The Havana Film Festival: A Window to Ourselves

Irina Echarry  (Photos: Juan Suarez)

HAVANA TIMES — The Havana Film Festival draws many filmmakers from the region. Most consider it an honor to have their work screened in Havana for the 10 days of the festival. To take part in the festival, be it by offering lectures, attending workshops or simply as special guests becomes the aim of many.

As for audiences, though one no longer breathes that bohemian, dynamic and energetic air of past decades, one can still sense the enthusiasm, particularly when Cuban films are screened.

Years ago, people didn’t make a point of seeing Cuban films in the theaters. The most common argument for this was that, after the festival ended and the films began to be screened regularly, one could go see them at one’s leisure. Now, people stand in huge lines every time a Cuban film premiers, no matter what the subject matter, and there’s always the fear that, after the festival is over, these films will be shelved, never to be seen again.

There are people who dart from one cinema to the next to see dramatic films. Others prefer documentaries, which typically deal with the common (often anonymous) folk that make the continent’s life rich and diverse.

A case in point is Sunu, by Mexican filmmaker Teresa Camou Guerrero (who didn’t think twice about changing professions when she felt it necessary). Her years as a puppeteer and theater actress afforded her the experience she needed to effectively communicate with audiences and the people who appear in her documentary.

Sunu is a documentary dealing with the protection of corn and Mexico’s food sovereignty. The crew spent 16 months, filming the different agricultural seasons in several Mexican states. According to the director, every town has its own, particular way of working the land, as well as a local culture and myths, but the situation of corn and food in general is similar throughout the country.

The countryside has very little government support and the arrival of hybrid corn has been disastrous. Without a community market where they can sell homegrown corn and hit by the invasion of transgenic crops, men and women who live off the land have a very hard time, and many end up abandoning their land. These cultures will be lost when the few farmers who continue to confront this state of things disappear. It’s a shame that the Infanta cinema, where this documentary was screened, was almost empty.

A Cuban documentary that did get a full house in this theater was El tren de la linea norte (“The North Route Train”).

It is the year 2013, and the train travels from the town of Moron to Punta Alegre, making a crucial stop at Falla, a town stuck in time. Its more than 8,000 inhabitants continue to live as in the harsh days of the economic crisis that hit Cuba in the 90s. Marcelo Martin, who previously captivated us with Elena (a documentary dealing with the lives and circumstances of the tenants of a building at risk of collapsing) again puts his art in the service of social protest, affording us a glimpse at a universe both familiar and startling, at once painful and overwhelming.

The camera plumbs the darkest areas of the town, there where there’s no hope, where moral and ethical values are molded and twisted for the sole purpose of surviving, a place where human beings are deprived of hope as a result of a life without guarantees and full of material privations. Falla becomes the embodiment of the country’s stagnation. People are upset, angry that the government has turned its back on them. The director assumes a courageous posture by giving these desperate people a voice. However, something doesn’t quite work. Though one feels a lump in one’s throat seeing the poverty the entire town is mired in, it is hard to shed any tears. Perhaps back in the 90s, El tren de la linea norte would have been an excellent documentary, but our way of looking at the world has since changed and we’re sick of waiting for the government to solve our problems.

It is not enough to condemn neglect, complain about having been abandoned and express anger, if this does not lead us to change. What the film lacks is a hopeful look, something telling us how these families have stood up to the crisis, something to balance the apathy and poverty of the townspeople, who seem only to drink and commit crimes. Crises also lead to good things, and Falla is probably no exception to the rule.