From Here to Havana
“In a country without access to many of the freedoms, technologies, and conveniences we take for granted, people continue to find imaginative ways to create and inspire.”
– Kathryn Bigelow
A delegation of Academy members and representatives of the Los Angeles Film Festival’s creative team traveled to Havana, Cuba, in December 2010 to meet with local filmmakers and participate in the 32nd Festival of New Latin American Cinema. The visit was an initiative by the Academy’s International Outreach Committee to engage with members of developing film communities.
Directors Branch governor Kathryn Bigelow, Writers Branch member Mark Boal, Academy First Vice President Sid Ganis, former Executives Branch governor Bill Mechanic, and Ellen Harrington, the Academy’s director of exhibitions and special events, made up the Academy contingent. Rebecca Yeldham, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF), and the festival’s artistic director, David Ansen, also participated. Producers Carol Mechanic and Nancy Ganis rounded out the delegation.
This was the first group of American-based filmmakers ever to be integrated into the Havana festival, which draws an astounding half a million attendees in a city of two million people. The Academy contingent presented four films, none of which had been previously screened in Cuba. Indeed, theatrical screenings of American-made films are rare in the country; residents mainly see U.S.-made films via pirated DVDs.
The Academy group also debuted a concept unfamiliar to most of the audience: the post-screening question-and-answer session. During the Q&A with Bigelow and Boal after the screening of their 2009 Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker,” many of the questions focused on censorship. “Growing up in a society where personal expression is subject to public approval, they had a vastly different – and quite intriguing – perspective on the relationship between the individual, the message, and the responsibility of the filmmaker,” Bigelow explains.
Four more participants presented films on which they'd served as producers. Sid and Nancy Ganis showcased “Akeelah and the Bee,” Yeldham introduced “The Kite Runner,” and Bill Mechanic presented “Coraline.” Carol Mechanic, who was involved in the marketing of “Coraline,” also participated. The Mechanics faced the challenge of screening a 3D movie in 2D. “The fact that this screening was the first time I saw it flat helped,” Bill says. “I was able to explain how the worlds of ‘Coraline’ were conceived and shot, and then which scenes used the 3D for an effect.” Cuba’s first 3D animated feature,“Meñique,” is in production, although Cuban theaters currently lack the technology to screen in 3D.
Bill and Carol Mechanic led a master class focused on animation, and found the attendees to be a very sharp group. “If not many movies make it to Cuba on film, that didn’t make the audiences any less knowledgeable,” Bill says. “I thought the questions were very sophisticated, better than at most places in the world. There were a lot of questions about the different types of animation – CGI, stop-motion, cell – and why one form might be better suited to a story than another. There were also questions on the use and impact of music in the film, and about story and adaptation.”
During a master class at the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Bigelow and Boal discussed the trajectory of their respective careers and specific projects, as did the Ganises during a separate session that delved into producing as well as marketing. Yeldham was part of a panel of producers discussing how movies are financed and developed in the U.S. and the U.K.
The Academy group also met with representatives of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC), the first cultural institution created by the revolutionary government in 1959; visited the set of “Juan of the Dead,” Cuba’s first zombie movie; and toured the filmmaking program at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños.
Additionally, the festival featured a poster exhibition provided by the Academy, a traveling version of “From AMARCORD to Z: Posters from Fifty Years of Foreign Language Film Award Winners” (originally displayed at the Academy in 2007).
Learning about day-to-day life in Cuba was “fascinating,” Harrington reports. As she was helping local workers hang the posters, and later when she was given books to bring back to the Academy Library, she learned that items such as tape and cardboard boxes were scarce commodities. Velcro, which she’d brought along for the posters, was a totally new concept.
Additionally, the group found that only a small percentage of Cuba’s residents have Internet access, Skype is nonexistent, and telephone service is dicey – as Ganis learned when a reporter from The New York Times struggled to connect with him for a phone interview.
Overall, what the delegation discovered was very encouraging. “In the span of four days, what I found was a vital, enthusiastic community of thoughtful individuals set against a city visibly stopped in time,” Bigelow says. “In a country without access to many of the freedoms, technologies, and conveniences we take for granted, people continue to find imaginative ways to create and inspire.”
The International Outreach Committee is now developing plans for maintaining contact with the Cuban filmmaking community. The December trip has already resulted in ICAIC donating 125 posters made by Cuban poster artists to the Academy Library, as well as a collection of books on Cuban filmmaking. And in June 2011, the Academy and the LAFF presented a showcase of Cuban films as part of a larger celebration of Cuban culture taking place at several Southern California venues.
This was the fourth such outreach mission organized by the International Outreach Committee, which is chaired by Writers Branch governor Phil Robinson. During trips to Vietnam (2007 and 2008) and Iran (2009), Academy members have conducted training workshops, presented screenings, and met with local filmmakers to discuss the joys and challenges of filmmaking that are common regardless of location as well as those unique to specific countries.