Vatican For Film-Makers
By Chris Payne
28 November, 2003
you're unfamiliar with Cuba's cinematic heritage, you might assume that
a film school run with Fidel Castro's help would be coaching its students
in flag-waving reconstructions of the Bay of Pigs or promo reels exhorting
the nation's nickel workers to greater heights of production. Hardly
any films produced on the island since the 1960s have achieved distribution
in the UK. The Buena Vista Social Club, the internationally successful
documentary about a group of old-time Havana musicians, which became
the soundtrack of every middle-class dinner party, was made by the German
director Wim Wenders.
A 50-minute drive
from Havana, the international film and television school immediately
strikes the visitor as a colonial compound in the tropics. A staff of
over 200 full-time cooks, maids, gardeners, builders, drivers, translators
and security staff cater for the film student's every possible need.
Internet access is three cents a minute, cable TV plays in the 24-hour
cafeteria and, on Sundays, there are even bus trips to Varadero, the
20-mile strip of unblemished white sand that is the Caribbean's largest
The school's Cuban
director, Julio García Espinosa, explains the justification behind
such expenditure. "When I was at film school in Rome in the 1950s,
Alessandro Bonavetti, a famous Italian director of the time, asked us
students what the most important thing was for film-makers to possess.
We of course answered 'passion', 'talent', 'vision', but he just shook
his head. 'Health,' was his reply. It was true. We were so poor. We
wrote on waste paper collected from the streets. So when I had the chance
to set up this school I knew the students must be free to concentrate
on their work."
In the cafeteria,
dilemmas that face every film student are debated with added passion.
"There's no way I'm leaving here just to make more films like they
do in Europe or Hollywood," says Marina from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"Most of them are just escapism." Her boyfriend, Victor, from
Cartagena in Colombia, shakes his head. "South America is full
of all these messianic directors preaching this and that to audiences
that are not interested any more. I think Hollywood sometimes gets it
right. If you want to reach people, you must entertain. I think I'm
going to make comedies. But dark ones, of course."
one-time studio boss of MGM and 20th Century Fox and now director of
Film London, has been teaching a three-week crash course in international
film production at the school for the past six years. Young professionals
already working in the Latin American media have flown in for eight
weeks' training in the art of packaging films. In a class of 18, each
student pitches two ideas and, after discussion, they vote for the best
five. Desiree from the Dominican Republic scores big points for her
satire about a group of slacker friends who stand in the presidential
elections as a joke, only for the politics to become alarmingly real.
So, too, does Susanna from Chile, with a tragicomic story of a transsexual
who is so convinced he is a woman that when told he is HIV positive,
he takes the positive to mean pregnant.
Of the winners,
two are from Cuba. The first is a story of a young man's sexual awakening
while on national service; the second about a group of a Cuban balseros
(boat people) whose terrifying attempt to float the 90 miles from Cuba
to Miami on a home-made raft is documented on video. The following weeks
will be spent on budgeting and scheduling the concepts. The school is
proud that, of the ideas that have been developed in the workshop, several
made it into production when the students returned to their home countries,
and it expects a lot more in the years to come.
This last point
gets to the heart of what the school is about. In the 1960s, García
was among a group of left-wing academics who witnessed what they saw
as the "colonial decimation" of Latin American cinema. "In
the 1930s and 1940s there were lots of great films being shown in our
cinemas, then it dropped right off," he says. "The American
studios claimed it was due to market forces, but of course it wasn't.
If we wanted one of their hits they would force us to take nine other
films of lower quality. The glossy-produced films with big budgets were
always put in the best cinemas, so Latin films screened in the less
well-kept theatres. The public therefore assumed their own films were
When the revolution
came in 1959, García and his colleagues were determined to break
the studios' grip on Cuban culture. The Cuban institute for art and
the cinema industry was hurriedly assembled and Hollywood was informed
that, from now on, Cuba would be taking equal numbers of films from
Latin America and the rest of the world. In addition, Latin American
films would get the chance to play in the best cinemas. "If they
wanted to dump their inferior films on us from now on, that was fine,"
says García. The studios said that we were forcing films on the
public that they didn't want to see and that cinema attendance would
fall. This didn't happen. Attendances stayed the same. We broke the
myth." The plan had little effect on film production, however.
