Cuban film industry waits for next revolution


HAVANA -- On a star-filled December night in 1985, Julio Garcia Espinosa found himself riding around Havana with Fidel Castro.

"We're going to build a school," Castro told the Cuban filmmaker.

"A film school?" Garcia asked. Film and television, he was told.

Castro, who often would hold meetings in his car if he wanted some privacy, had joined Garcia Espinosa and his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer, during a reception that day for Jack Lemmon and Gregory Peck. The Hollywood duo had come to inform Garcia Espinosa -- then head of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute -- that the organization had been sanctioned as the official sponsor of Cuban entries in the Academy's foreign-film category.

"Fifteen days later, Fidel said, 'So do you have a curriculum yet?' " Garcia Espinosa's wife Lola recalled with a laugh.

Today, the International School of Film and Television houses 117 full-time students, gleaned from throughout Latin America and a total of 50 countries over the ensuing 22 years.

"For a poor country like ours, to think about establishing a film school was a great proof of our love of cinema," Garcia Espinosa told a reporter recently.

Situated 43 miles outside Havana, the school has a faculty comprised of Cuban and international film professionals -- ex-MGM and Fox executive Sandy Lieberson taught a three-week course for several years -- and graduates from its three-year program have gone on to careers in the active, if insular, Cuban film industry. There's also a highly sophisticated animation school in Havana that's particularly active in music videos and DVDs.

The trade embargo has kept American film studios from shooting in Cuba, but the long-ago visit by Lemmon and Peck was hardly the last Hollywood delegation to arrive in Havana. Visitors to ICAIC and the international film school in recent years have included Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Penn, Leslie Moonves and Kevin Costner, who screened the Cuban missile crisis film "Thirteen Days" for Castro.

With political change afoot in Cuba and perhaps also in the U.S., hope is on the rise that Cuban filmmakers soon will be able to connect with their U.S. colleagues more regularly. Writer-director Jorge Luis Sanchez ("El Benny") suggests there has been a recent trend toward greater freedom of expression in their work.

"From the point of view of freedom of expression, there is more freedom now than ever," Sanchez said. "The limits on us are financial."

Among future projects, Sanchez wants to shoot a film about three Cuban kids and their experiences during a change in military government from Spain to the U.S. in the 1890s.

"Maybe it can be the first Cuban-American co-production?" he suggested with a wide grin.

ICAIC pays established filmmakers like Sanchez a salary when they are between projects. But for the most part, even modestly ambitious feature projects in Cuba require financing through co-productions, often involving film companies in Spain or Latin American countries.

That helps get films shot, but foreign distribution remains mostly theoretical.

"It is easier to produce a film than to distribute it when, even in Europe, 90% of the theaters show only American films," longtime ICAIC president Omar Gonzalez Jimenez lamented.

So Cuban films get most of their global exposure on the festival circuit, where thirtysomething filmmakers such as Pavel Giroud ("La Edad de la Peseta") and Esteban Insausti ("Existen") have seen recent success. Cuban films are popular in the home market, but a paucity of quality theaters hampers attendance, and ICAIC sorely wants to restore more venues to expand on a current core of only a couple dozen decent cinemas in Havana and elsewhere.

Cuba's economic decline following the loss of Soviet support in the early 1990s hurt Cuban cinema greatly. But officials say they have stabilized things and are optimistic of better times regardless of developments on the diplomatic front.

Indeed, when Garcia Espinosa talks about the bad old days, he means before Castro's successful revolution began in 1959.

Garcia Espinosa first studied film in Italy during the "new realism" period, and after returning to Cuba in 1956 he set about filming his first feature documentary. The project landed him in jail.

"It was dangerous to be running around the country with a camera," Garcia Espinosa recounted with a chuckle. "Lucky for us, there was a revolution, and we were able to make films. Films were seriously made in Cuba from 1959."

On the other hand, even ICAIC officials acknowledge state censorship of content considered too steamy hampered Cuban filmmaking in the 1970s.

Like many at ICAIC, Garcia Espinosa's tastes tend to be a bit academic -- he names Charlie Chaplin as his favorite Hollywood director -- and in a time-capsule country like Cuba they might also reflect the island nation's isolation. Yet the 48-year-old Sanchez named "Citizen Kane" as his favorite Hollywood movie even though an estimated 40% of films playing in Havana theaters are pirated version of current U.S. fare.

The international film school Garcia Espinosa co-founded now operates through a private foundation. Like the growing international film festival held each December in Havana, the film school strives to reflect a regional film aesthetic.

"People have learned cinema through Hollywood, and of course it's been very important," Garcia Espinosa mused. "But this gives Latin America a chance to think about itself."

Gonzalez Jimenez agreed that Cuban cinema is motivated by "cultural rather than commercial interests." Co-productions often are created with those considerations in mind, he said.

"The paradigm is not the people who have more, it's the people who know more," Gonzalez Jimenez said.

Still, co-productions tied to regional partners in Venezuela and elsewhere are stuck very much in the pursuit of postproduction assistance as film-lab technology is in short supply in Cuba. Cuban films also are regularly shipped to Europe for postproduction, tacking on extra weeks or even months to projects.

All this could change almost overnight if the U.S. trade embargo were lifted, as Hollywood would appear on Cuba's figurative doorstep quicker than you can say exotic locales and cheap labor.

Local cinema professionals would love to take part in Cuban-themed film projects like Soderbergh's current Che Guevara biopic "Guerrilla," which was forced to shoot in Spain by a U.S. policy Cubans call "the Blockade." But for now, they take considerable solace in an ability to focus more on the art of filmmaking and less on commercial exploitation.

Consider how Garcia Espinosa bookended his 1969 critique of modern cinema, "For an Imperfect Cinema."

"Nowadays, perfect cinema -- technically and artistically masterful -- is almost always reactionary cinema," Garcia began in the still-referenced treatise on "revolutionary" filmmaking.

"The future, without doubt, will be with folk art," he concluded in a paragraph especially resonant in the YouTube age. "But then there will be no need to call it that, because nobody and nothing will any longer be able to again paralyze the creative spirit of the people. Art will not disappear into nothingness; it will disappear into everything."