Havana Film Festival New York 2002

Utopia Is For Walking

A blockade has two sets of victims — both the targets of that particular cruelty and the perpetrators. It is the aggressors themselves who suffer in a more transcendent manner, from self-imposed deprivation of contact with the demonized Other and their creative riches.

How much the U.S. is missing by denying contact with the vibrant fruits of another country’s artistic labors became strikingly evident at this April’s Havana Film Festival New York 2001. A sampling of Cuban and other award-winning Latin American films from the past decade at the Festival in Havana, as well as live imported Cuban musical performances, the Festival served up tempting morsels and whetted sensory appetites for much more.

Just as with the enthusiastic devouring of the isolated and distinctly Iranian cinema by audiences here, we crave in the midst of plenty, a uniquely fundamentalist cinema unblemished by the homogenizing commercial influences of dominant American film product infiltration. Cuban film, both classic and contemporary, and to a lesser extent the still very ethnically expressive Latin American cinema, satisfied that craving, in particular for something more than the vacant glut of movies here, whose mind boggling quantity cannot mask its absence of quality or variety.

A testament to the recognition of that American cultural hunger combined with a support of Cuba and the very valid principle of tolerance toward global political diversity are the sponsors of this year’s Festival, who include conventional institutions like the New York Times, Delta Airlines, Kodak, Johnnie Walker, and Disney’s Miramax Films. There are a number of anecdotes circulating as to how this Festival, now in its second year, first came into being and continues to thrive despite the hostile climate surrounding the blockade, and U.S. government attitudes against Cuba. Some trace its origins to the enormous success of the Cuban documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, which thrilled and delighted U.S. audiences, gleaning numerous awards here, and even an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Others trace the birth of the Festival to informal, spontaneous cross-cultural pow-wows between U.S. and Cuban film and music producers in the hallways of the Festival in Havana.

Perhaps the truth is a combination of the above, but in any case, the optimism and conciliatory attitude of the music in general, and Buena Vista Social Club in particular, are crucial factors. I would venture to add to that, the tremendous impact of the Elian Gonzalez affair, and along with it the surprise discovery that, not only do the majority of Americans bear no ill will toward Cuba despite the most concerted efforts of their government to ensure that they do. But it was in particular the enormous outpouring of sympathy by Americans for Elian and his family that broadcast the clear message that the time was ripe for cultural reconciliation.

The stage was set for this gala mid-April film and music celebration, with the Festival’s striking, comically irreverent theme poster, Eduardo Munoz Bachs’ reinvented “Latin Liberty in New York Harbor.” In his painting, the Statue of Liberty is reborn as Charlie Chaplin, with cigar and movie clapboard in hand, his torch an explosion of bright, tropical-colored streamers. The latest films from Cuba reflect that mood: flavorful, outspoken, provocative, distinctly Cuban and Latino-centric, and wielding humor as a weapon against the prolonged austerity measures instituted to deal with the U.S. blockade. Interspersed throughout the film screenings were Cuban music events at local nightspots, highlighting the soaring Afro-Latin rhythms of Isaac Delgado, X-Alfonso & Sintesis, Pan Con Timba, Roberto Carcasses, Son Mondano, and Maraca. A Tribute To Latin Jazz also enlivened the Festival, with a special appearance by Chucho Valdez.

It Happened In Havana (Hacerse El Sueco) opened the Festival. Directed by Daniel Diaz Torres (Little Tropicana), it wryly reverses gringo expectations of films where white tourists fall prey to criminals in developing countries. It Happened In Havana relates how the arrival of a cunning German bandit disguised as a visiting Swedish professor precipitates a one-man crime wave on the island. The film is a determined commentary on the negative side effects of tourism and Western commercial intrusion during this emergency special period imposed upon the socialist economy. Torres commented about his film, “For years, Cuba has been opened up to foreigners, and that’s had an impact on people’s lives and way of thinking. And my film is concerned with how to open up people’s mindsets without totally losing those socialist, community values worth preserving.”

