Cuba's digital destination
This week, this majestic dame of a city plays hostess to the 30th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Hundreds of film producers, actors and participants alike have flown in from across the globe, mostly from South and Central America, though there have been eminent European and American visitors here too, with names such as Mike Leigh and Benicio del Toro crowning the list of heavyweights who are familiar to Western audiences.
The special touch of this Festival, however, lies in its unfamiliarity, and in its opportunity to delve into the subconscious, of the film-savvy Havana public, if only for the blink of a film screening. There are no multiplex cinemas in Havana, and no Pizza Hut or popcorn chains standardising each venue where the hundreds of films are screened from 10am until midnight. There are no Starbucks cafes where the gliterrati hang out between showings, sipping a hundred varieties of coffee. No, this is cinema Cuban-style, with one cup of coffee and two types of cheese sandwich, those with or without ham, and the whole world is invited.
I am standing in Nuevo Vedado, a bland upscale quarter of Havana, wondering best how to fill the hour I have to kill before the lunchtime screening of an Argentine film called LLuvia (Rain). The Acapulco is a tidy, small 1950s cinema which sits like a doll?s house on a main artery road of Havana. The hulking frames of aquamarine 1950s Buicks cruise slowly along picking up and dropping off passengers across town, their smoking black exhausts stifling the air. A man dressed in tight white trousers, long gold chains and a Santiago del Cuba white baseball cap comes to try to sell me the same programme which I am already holding in my hand. When I point out that I already have one, he shakes his head smiling and suggests I find something to do for an hour since there is no shade outside the little building. I feel as though I have stepped back into America?s Deep South somewhere, a place where the only thing guaranteed to happen is not very much at all. I have been told by my taxi driver that foreign press are not ?desperately welcome? here, although he laughs for a good five minutes after he tells me that. Then he tells me that change cannot come fast enough for his liking. He tells me that the cinema looks the same as it always has and he is bored with it now.
Perhaps boredom is the reason why the cinemas are full, even at 10 a.m. Or perhaps it is because the films which arrive on these shores bring with them ideas and images of places of which most ordinary Cubans can only imagine. Equally, this is also a public whose love of fantasy and celluloid brings them to the cinema as often as they can afford. With tickets priced cheaper than any other activity in the city, the cinema is rarely regarded as a luxury in Havana, rather as necessary as television to most Europeans. With the island?s population touching a little over eleven million, and the capital?s population hovering over two million, it is an impressive statistic to hear that half a million Habaneros are regular cinema-goers.
I still have that hour to kill, a perfect opportunity for an amble through these backstreets. I am in luck. Beneath pouring sunshine that is predicted soon to turn to battering storms, I find that a little cafe has been set up beneath a large Havana Club Rum canopy, tied with rough string to some trees, A cluster of plastic tables and chairs lay scattered below it, each one lovingly laid with a green and faux-lace plastic tablecloth, and each one decorated with a little pot of orange polyester sunflowers. A man in a chef?s hat tosses an enormous quantity of arroz frito on a flat barbecue, next to which lumps of pork sizzle over some haggard lumps of coal. Food in Cuba is not a highlight, unless you are staying with a local family whose cooking is likely to be simple, but healthy at least. A few young Cuban men and women are swilling cans of Buccanero Fuerte, the local beer, at 11.30am since many Cubans claim to prefer the taste of beer to water. I accept a thick pink guava juice as an alternative to morning beer and kick back in the shade to some heavy rumba tunes. An old man with naughty, glistening eyes asks me to help him get into a passing car so that he can get home to his wife for lunch, then asks me if I would like to join them. No film festival could ever afford me such an eye opener into the lives of the ordinary population as this.
Each cinema is a throwback to a bygone era, though many are now fitted with Dolby sound and comfortable chairs. The crowd in each location reveals a great deal about the character of the neighbourhood, and with the sheer number and variety of films on offer, I have had the opportunity to explore more than just cinematic offerings. Last night, I stuffed my phone and a few peso notes into my bra and walked through parts of the Central and Old Town across to the Payret cinema, a cinema I later discovered has a justifiable, if exaggerated, reputation for its lone male visitors who come to ?mess about? with themselves in the dark. Ordinary Habaneros, many of whom live in shabby squalor in the old town, walk in and out throughout the screening, making every cent of their two peso tickets count, running a constant commentary on all aspects of the film they enjoyed, and otherwise recounting the exploits of their days when the film loses their interest. A smelly underground peso bar spills out a cast of local characters, whilst all around the cinema are tiny holes in the wall, selling sweet bread rolls stuffed with pork, as well as bags of popcorn sold from a wheelbarrow. Contrary to expectation, however, the film I saw at the Payret, was no cheap thrills easy-on-the Eye time-filler. It was an excellent, artistic Mexican film called Enemigos Intimos, a story played around seven characters whose lives connect them in an interlinking tale of urban sickness. Mexican film is distinctive, often animated by the same taste for unmasking life and death in one fell swoop, and characterised by many of the same uneasy-making displays of reality as renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo depicted in her own art. This sort of film, shown as part of the Festival on this occasion, nevertheless is regular film fodder for this educated and dynamic public, starved in many other ways of interaction with the outside world. The same film in London would have played in selected ?artistic? venues only, if it ever came to London, and would attract only a selected ?artistic? crowd. Such is the paradox of daily life in Havana.
