Cuba Outreach 2011
For 11 days in December, Havana became a flashpoint of Cuban cinephilia. The 33rd International Festival of New Latin American Cinema drew hundreds of thousands of Cubans – some of whom saw three or four films per day and scheduled their vacations to coincide with the event – as well as distinguished Academy members Frank Pierson and Gregory Nava; Nava's producing partner, Barbara Martinez Jitner; and Academy Film Archive preservation officer Josef Lindner. This expedition was a follow-up to the Academy delegation that visited Cuba last year as part of the Academy's International Outreach Initiative.
The Academy's initiative is designed to encourage foreign film communities that may not have the resources Hollywood commands, but where momentum is building for their own creative breakthroughs. It also takes American films and filmmakers to places where they may be seldom seen, brings foreign filmmakers – and the conditions they face – to the attention of the global community, and enables artists of different cultures to engage with one another.
In this respect, the initiative and the festival (also known as the Havana Film Festival) have much in common. According to Pierson, a former Academy president and current governor, over 500 films were screened – and not just films from Latin and Central America and Mexico, but from all over the world. As the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Dog Day Afternoon" noted, "The Havana Film Festival is, in a sense, more important than Cannes."
Pierson, Nava and Martinez Jitner hosted screenings of their films, and taught master classes and seminars. Lindner toured the government's film preservation facilities, taught a master class and screened a recent Academy Film Archive restoration (see sidebar).
Martinez Jitner, who is not a member of the Academy, took part in the delegation at her own expense. "This was an opportunity to see a Latin American country under Communism that I may not be able to see in a few years," she said. "You're going to a country that's on the brink of tremendous change… That was an extraordinary experience that could only happen right now."
Pierson's experience echoed Martinez Jitner's motivation. Said Pierson, "There's an energy in the air and an expectation that things are going to get better. That's terribly exciting to be around." This was the third such Academy trip for Pierson, who helped develop the International Outreach Initiative while he was the president of the Academy, alongside committee chair Phil Robinson. Prior to this trip, the 86-year-old writer-producer-director had also joined Academy delegations to Vietnam and Iran.
"I'm from the generation that was tremendously influenced by French and Italian cinema in the 1950s and '60s," reflects Pierson. "Ever since then, I've felt that it was imperative to maintain communication across multi-cultural lines."
Nava, a filmmaker heralded in international circles ever since his landmark film "El Norte" (1983), was also energized by his encounters with the Cuban film culture. "The questions… were among the most intelligent I've received at any film festival. They're not focused on celebrity or glamour. They're focused on the cultural content of the films, what the films are about." This was particularly striking for Nava, who has directed Jennifer Lopez in three films (including his 2007 "Bordertown," which Nava screened at the festival). "But they weren't asking about that," he says.
"I talked a lot about writing, about direction, about directing actors…. [T]hey wanted more, more, more about communicating with actors and getting good performances for the camera," says Nava. Attendees also deeply engaged Nava in discussion of his films' style – a style he dubs "dream realism" and which he describes as rooted in the pages of Latin-American literature. "I found myself talking about things that I normally don't talk about at film festivals – and in depth!" the filmmaker says, laughing. "It was very challenging because they're very complex ideas, and I normally don't use my Spanish at that level."
Nava also participated in a roundtable discussion between Latin-American filmmakers and government officials. This meeting was held at the Casa de las Américas, an organization dedicated to fostering artistic and scholarly ties among Cuba, the other countries of Latin America and the rest of the world. The discussion was not open to the public. As one might expect, among the most significant topics the group discussed was that of the filmmaking conditions in Latin America. Another subject may have been more surprising: the experience of Latin-American filmmakers trying to tell Latino-themed stories in the United States. "They consider America to be part of Latin America," says Nava, "and the Latin American-themed films being made here to be part of Latin American Cinema."
Indeed, Nava and Martinez Jitner were energized not only by what they shared, but also by what they took away. The festival also saw a large contingent of film critics from other parts of Latin America, who were very generous with copies of their journals and manuscripts. But if this enlivened Nava's and Martinez Jitner's spirits, it did not exactly lighten their loads. Because travelers are permitted to carry – but not ship – printed materials between Cuba and the United States, Nava and Martinez Jitner had to pack all of this scholarship into their suitcases. "It was wonderful to have them, but they were heavy!" says Nava, who was likely thankful that their luggage was permitted to weigh only up to 44 pounds.
The Academy's delegation also carried home stark images of a country – and a culture – in transition, seeming to be pulled by both past and future. Pierson noted the boulevards where the homes had been restored through government funding – and in contrast, streets lined with neglected mansions, old and breaking down. Nava was struck by another throwback to pre-revolutionary Cuba: the prevalence of 1950s cars on the streets. (Another element of the trip also made an impression on him. "The food was great," says Nava, "if you went to these sort of illegal restaurants that people have in their homes.")
To Martinez Jitner, it was the composition of the festival staff that stood out. "They were all women working at the festival. The big delegations and the journalists were men, but everyone else, people who escorted you, translated for you, they were all women. And they know they're in a transitional period." For Martinez Jitner, this observation was especially poignant in light of "Bordertown," the film she and Nava screened at the festival. "It deals with a current social theme, not something from the past," she explains. "Globalization and the exploitation of workers is a huge issue in Cuba, especially with women, because women are the shock troops of these global forces."
Pierson also noted the sound of Havana. "They have no air conditioning and it's a tropical country, so everyone has their windows open," the writer says. "You can hear the music and the radios. Until after midnight, everywhere just throbs with music."
Pierson is eager to expand and deepen the Academy's relationship with the Havana Film Festival and the Cuban film community. "Not just showing a picture and giving a talk, but interacting in a more complicated kind of way," he says. "They pay a lot of attention to us and it's time for us to pay attention to them."
Academy Film Archivist visits the Cuban Film Archives
Formed shortly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), is the official film institute of the Cuban government, and centralizes all of Cuba's major film production and preservation efforts. More