritual to scenes in the film—Anita heats water in a large pot on the stove for our baths, Jorge prepares the lumpy couch for Rocio and her boyfriend who has arrived to spend the night, while I retreat to the bathroom to bathe with a cup and a bucket, and slip between the covers in the bedroom I will share with my friends.

            On my last day in Cuba, Anita and Rocio arrive to say good-bye and present me with a gift—a stack of DVDs with perhaps 50 Cuban films!  I sort through them quickly and see Viva Cuba, a road trip film about a Cuban schoolboy and girl who run away together to prevent her mother from separating them by marrying a foreigner and leaving Cuba.  One one DVD I find  Alicia and Se Permuta, a comedy of errors about Cuba’s unique housing situation.  And Casa Vieja, the film that I never got to see that was playing in all of the movie theaters in Havana during my visit.

            The promise of watching the films provides consolation as I transition back to life in the U.S. and late one night, nostalgic for the streets of Havana, I pop a DVD into the player.  It is poorly burned, a bit wavy with slightly distorted sound, but there is the Malecon, the sea-walk that circles the city, and the crumbling streets of central Havana that I walked each day.  The peanut vendors, the small kiosks selling tinned meat and bread sandwiches and croquetas, the scuffed balconies of colonial buildings hung with colorful laundry.  And all of the contradictions of life in Cuba laid out with affection and humor in the movies.  I make myself a bowl of microwave popcorn and settle in to watch.

From April 7-14, 2011, the Havana Film Festival New York (HFFNY) will take place at various venues as part of the longer Si Cuba! Festival.  Boleta al Paraiso, a film that everyone was talking about when I was in Havana, opens the festival.  For more information go to the website:  www.hffny.com

You can have your own Cuban film festival if you belong to Netflix.  The following are some of the Cuban films available:  Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate), Guantanamera, Memories of Underdevelopment, Viva Cuba, I am Cuba and a collection of films of one of Cuba’s most renowned film-makers, Santiago Alvarez, called He Who Hits Twice:  Urgent.




Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Barbara Stein

    As with all of your previous entries, your blog provides a real flavor of the Cuban culture and the surroundings you are living in. So well written!