Cuban Filmmakers Today: Extras or Leads?

FERNANDO RAVSBERG*

The crisis in the Cuban Film Industry affects everthing. Less movies are made and precious materiales in the film archives are lost. Photo: Raquel Perez
The crisis in the Cuban Film Industry affects everthing. Less movies are made and precious materiales in the film archives are lost. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — “They want to change the script without consulting with us first,” a Cuban filmmaker tells me, referring to the restructuring of Cuba’s film industry, a process undertaken by a government commission and high officials of the Cuban Film Industry and Art Institute (ICAIC).

The surprising thing is that the true protagonists of this drama, the directors, actors, screenwriters, camera operators, sound recorders and cinematographers of the sector, people who would have much to contribute to the redesign of this cultural industry, were left out of the process.

On this issue, however, Cuban filmmakers aren’t willing to settle for a supporting role, and about a hundred of them organized a meeting to hold their own debate and democratically elect the members of a commission that can represent them before the officials who “forgot” to invite them.

This is how Cuban filmmakers have reacted to their exclusion from official discussions. “How are they going to make any decisions without hearing the views of those of us who make films? They make their excuses to us saying there are two people representing filmmakers in the commission, but the truth is they don’t have any kind of declaration from filmmakers and they haven’t informed us of anything.”

“Today, ICAIC is a bureaucratic giant whose film production capacity has collapsed. For the first time in history, it is run by people who aren’t involved in the making of films.”

Cuban film industry professionals “aren’t sheep”, “when Alfredo [Guevara] was the president of ICAIC, we developed the courage and boldness to express our opinions openly, to the point of becoming an anti-dogmatic organization opposed to pro-Soviet orthodoxy.”

“The industry faced a lot of problems, but we were still able to produce somewhere between 6 and 12 features, 10 animated films and around fifty news pieces and documentaries every year, and managed to buy 3 new releases as well,” those who once made films on a State budget recall and acknowledge.

Today, owing to a lack of budget, hardly any films are made. “Many movie theatres are in poor condition and a lot of archival material has been ruined. This is owed, not only to the economic crisis, but to the industry’s inability to look for solutions to its problems as well.”

“Cuba doesn’t buy any new foreign releases anymore,” filmmakers add. “We make do with pirated materials, which is the reason we only get to see American films. If the blockade were to end tomorrow, we’d have to shut down 3 or 4 Cuban television channels, because they basically only broadcast pirated programs.”

In its heyday Cuban cinema was able to produce somewhere between 6 and 12 features, 10 animated films and around fifty news pieces and documentaries every year. Foto: Raquel Pérez
In its heyday Cuban cinema was able to produce somewhere between 6 and 12 features, 10 animated films and around fifty news pieces and documentaries every year. Foto: Raquel Pérez

Though pirated programming may appear a very inexpensive alternative, filmmakers believe it will come “at a high ideological and cultural cost where the education of new generations is concerned.” This is the reason they are advancing proposals to bolster Cuba’s domestic film industry.

“Today, ICAIC is a bureaucratic giant whose film production capacity has collapsed. For the first time in history, it is run by people who aren’t involved in the making of films,” they explain to me, adding that “we want filmmakers to participate in the debates, whether they’re attached to ICAIC or not.”

Concretely, what filmmakers demand is for their elected representatives to be part of the government commission that will decide the course of Cuba’s industry, in order to guarantee that those who work in the sector have a say in the matter.

The first of their proposals is for ICAIC to continue to manage the industry but to relinquish its monopoly over the sector, so that films can begin to be produced through other institutions, independent production houses, co-productions with third parties or a combination of these mechanisms.

The proposal calls for the promulgation of a Filmmaking Law, to be elaborated by everyone in the sector. This law would constitute the legal corpus that governs and protects this artistic activity, of economic importance to the country, and establishes the rights of those involved in audiovisual production.

Filmmakers also aspire to create a Filmmaker Fund “which all filmmakers can access, with the same rights and under the same conditions, issuing open calls for participation and having an independent jury, whose sole selection criteria will be the quality and overall feasibility of the projects submitted.”

What’s at stake is nothing less than the future of Cuban cinema, one of the most developed and popular forms of artistic expression on the island – a distinction it earned for itself through the aesthetic quality of its pieces and the courage with which it has addressed some of Cuban society’s thorniest issues.

Cuban authorities regularly claim that the island’s democratic mechanisms are set in motion not only during elections but also through consultations with the population on the most varied domestic issues.

On this occasion, they have their work cut out for them, because film artists have already met, reached a number of important agreements and elected a commission to represent them at the table. It’s just a question of letting filmmakers in and hearing what they have to say.

What’s at stake is nothing less than the future of Cuban cinema, one of the most developed and popular forms of artistic expression on the island – a distinction it earned for itself through the aesthetic quality of its pieces and the courage with which it has addressed some of Cuban society’s thorniest issues.

Since its creation, however, ICAIC has also caused much irritation among supporters of “socialist silence.” Attempts to besiege the institution were made on more than one occasion, but figures like Alfredo Guevara managed to ward off the “barbaric invasions.”

Though some of the heavy-weights of Cuba’s film industry are no longer with us, several generations of artists continue to make films under the harshest conditions. It is they who feel duty-bound, and demand the right, to participate in the redesign of Cuban cinema. And they appear to be the ideal counterweight to so many government officials.
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(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


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