Other cinemas in other neighbourhood convey different personalities. The well-known Yara cinema, which sits behind the illustrious Hotel Nacional, has continued to show American film over the years and still plays favourite venue for courting couples frantically looking for a private place to call their own in Havana for an hour or three. Combined with a two or three hour queue for ice-cream at the State-owned Coppelia ice cream giant across the road, the Yara remains the ultimate Havana date. This was the coveted place to be last Saturday night when Benicio del Toro was in town to open Soderbergh?s Che in Havana, to a knowledgeable and local audience. The queues stretched back into hundreds and a lucky 1500 people got into the film on its first night screening here. The film has been considered a partial success in Cuba so far, though to a public who understand the difference between an Argentine, a Cuban or a Mexican Spanish accent, the casting choices have come in for some considerable criticism. Think Nicholas Cage playing the romantic Italian soldier with a grinding US accent in Captain Corelli?s Mandolin.
Not far away is another main Havana artery, La Rampa, which links the seaside Malecon road with the Cemetery and the Plaza de la Revolucion, where the iconic steel sculptured face of Che Guevara hangs down the Ministry of Interior. On this long stretch of road through the once-wealthy Vedado district, four more cinemas gather their audiences. Of these, the Charlie Chaplin cinema is easily the most glamorous, where the beautiful people of Habana watch film and eat popcorn in a quieter, more engaged manner, enjoying whatever latest offering may arrive from Latin America, France or Spain. This is where I watched, amongst other screenings, Kangamba, a Cuban fictionalised account of its country?s military involvement in Angola during the 1980s. I had been regaled with stories of the beauty and sadness of this film by Cuban friends and so my expectations were high. Sadly, the film did not quite meet them, notably, to my mind, for its Americanisation of the glory of the Cuban military power, but at least the director told the story of Cuba?s failed internationalist interventionism, in which at least two generations of Cubans have been embroiled and affected.
In general, the quality of the films has been of the highest standard, collecting documentaries, shorts and fictionalised films from all over the globe, but in particular Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. A few of these are films that will screen in England, such as Blindness (equally panned here as it was at home) and 8, with an impressive cast of characters that promises to be a highlight tomorrow. The hub of the week has been the Hotel Nacional itself, whose shady plush terrace bars are alive at all times of days and night with film crews, Apple-Mac wielding journalists and film production people from all corners of the continent. A few American accents can be heard amongst the foray of voices, no mean feat for those who have to find a way into and out of the country through Mexico and without passport stamps, so as to skip past US customs. The jazz clubs and theatres of Havana, usually blessed with musicians of impeccable quality, have hosted parties and concerts that have lifted the usually upbeat tempo of Havana even higher. There is little doubt that the 30th International Latin American Film Festival has been heralded a tremendous triumph, and in more ways than just the films themselves. In this most diverse of continents, the unity of the people of Latin America has been abundant and evident, noted by most speakers in their press conferences and interviews to the newspaper published daily with news and information about the Festival?s events. The politics that have shaken this continent with their attempts at finding a different way, however successful, are apparent in the concerns of many of the film makers, as are the worries and preoccupations of daily life in a continent often lived below the shadow of the United States. Here, in Havana this week, as the Festival prepares to draw its curtains, visitors have been left with the ability to see for themselves visions of past, present and the future of Latin America, stunning glimpses rarely seen outside of the continent. The pace, sophistication and sheer diversity has been electrifying.
Schona Jolly is a British freelance writer and lawyer whose passion for Cuba and Latin America sees her frequently in the region, and as often as she can be in Havana. She has almost finished her first novel, and in the meanwhile continues to write for the Guardian and other publications about the “politics, passion and pueblos” of the continent.