Cuban Films Highlighted at New Orleans Film Festival; Directors Speak About Overcoming Challenges

Tocando la Luz Still - H 2015
Courtesy of New Orleans Film Festival

Tocando la Luz Still - H 2015

The directors of the "Cine Cubano" films speak with The Hollywood Reporter about their experiences making the movies.

The restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba is already having a significant impact on the film industry. The New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) is underway in Louisiana and one of its sidebars is "Cine Cubano," featuring six Cuba-centric films, many of which experienced cultural challenges during production.

"We received 3,400 total submissions this year, and there were more than 30 films that addressed Cuba in some way," NOFF's director of programming, Clint Bowie, tells The Hollywood Reporter. He said that usually, he and his team select their thematic sidebars before they review submissions. However, Cine Cubano came about because of how much talented Cuban content was submitted this year.

"It felt like the timing was right and the films were all so strong, it made sense to start this new programming strand," said Bowie. He said there are also similarities between Cuba and New Orleans, pointing to the Caribbean nature of the cities and some of the demographics.

The films selected to be shown at the festival are Habana Instant, Boxeadora, Havana Motor Club, Touch the Light: Tocando La Luz, Hotel Nueva Isla and The Good Night (La Noche Buena).

Hotel Nueva Isla is a meditative documentary about the last inhabitant of a once-luxurious Havana resort, who desperately looks for hidden treasure in the walls of his home.

"Cine Cubano, before all of this [diplomatic] transition, was almost stuck in storage," says Cuban filmmaker Guillermo Ivan. He wrote, directed and starred in narrative feature Habana Instant. "Most of the movies that have been shot in Cuba, they never leave Cuba."

Ivan, who grew up in Cuba, says that he hopes the renewed U.S.-Cuba relationship will give more exposure to Cuban filmmakers. He says there are a lot of challenges Cuban filmmakers must overcome to promote their films outside of the country. "There is [usually] no internet," says Ivan. "Cuba's not a place where you can get your laptop, access New Orleans Film Festival, apply with your movie and pay with a credit card. That is impossible for them, somebody else has to do it."

Ivan's movie depicts the story of two brothers who were separated when their mother fled Cuba with one of them as a baby. The brother who lives in America returns to reunite with the brother who stayed behind. "To me the relationship between Marcelo and Charlie is a metaphor of what's happening right now," says Ivan, referring to the U.S. and Cuba's diplomatic relations. "It's a relationship that's been evolving. that's been transforming into another one."

He says that at first his team tried to seek official approval from the Cuban government for the film, but when that process looked like it would delay filming for too long, they decided to shoot it independently without any permits or relationship with the government.

Habana Instant

"Doing that in a place like Cuba is really dangerous because if you get caught you are jeopardizing a lot of things, literally you could go to jail," says Ivan. He says that in the past few years the independent film movement is growing in Cuba as more artists feel free to express themselves. They work without the assistance of the government-controlled Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC).

Ivan cites difficulties he found with simple tasks like distributing a call sheet or recharging batteries. Since they didn't have access to computer equipment or the internet,  they would post a handwritten list of the next day's schedule and crew members would have to come check it nightly. Once when the power went out, a production manager had to travel miles away to plug in camera batteries for three hours before they could continue shooting. 

However, Ivan found that the challenges were worth the opportunity to witness crew-members with two different backgrounds coming together to work on the film. "Only a few years ago it seemed impossible to be having something like this and now it's possible," says Ivan.

Havana Motor Club

"I hope that now that there's so much more interest in Cuba, there will be more Cuban films," says Havana Motor Club director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt.

Perlmutt highlights the strong cinematic tradition in Cuba and compliments the talent that emerges from the country's prestigious film school, the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television (EICTV). It was co-founded by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"They have a very rich cinema-going audience," adds Perlmutt. "People love seeing good movies there. If you go to the Havana Film Festival, you'll see lines five blocks long for obscure Romanian films."

Perlmutt's film, Havana Motor Club, tells the story of Cuba's underground racing community. The Brooklyn-based director encountered the community for the first time while working on a different film in the country in 2012.

He initially thought he would be making a documentary where he followed the drag racers for six weeks until their race, which would have been the first official car race since the revolution in 1959. However, the race kept getting pushed back. Perlmutt — who waited for more than a year to be able to film his ending — said what started as a "simple competition film" ended up becoming a story of how the changes in Cuba are affecting everyday Cubans, through the lens of drag racers.

Academy Award-nominated director Jennifer Redfearn also depicts the quotidian lives of Cuban characters with her documentary about three blind women, entitled Touch the Light: Tocando La Luz.

"We wanted to tell an intimate, character-driven story that brings the audience into the lives of Cuban families", says Redfearn. She and partner Tim Metzger made their film over the course of three years. They were drawn to the subject when they heard about a cinema club for the blind, where the blind community goes to watch films as a narrator tells the audience what is occurring on screen. One of the main characters in the film, Margarita, speaks about how the cinema club allows her to feel a personal independence.

Redfearn says the cinema club was just one of the "amazing, unexpected cultural discoveries" she encountered in Cuba. Another, less positive one, was waiting 1.5 years to get a permit to film at a hair salon.

The director says she's looking forward to a "greater cultural exchange, particularly in the film world, between the U.S. and Cuba." She and Metzger are teaching an intermediate documentary class at NYU in the spring, where they will take a group of students to Cuba to make short documentaries. 

The Good Night (La Noche Buena)

Alex Mallis cautions any American filmmakers — or American tourists in general — to be "sensitive and thoughtful" while traveling in Cuba. The autobiographical narrative short he wrote, directed and starred in, The Good Night (La Noche Buena) is about an awkward encounter he had when he first went to Cuba.

Mallis is a second-generation Cuban and when he met up with a distant family friend in an attempt to connect, he ended up alienating himself. "I was a stranger in my own history," says Mallis, recalling the sense of "false nostalgia" he had when visiting the country.

He describes feeling a "mixture of responsibility and guilt" at the socioeconomic discrepancies between Cubans and Americans. His interaction with his family friend represented the larger feeling he had while visiting Cuba, which occurred again when he went down to film the movie. 

"It was a big challenge to maintain," he says, "To be sensitive and thoughtful and aware of your responsibility and privilege — with a capital P — as an American traveling in a place like Cuba." He says he learned to "be aware of who you are and what assumptions you come with."

Boxeadora depicts a woman who defies Fidel Castro's ban on female boxers in pursuit of Olympic glory.

As part of the New Orleans Film Festival, Boxeadora's Meg Smaker and Habana Instant's Guillermo Ivan will be speaking about the Cuban film industry with students at Loyola University and Tulane University, respectively, on Oct. 19.