Hollywood went from strength to blockbuster-fuelled strength, while
film production in debt-blighted Latin America fell disastrously.
The idea for the
film school occurred to García 17 years ago. As he saw it, what
the continent desperately needed was a "factory of creative energy"
where talented people from all over the world would feed off each other.
Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez has a house in
Havana, and when García turned up to suggest the idea, Castro
happened to be there. That same evening, the plan was agreed. I wondered
how a novelist and an ex-guerrilla leader came to get so excited about
building a film school. "I think they are both frustrated film-makers,"
The school's vision
of not only educating its students in the how-tos of film-making but
also trying to change the globe's cinematic landscape has drawn some
of the world's top cinema talent to its lecture theatres. Steven Soderbergh
got quite a grilling from some of the students, unhappy about his drugs
'n' guns portrayal of Mexico in Traffic. Spielberg enthused about the
energy of the place, spoke out against the embargo and was reported
as saying that he'd love to make a film in Cuba. But the students' favourite
remains Francis Ford Coppola, who visited in 1998: he hung around the
cafe for two days and cooked pasta for everyone in the canteen.
The reason the Americans
can bypass the US travel ban to the island lies with Castro. García
and García Márquez persuaded Castro to make the school
a non-government organisation. "You're not actually standing on
Cuban soil," say the school's Juan José and Oriel Rodriguez.
"This place is a sort of Vatican for film-makers." Nevertheless,
water, petrol and electricity, tightly rationed on the rest of the island,
are supplied at a discount by the Cuban authorities.
Back in Havana,
where the young film-makers are not wrapped in the warm embrace of the
school, there is frustration at the control exercised by Cuba's film
commission over everything from script development to distribution.
To develop or finance a script they have to submit it to a committee
of 14 bureaucrats, none of whom has made a film for 10 years. Horror
films, anything zany or vaguely "experimental", they say,
gets short shrift.
Felipe, a 24-year-old
trainee cameraman, tells me of his struggle to make a short film about
a cake delivery boy getting trapped in a lift, who is seized by a fit
of claustrophobia, eats his cake and then slaughters the family who
are waiting for him. "For starters, I'm a cameraman, so I would
be rejected because I'm supposed to be a cameraman, not a director.
And then there's the bloodbath ending..."
Pavel, on the other
hand, like generations of film-makers around the world facing insurmountable
bureaucracy, is learning to do it for himself. Working on pop promos
and adverts, sometimes for foreign companies using the city as a location,
he is typical of Havana's burgeoning class of autonomos (self-employed)
chasing the fula (dollar) since the government introduced a degree of
free-market capitalism into the economy. He owns a digital camera, and
an Avid Xpress editing system on his computer which he rents out.
problem, however, is attracting investment. The 28-year-old has connections
abroad, "but there is no way I can set up a bank account and receive
$10,000 of foreign investment without things having to become 'official'",
by which he means nightmarishly bureaucratic. Finally, should Pavel
surmount this problem his investors must be clear on one thing: they
will not see any money in Cuba. In Cuba's centrally organised economy,
where the president himself is a film lover, cinema-goers only pay two
pesos a ticket (about five pence).
It was then that
I heard about a comedy-drama called Fruits in the Cafe, which the producers
are claiming will be Cuba's first fully independent feature film. Over
the summer Daniel and Regis from the school worked on the movie, directed
by one of the country's rising stars, Humberto Padrón. Interestingly,
the budget of the film had come from the owner of one of the country's
better-known private restaurants or paladars. A meeting was called at
La Guarida, possibly the most famous paladar. Spielberg happened to
be there, too, and there was talk of a shot at the Sundance film festival.
In the Cuban authorities'
way of negotiating slippery developments, Fruits of the Cafe officially
"does not exist". But the institute is in fact more than aware
of the film, and importantly granted the producers vital location permissions
to shoot. Should they agree to distribute Fruits in the Cafe when it
is ready, possibly at the same time as Havana's international film festival
next month, their decision will become a landmark in Cuban cinema. Pavel,
Felipe and the Cubans at the film school may also sink more than a few
Havana Clubs, too.