Cuba's digital destination

Chronicles of a country told in celluloid

Mirtha y Titón en un momento de descanso durante la filmación de la pelicula Cartas del Parque. Matanzas, 1988
Actress Mirtha Ibarra and director Titón during the production of the film Cartas del Parque, 1988, Matanzas.

By Ricardo Alberto Pérez

For Cubans of my generation, going to the movies has always been a happy occasion. It has also been a rather spiritual way of cultivating friendships, making new friends and finding unexpected passions. Generally speaking, in one way or another, the inhabitants of this Island have spent the twentieth century showing their passion for the art of filmmaking.

Cinematography made its arrival in Cuba relatively early. It was brought from Mexico in 1897 by Gabriel Veyre who that same year presented the first public screening on the Paseo del Prado, near the Tacón Theater. Veyre also filmed one minute of the first movie ever made in Cuba, Simulacro de Incendio, a documentary about the firefighters of Havana.

Clearly, for both filmmakers and spectators, the cinema has meant much more than mere entertainment. Its language has been a very clear and efficient way of expressing and spreading our identity, our conflicts and our dreams as well as for also for remembering crucial moments in our history. Over the years, a mature audience emerged, one that continued the love for film of earlier generations, and have watched the work of many filmmakers with lofty esthetic and conceptual aspirations.

In the Republican Period (1902 to 1959), the most important directors were Enrique Diaz Quesada and Ramón Peón García. The former dedicated his career to making historical films such as the outstanding Libertadores o guerrilleros (1914).I n 1930, Ramón Peón filmed La Virgen de la Caridad, making a huge impact with its strong religious content.

The short documentary El Mégano (1955), directed by Julio García Espinosa with the collaboration of Alfredo Guevara, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and José Massip. seems to signal a point of departure towards more substantial films having serious esthetics and working with concerns of all kinds. As we notice the names of the men involved in this production, we can see that all of them would become key figures within the cinematographic movement that was to be hatched just after the triumph of the Revolution.

After 1959, renewal fever gripped the country and it was reflected in filmmaking. Just three months into 1959, the revolutionary government passed the first law in the area of culture: the creation of the ICAIC (Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), under the guidance of Alfredo Guevara, In 1960, the Latin American Nnewsreel saw its first screening. It was directed by Santiago Alvarez, the greatest Cuban documentary filmmaker who reached a high point in his work with Now, a documentary on the death of the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.).

There was a time when the ICAIC Latin American Newsreel was as looked forward to in movie houses as the feature film that would be screened after it. It had an inestimable and valuable influence on the development of the documentary genre.

In the early years of the Revolution, important filmmakers, such as Agnes Varda, Cesare Zavatini and Mikhail Kalatozov visited Cuba, drawn by curiosity and the enthusiastic fervor here. They made films on the Island, leaving an important mark on some of our fledgling directors.

At that time, a young filmmaker began his ascent: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, affectionately known as Titón. He arrived fresh from his training at the Cinema Institute of Rome, Italy, under the benevolent and visible influence of neorealism. Among his early films were Historias de la Revolución and Las doce sillas, but his greatest production is Memorias del subdesarrollo, providing us with a lucid reflection on what was happening in Cuba at the time. It also divided our cinematographic art scene into a “before” and an “after.”

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea continued building a solid career in the years that followed with other outstanding films, including La última cena and Los sobrevivientes. In 1993, he hit a second high point with his Fresa y Chocolate (codirected with Juan Carlos Tabío), a film that makes the consistent evolution of his work and his adhesion to dialectics very clear. The film was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film in 1994.

Titon’s contemporaries are such outstanding directors as Humberto Solas (Lucía), Julio García Espinosa (Las aventuras de Juan Quinquín) and Manuel Octavio Gómez (La primera carga al machete).

Post-Revolutionary Cuban cinema loyally chronicled and witnessed the different stages and transformations the country was going through. It experienced a sort of mutational process in response to the political and social conditions of the time. During the 1970s-1980s, we were seeing many productions with distinctive ideological and historical content but also with remarkable artistic quality, as in two films directed by Enrique Pineda Barnet: Mella and Aquella larga noche.

With the arrival of the 1980s, Cuban cinema recovered its connections to a massive audience-base thanks to a number of comedies that ironically poked fun at the behaviors of many Cubans. Some of these titles were Se permuta, Los pájaros tirándole a la escopeta and Plaff. In 1989, Pineda Barnet surprised us once more with an excellent film, a musical called La bella del Alhambra, which introduced us to the amazing talent of its young leading lady, Beatriz Valdés.

This period also saw the production of Fernando Perez’s Clandestinos. In subsequent years, this director would be responsible for a remarkable body of work that includes Madagascar, Suite Habana, La vida es silbar and José Martí, el ojo del canario.

By the 1990s, Cuban movies were saturated by a kind of ennui and dealt with the leitmotifs of emigration and the shortages earmarking the Special Period. It was also a time when co-productions began to be increasingly made.

Now, in the twenty-first century, Cuban films are being enriched by a wave of independent productions, movies made mainly by young people but also by some of the more veteran directors. Generally speaking, this is critical and innovative work, stimulated by the National Show of New Filmmakers. The best directors of this decade are Juan Carlos Cremata, Pável Giroud, Lester Hamlet and Esteban Insausti.

But we cannot truly end any commentary on the state of Cuban cinema today without underlining the crucial role played by institutions such as the International Film School of San Antonio de los Baños and the New Latin American Film Foundation, as well as events such as the Havana Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which is getting ready to run its 37th edition.


go to Cuba Travel Network site