A Familiar Face at Cuba’s Film School

“So that the place of utopia, which by definition has no place, has a place…”  – Fernando Birri.

By Lynn Cruz

Ybis Caises


HAVANA TIMES — Maybe it’s because my grandmother’s hands worked the San Tranquilino lands, where the International School of Film and Television (EICTV) of San Antonio de los Baños currently stands on the outskirts of Havana. Or maybe it’s because of the 16 years that have passed since I began participating as an actress at this center, and the fact that I owe my professional training to it. The experiences I lived during my time there, with prestigious professionals from all over the world among whom Norma Angelery (Argentina), Beatriz Flores (Uruguay) and Stephen Bailey (United Kingdom) stand out so much that I feel like this place is a part of my life.

And it’s mainly in the service personnel, in the workers, in anonymous faces, where an important part of the school’s memory lies.

Friendly, affectionate, but also direct and straight to the point, we found Ybis Caises along the main corridor.

Her job consists of connecting students and employees at this center with the outside world. She has been responsible for the school’s telephone switchboard ever since December 1986, when the school was founded.

HT: Ybis, how did you come to work at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Banos?

Ybis Caises: Via a recruitment process that took place at different workplaces in San Antonio, and I had already worked elsewhere with the school’s first administrator. She told me about the project and I accepted. There were other options that ultimately didn’t spin out and they offered me a job working the switchboard and even though I didn’t have any experience, I decided to come.

HT: What were those times like? Do you remember any anecdote in particular?

YC: Those early years were all about learning, about being in a completely new space, which consisted of learning to make cinema, which was something unknown to those of us who came from a completely different world, us “simple” workers. It was also different knowing that we would work with people from other countries; this was all new to me. And even though my place was with the phone switchboard, this also forced me to interact with everyone.

I felt good about this job as soon as I got here, I adapted to the “project’s” circumstances, which is like how I said in the beginning, because nobody knew if it was going to work or not. That’s what they told me and thank God, I’m still here thirty years later. We started with Birri, who was the first director the school had and who gave us a lot of confidence from the very beginning. He told all of us working at the school that we would do a little bit of everything, even be artists, to help the students in their efforts and that’s what happened.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez also used to come a lot to the school, of course his celebrity status commands a lot from you, I never thought that I would meet him in person, as I had read his books. Just imagine, he would come up to my desk and say: “Call my house in Havana” and at that time, trying to remember the number, I got all flustered, but I never forgot it and he asked me if he could come in and talk.

There was a lot of unity, if students and professors were having a party, they always wanted employees to be there too, maybe because the school was free in the beginning, but I don’t know it was just different, I can’t confirm anything, because at that time, even workshops were free, and there were only a few of us, the school has grown a lot and this is a positive thing too.

Just imagine that here we have met from Robert Redford in his hey day, to Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, who has come three times, and of course celebrities, Cuban actresses, actors, directors, who you would never think you would stand so close to. Sigourney Weaver’s visit here was also a success, but just meeting Spielberg… we were all waiting outside to greet him.

HT: What has been your best and worst experience at the school, in your opinion?

YC: My best experience has been learning how to make films, learning cinema inside out, what it really is, not imagining it, but understanding it. And my worst moment was thinking that the school might not be able to continue after all these years. I can tell you that my greatest joy is when I see those people who have studied here during these thirty years who always come back to the school and this reencounter always makes me tear up.

HT: Out of the people who founded the school, along with yourself, can you name some others who still continue to work here?

YC: There are about eight founders who are still working at the school. Teresa Diaz who works in the Publications department. Estrella Hendrickson, head of the IT department. Jeronimo Labrada, the academic assistant manager. Rigoberto Hernandez, who works in press. Onelio Luis is the classroom janitor. Mariolis Robaina works in the production side of things. Raul Espinoso works in the warehouse.

HT: What does the school mean to you?

YC: The school has been an entire life of work for me, because it’s been thirty years. Also, the sense of belonging you have here, having seen it be created and grow and wanting it to last for many, many years, even though I won’t be here anymore.

HT: What would be lost, if it were to disappear?

YC: For me, if it were to disappear, it would be a great loss as it has been classified as one of the best schools world-wide, because students learn by actually making films, not just sitting in classrooms. They work with sound equipment, cameras, and it’s very important to have both theory and practical learning at the same time. Plus, those of us who have been here thirty years, and those who have been here twenty-five years, or twenty, won’t let this happen.

It has also been a very important source of work for the town of San Antonio de los Banos as well, as almost all of the service and office staff are from here, and this has helped us grow not only spiritually but financially too. The school gives life to the town, which is said to be the most filmed in Cuba. They even put a sign up in the towns Central Park that says this. Today, documentaries and thesis projects continue to be made in San Antonio.

HT: I have seen you act in student’s short films, right now Utopia by Arturo Infante comes to mind. Are you working as an actress again?

YC: I made the mistake of not making a note of all the jobs I’ve done at the school, but I do remember the first ever job I did, in 1987, which was a full day’s shoot, because it was the first time, where I told myself the biggest lie: “that I wouldn’t do it again” and up until last year, I’ve continued helping students with my work.

I have enjoyed doing it a lot. Even though I always put up a fight, they always convince me and I end up accepting, it’s inevitable. Last year, in the three minute exercises, a Cuban student wanted me to be his actress and I told myself, what I can I do? Say no to a Cuban? no, so I accepted it.

HT: The school has experienced a very rough crisis, in fact, we are still feeling the consequences of it. A lot of workers have left this time, why did you stay?

YC: With tears in her eyes, Ybis answers me: “Out of love” and also, I never thought about leaving, because in tough times, how are you going to leave the place you love and where you’ve been for so many years?

HT: Do you feel like the school is coming out of this crisis? What are your thoughts on the school’s present and future?

YC: I think that it is coming out of the crisis, and that the school has a good future ahead, we are doing everything we can so that this happens. But, as a wake-up call, as a founding member of this school, I think that those who come need to learn to love it, to understand the school’s importance within this country and in Latin America and also there are people from other places, France, Africa, Germany, England. It’s not by coincidence that so many students want to take the entrance exams each year to get into the school.