A New Era’s Filmmakers Find Their Way in Cuba
From The New York Times, By VICTORIA BURNETT: HAVANA — Sebastián Miló barely had enough money to put gasoline in the aged bus that ferried his crew to the set each day, let alone to pay actors a salary.
But Mr. Miló, a 33-year-old Cuban filmmaker, had a Canon 5D digital camera and a story to tell. So, during one frenetic week in May 2011, he shot “Truckdriver,” a tense 25-minute film about bullying at one of the vaunted rural boarding schools where millions of Cubans used to spend part of their high school education.
“It was something I went through myself, and so did many people I know,” said Mr. Miló, referring to incidents of bullying that dogged him at school and, later, during military service. “The subject struck a chord.”
Mr. Miló is one of hundreds of Cuban filmmakers who, armed with digital technology, are laying the foundations of an independent movie industry outside the state apparatus that has defined Cuban cinema for much of the Castro era — and still, much to the frustration of some filmmakers, controls access to the island’s movie theaters.
Around the country, Cubans are making features, shorts, documentaries and animated works, often with little more than a couple of friends and some inexpensive equipment — and little input from the state-supported Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry.
Mr. Miló, who received about $10,000 in financing from a Spanish production company, Idunnu Music and Visual Arts, said that the crew and actors worked for next to nothing. “They said they felt strongly about what the film was saying,” he said.
The global boom in digital filmmaking has rippled across Cuba over the past decade, letting filmmakers create their work beyond the oversight of state-financed institutions. Independent movies have become a new means of expression in a country where, despite freedoms and economic reforms introduced by President Raul Castro since 2006, the state still carefully controls national press, television and radio, and access to the Internet is very limited.
While there is no official tally of independent movies, they have gained prominence on the national scene. They dominate the Cuban offerings at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana and scored a new level of commercial visibility last year with “Juan of the Dead,” a zombie movie that was released in several countries, including the United States.
“They’re bringing fresh ideas; they’re experimenting,” said Javier Ernesto Alejándrez, 21, a humanities student waiting in line last month to see the independent feature “Pablo,” shown as part of the film festival.
“There’s a lot of creativity, and they are really thinking about stuff,” said Alexandra Halkin, the director of the Americas Media Initiative, a nonprofit group that distributes and promotes Cuban film overseas. “They just need more tools and more space.”
For decades, the film institute was an important tool of the government’s program to educate Cubans and build a national narrative under the Communist system, annually producing dozens of documentaries and features and nurturing acclaimed directors, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (known as Titon), Humberto Solás and Fernando Pérez. The institute’s financing plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed, and it now relies on foreign sources to produce a handful of features each year.
The explosion of independent film has yielded an uneven jumble of movies that draw on genres eschewed by the establishment — like thrillers and horror — and that offer raw depictions or biting satire about the darker side of life on the island.
Miguel Coyula, whose surreal, fragmentary feature “Memories of Overdevelopment” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, said that while no specific trend had emerged, there was a greater willingness to tackle riskier and risqué subjects — even Fidel Castro — and document issues not covered by the official press.
Some movies offer a glimmer of a promising new generation, experts and filmmakers say, citing the experimental documentaries of Marcel Beltrán and Armando Capó, which will be included in a program at the Museum of Modern Art in February; Victor Alfonso’s humorous animated shorts about a high school nerd; Carlos Machado Quintela’s feature-length movie “The Swimming Pool,” about a group of physically disabled children and their swimming instructor; and the work of more established practitioners like Mr. Coyula and Esteban Insausti, whose work has been screened at many foreign festivals, including Cannes.
Carlos Lechuga, 29, whose debut feature film, “Melaza” (“Molasses”), tells a story of social degradation in a sugar town whose mill has been shuttered, said that independent movies were nourishing a conversation among Cubans keen to see the hard realities of their lives dealt with on screen.
But even with the technology much more accessible, filmmakers must struggle to get their work seen. The film institute controls Cuba’s theaters; Internet access remains rare, expensive and too slow for downloading movies. Instead, Cubans pass around DVDs.
Karel Ducasse, for example, has made about 500 copies of his 2007 documentary, “Zone of Silence,” which is about censorship, to sell and hand out at festivals. He believes the problems with distribution are no accident.
“The state has become afraid of digital media,” he said. “They know anything can be passed around the island.”
Aside from longing for better distribution, Cuban producers are anxious for regulations that would let them establish private production companies and seek permits without going through the film institute, whose bureaucracy eats into meager budgets.
Dozens of small production companies have sprouted in recent years, offering camera-rental services and help with permits and logistics, but they have no legal status.
“Look at what countries like Colombia have done in recent years to attract filmmaking,” said Claudia Calviño of Producciones de la 5ta Avenida, which made “Melaza” in production with French and Panamanian financing. She was referring to a Colombian law that offers movie producers rebates of 20 to 40 percent of the cost of production services, catering, accommodation and transportation. “Cuba must do this. We need laws, we need mechanisms.”
The institute has opened up to independent cinema, establishing an annual festival of work by filmmakers younger than 35, and supporting independent productions with props and permits. But the institute remains a bureaucratic leviathan that even its founder, Alfredo Guevara, considers obsolete.
“I designed the organization, but I say, ‘It doesn’t work anymore,’ ” said Mr. Guevara, who left the institute 12 years ago and is president of the Havana film festival. Mr. Guevara said he believed the institute should stop producing films and be limited to, say, renting out sets and distributing movies.
There are also limits to the institute’s openness: after helping with production permits and other logistics for “Melaza,” institute officials — apparently nervous about the film’s critical tone — demanded that its name be removed from the credits, according to three people involved in the production who spoke on condition of anonymity because they wished to preserve good relations with the institute. Officials at the institute could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Guevara said that he believed that the state would slowly adapt to the reality of an independent industry, and that Cuban cinema could one day recover the luster of movies like Mr. Gutiérrez Alea’s “Memories of Underdevelopment” (Mr. Coyula’s film is a sequel) or the later “Strawberry and Chocolate,” and Mr. Solás’s “Lucia.”
“A new generation will emerge,” he said. “There may not be another Titon, another Humberto Solas. But there will be someone, I am sure.”