Cuba’s Young Filmmakers Look at Real Issues

Ivet González

Photo: Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES, March 3 (IPS) — Lighting up dark areas of Cuban society with youthful vigor, Muestra Joven (the Young Cinema Exhibition), a local independent film event, reached its 10th anniversary characterized by experimentation and subjects that are both complex and invisible in the national media.

“The exhibition has earned a place for itself, against all the odds,” Danae Diéguez, a member of the organizing committee since 2006, told IPS about the festival that took place Feb. 22-27.

The sharp criticism expressed in the films has clashed more than once with the authorities, as seen for instance in the attempt to censor the documentary “Revolution”, by Mayckell Pedrero, about the underground Cuban hip hop duo Los Aldeanos. The film was awarded several prizes in 2010.

Filmmaker Carlos Y. Rodríguez said one of the virtues of the festival is that it creates “a space for works that deal with controversial real-life problems.”

Rodriguez, who is from Santiago de Cuba, 861 kilometers east of Havana, told IPS that this goal has been achieved “prudently, by educating filmmakers and also, to a lesser extent, society.”

The festival, launched in 2000, was called the New Directors’ Exhibition until this year, when it was renamed Muestra Joven (Young Cinema Exhibition).

Cuba’s film institute, ICAIC, coordinates the event, but according to Diéguez it upholds the “open mentality” that is a hallmark of the new generation of Cuban filmmakers.

Thanks to the growing availability of video cameras, democratization of technology in the country had already progressed by the start of the new century.

Works by those who picked up a camera and recorded films purely for pleasure were collected in the late 1980s and early 1990s and exhibited by the Asociación Hermanos Saíz, a non-governmental cultural organization for young artists, paving the way for ICAIC’s initiative.

The aim of the ICAIC exhibitions was to “bring together, attract and identify the group of people who make alternative movies, outside the bounds of the film industry, with different approaches to production, media, and to some extent style,” Diéguez said.

Films presented at the festival attained new qualitative heights with the advent of digital technology, which expanded the potential for filming and editing. The costs of a production of this type are paid by the filmmakers and any personal supporters they may have who can contribute funding.

“Independence is both material and mental,” said Diéguez.

Prostitution, violence against women, drug addiction, small farmers forced to abandon their land because of lack of resources, shortcomings in the public education system, the superficiality of Cuban institutions, and poverty are some of the topics addressed by the films each year.

Film expert Enrique Colina says the young people who gather at the exhibition have a passion for the burning issues of Cuba’s day-to-day reality, which arises from the absence of critical and social journalism in this Caribbean island nation where the mass media have been in state hands since the mid-1960s.

Photo: Jorge Luis Baños.

Social criticism plays a leading role in the festival films. “It has allowed people to express all those things that have damaged them deep down, including intense and hard-hitting social issues,” Ariagna Fajardo, who works for Televisión Serrana, a community video and TV project in the east of the country, told IPS.

This 27-year-old creative artist has been singled out for distinctions at the festival, in 2010 for “¿A dónde vamos?” (Where Are We Going?) about rural migration, and this year for “Papalotes” (Kites), which deals with the inertia that has overtaken people in Cuba.

This year there were 69 competition entries, and the main categories were fiction, documentary, animation and original score.

“Memorias del desarrollo” (Memories of Development) by Miguel Coyula won the fiction and original score prizes. It is the first movie to be filmed and exhibited in both the United States and Cuba since the U.S. embargo was imposed in 1962. The film was made possible by its independent, not-for-profit status.

The film takes up the story of Sergio, the leading character in “Memorias del subdesarrollo” (Memories of Underdevelopment), an iconic film by the late Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

Fajardo said the exhibition helps get local stories onto the screens in cinemas in the capital, some of which later resonate with audiences in other countries. But in spite of the attractiveness, strength and topicality of many films, “perhaps they will not generate dialogue beyond Havana’s movie houses,” she lamented.

However, experts say the main distribution circuit for these films is as alternative as the exhibition itself.

USB flash drives that plug into computers are used for person-to-person circulation, often on the black market, of films like “De leones, buzos y tanqueros” (2008), about people who scavenge recyclable materials on the streets and in garbage dumps, to survive.

On the so-called “USB market”, pirated local or international films, television serials or shows recorded on compact disks, DVDs or external storage devices are informally rented or sold.

It is also a Cuban custom to swap or give away all kinds of digital-format audiovisual products, for entertainment or information purposes.

Amateur films compete on equal terms with those by professional directors at the exhibition, which in its first 10 years has launched now-recognized filmmakers like Lester Hamlet and Pavel Giroud, and has helped drive the current boom in independent films in Cuba.

Since 2009, a selection of the films presented at the Havana exhibition has subsequently toured all the country’s provinces. “But they cannot get to regions that are remote from the provincial capitals. That population is left out, and does not find out what’s going on,” Fajardo stressed.

On several occasions, Magali Cavus, a researcher at the University of Lyon in France, has taken Cuban Young Cinema works and alternative films to France. “The films help people to see Cuba not just in black-and-white, but in many more shades,” she told IPS.