Cuban Cinema at a Crossroads: Independent Productions on the Island

Fernando Ravsberg*

Juan of the Dead, which received several international awards, is proof that Cuban independent cinema has a future.
Juan of the Dead, which received several international awards, is proof that Cuban independent cinema has a future.

HAVANA TIMES — Today, new generations of Cuban filmmakers are shooting shorts and features with very low production budgets and even setting up their own production houses, skirting the monopoly which the Cuban Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) has held for nearly half a century.

Producciones 5ta Avenida is one of Cuba’s independent film production companies. The company is registered as a “creative group” because no legislation exisits that would allow them to operate legally as a production house.

Though they aren’t even allowed to enter into production contracts or open their own bank account, its members are already enjoying their first international success with Juan de los Muertos (“Juan of the Dead”), a film which recently received a Goya award.

Claudia Calviño, one of the presidents of this production company, believes “the time is ripe for these types of productions and I’ve set all of my hopes on that.” Calviño is part of a commission of filmmakers currently working in the design of a film platform for Cuba, contributing her own experiences to the process.

“We are more efficient and that allows us to produce films that ICAIC would be unable to take on, because of the costs that setting its enormous structure in motion entails. We can work with one fifth of the money they need, because it’s just a handful of us doing everything,” said Calviño.

The work that Producciones 5ta Avenida does, however, is far from easy. Securing the money needed for a feature film entails 3 to 4 years of searching for international funds and grants aimed at promoting Latin American cinema and co-production agreements that can help finance the project.

Spain’s financial crisis was a hard blow on the company, felt even while still shooting Juan of the Dead, when they were almost left without the money needed to complete the project. “Co-productions with Spain were very convenient for us because of our common language and our experience working together, but it’s almost impossible to do this now, with the crisis,” Calviño explains.

Currently, Producciones 5ta Avenida is looking for funds to produce young screenwriter Arturo Infante’s first feature film. Infante is the director a short film, titled Utopia, which travelled around Cuba from one USB memory to another and was “produced with only $3,000 dollars and thanks to the free work of actors, camera operators and editors.” Like Calviño, Infante is a product of Cuba’s educational system.

After graduating from Cuba’s Higher Institute for the Arts, Infante studied at the San Antonio de los Baños International Film School. Out of university, he again returned to the reality of a poor country with very few resources for cultural projects as expensive as cinema. This, however, hasn’t stopped him. “There are many more people making films today,” he says.

Independent filmmakers can make films “with one fifth of the money ICAIC needs because it’s just a handful of us doing everything,” Claudia Calviño explains. Photo: Raquel Perez
Independent filmmakers can make films “with one fifth of the money ICAIC needs because it’s just a handful of us doing everything,” Claudia Calviño explains. Photo: Raquel Perez

A great many Cuban filmmakers believe structural changes are needed. Claudia Calviño maintains that it is time for “ICAIC to represent us before the country’s authorities and not the other way around, as is the case today.”

She adds that the film institute “isn’t what it used to be. I believe its role as a vanguard institution that criticizes society was lost over the last 10 years.” Calviño comments that, while Cuban movie theaters screen the last sequel of the Batman saga, a Cuban film such as Melaza isn’t shown anywhere. “What ideological position could be behind such a choice?” she asks herself.

Calviño believes that “the first step would be to create a legal platform for independent productions. Today, we can’t even sign a contract or open our own bank account,” she explains, adding that the important thing “is to be allowed to work without the stress of thinking one is doing something illegal.”

Cuban filmmakers are calling for a film legislation that will promote Cuba’s production at the national and international level and proposing to turn ICAIC into something that “is more an institute than a production company. It should support, rather than make films, encourage the creation of grants and funds, guarantee that Cuban films make it out into the world.”

The difficulties involved in designing a platform that will be able to impel film production in a country with the limited resources Cuba has are enormous, but the country is not devoid of strong foundations in this connection. The Cuban film industry can look back on a long history of excellent movies and can boast of having produced some of Latin America’s classics.

Such resources can be easily accessed because no generational gaps divide Cuban filmmakers today, to the point that many talented filmmakers of all ages and with a solid academic background currently co-exist in the country.

“The only thing we need is money,” Cuba’s young filmmakers insist, convinced the situation could be overcome with a cultural policy which makes production structures more flexible, eliminates bureaucratic hurdles that prevent people from shooting in Cuba, propose co-production schemes in which Cuba can supply work in lieu of providing funds, and streamline cultural institutions, many a time overloaded with government officials who contribute very little, creatively, and only increase production costs.
(*) Read Fernando Ravsberg’s blog in Spanish.