Cuban Filmmakers Heading Down the Right Path

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

The Charles Chaplin Theater and building of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).
The Charles Chaplin Theater and building of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — The news surrounding the Cuban Film Industry Institute (ICAIC) is an indication of the changes that Cuba’s political system is experiencing, of how the State’s absolute hold on culture begins to weaken and new, autonomous spaces with a lot to say to society begin to emerge.

As an institution, ICAIC has not been a mere totalitarian monstrosity. Its creation in the early 60s was part of a well-conceived initiative to establish the kind of film industry that had been unable to develop in the pre-revolutionary era. It has both virtues and shortcomings.

It was through this institution that the government sought to regulate intellectual production in the field. Such efforts were at times successful, though only to a limited degree, as is always the case with attempts at controlling what people think, and as one might expect from a system which, following the Heberto Padilla case, sought to avoid all direct confrontations with its artists (not out of respect towards them, but on the basis of a simple costs-benefits calculation).

Though Cuba’s best films were made in the 1960s and after the 1990s, when censorship was not yet fully in place or was beginning to relax – Cuban cinema can boast of having produced some remarkable pieces in the course of its history. And, in this real, concrete and far from imaginary history, ICAIC played an unquestionable role.

The situation now is different, stemming, as Cicero might have put it, from the customs of these new times. Generally speaking, the Cuban State is losing its control over society, most particularly in the rugged terrains of culture.

Havana's Yara Cinema
Havana’s Yara Cinema.  Photo: Caridad

If ICAIC had hitherto been a kind of moping but financially powerful Big Brother, today it is only the former. Consequently, artists have begun to distance themselves from its institutional skirts and to produce their works with the resources they can find, which include everything from new technologies, which reduce the costs of and thus democratize cultural and film production, to foreign investments.

It comes as no surprise, thus, that artists should now be demanding greater autonomy in decision-making and operational processes. These demands, however, are being made within the context of a normative vacuum that is quite dangerous, as the Cuban government has not yet passed film legislation, as have a number of Latin American countries. Something which, as in the case of same-sex marriages, no doubt places the “revolutionary government” somewhere in the Continent’s rear-guard.

Though the government decided to set up a commission to draft a proposal on how to reform ICAIC (to be submitted in September), this commission, like everything spawned by a government (not only Cuba’s), was a highly bureaucratic and far from transparent mechanism where authority prevailed over intelligence.

In response to this, Cuban filmmakers met at a cultural venue known as Fresa y Chocolate on May 4, to demand inclusion in the reform process.

According to an insightful article written by Gustavo Arcos, filmmakers were reacting to “unfortunate decisions that officials made without consulting with the artists, the reiterated censorship of films, chaotic programs and release strategies, lack of distribution through international markets, the closing of most of the country’s screening venues, the lack of film industry funding, a notable deterioration of film equipment, the loss of official spaces where films can be promoted or marketed in Cuba and excessive delays in the implementation of laws that protect independent filmmakers.”

The 23rd and 12th Street cinema in Havana. Photo: Caridad
The 23rd and 12th Street cinema in Havana. Photo: Caridad

This conflict, which I sincerely hope will result in the improvement of Cuban cinema, is but the tip of the iceberg in a crisis that faces the entire field of cultural production, the whole of society, even: a State that is incapable of renouncing to its totalitarian vocation, before an emerging, autonomous society, a State that, therefore, tries to retain its control under increasingly disadvantageous conditions.

During a speech delivered at the opening of Havana’s International Book Fair last February, Cuban poet Ambrosio Fornet referred to the country’s cultural field as an area going through “a period of change.” As is typical of him, Fornet minced his words and got the order wrong: we are witnessing changing times in which Cuba participates with shameful timidity, losing many opportunities.

For those who continue to be seduced by political extremes on both shores, the events surrounding ICAIC’s crisis in Havana are of no real importance. Some will say it is aimed at “perfecting” the “revolution” and that it is therefore more of the same; others will insist it leaves the “dictatorship” intact and that, for this reason, it is also more of the same.

Both positions are patently wrong. It is evident that Cuban filmmakers are neither calling for change towards a democratic political system nor seeking to perfect a revolution that perished long ago and has become something no one can accurately describe.

All these filmmakers are asking for is their own space to work in. Without these spaces, without an autonomous civil society and cultural sphere, no sustainable democracy is possible. Because of this, I feel Cuban filmmakers are pushing the nation’s life-train in the right direction.

And I wish them success, for the good of Cuban society.
An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.

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