Also tuned in to the ideologically based contradictions of daily life, but always armed with that very Cuban sense of comedy as means of survival, is Pastor Vega’s Amanda’s Prophecies (Las Profecias de Amanda). Casting his wife Daisy Granados as an eccentric Havana fortune teller, Vega continues to work out his fascination with Cuba’s historical significance, through stories about its women that follow a trajectory from his classic Portrait Of Teresa (Retrato De Teresa, 1979). Vega’s hearty visual potion mixes traditional African-derived mysticism with Cubanized Marxism, contradictions and all.

Special programs at the Festival were “New World Cinema,” “Classic Cuban Cinema,” “Contemporary and Classic Cuban Documentaries,” “Award-Winning Latin American Shorts and Documentaries,” and “A New Generation Of Latin American Filmmakers,” which included Amores Perros, the top award winner at Havana last year, and current U.S. hit by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, along with Venezuela’s own version of Traffic through stereotype-free Latino eyes, Jose Ramon Novoa’s 1994 film, Assassin For Hire (Sicario).

Of particular significance was a sidebar Video Program. Because of economic hardships imposed by the U.S. blockade, many filmmakers must either resort to the cheaper video productions, or take their chances trying to accommodate the commercial imperatives of European co-productions. Consequently, some of the most dedicated and distinctive cinematic visions in Cuba thrive on video. One of the more outstanding entries in the Festival Video Program was Oracion by Marisol Trujillo (and based on a poem by Ernesto Cardenal), which merges Marilyn Monroe mythology with everyday poverty and carnage in Latin America. As well, Una Vida Para Dos by Girardo Chijona, focuses on a militant elderly couple, whose marriage survives because of shared political struggles dating from the Spanish Civil War. And in a country where even the most mundane aspects of life can be tinged with whimsical ideological reflections, Jau, directed by Enrique Colina, considers dogs with a very affectionate kind of canine humanism, as servile creatures potentially “exploited by man.”

A central figure in Latin American as well as Cuban film, Argentine director Fernando Birri (My Son, Che [Mi hijo el Che: Un retrato de familia de don Ernesto Guevara, 1985]) was on hand for a retrospective of his militant, groundbreaking documentaries. Dubbed the father of Latin American Cinema and a central figure in the birth and development of post-Revolutionary Cuban film production, Birri considers his home to be wherever his shoes touch the earth, a reminder of the profound Pan-American cultural interconnections that exist side by side with potent national cinemas across the hemisphere.

Birri, who is 76 years old, and still a vigorous, defiant filmmaker, perceives his mission as enlightening and re-radicalizing the passive youth of the planet. He decisively proclaimed at the screening of his 1997 documentary Che: Death Of Utopia? (Che: Muerte De La Utopia?), that for him, Latin American cinema continues to be “one of resistance. In a world where everything seems to be so difficult and people seem to believe less and less each day, we as filmmakers try to believe in ourselves more and more.” Birri elaborated that principled Latin American filmmaking endures because of two essential ingredients, “national identity in defiance of stereotypes, and the dignity of every human being.”

In Che: Death Of Utopia?, Birri roams the world with his camera, interrogating an often clueless European population in the vicinity of that corporate pseudo-utopia known as Euro-Disneyland, as to whom Che was, and what the meaning of Utopia is for them. Only in Cuba, and among the Bolivian peasants where Che was murdered by the military, do even the least educated profoundly comprehend Che’s significance. One man poses the question, “Why does Che, who was born more than anyone else, keep having the dangerous habit of being born?” A Cuban recalls how children in his country rise every day to proclaim, “I will be like Che.” And Che’s cousin in Argentina remembers “his asthma and his tenderness, and how he always danced with the ugliest girl because he felt sorry for her.”

Finally, Birri, as if speaking for himself and all struggling filmmakers of the Developing World in his search for Che and the meaning of utopia through this film journey, ends with a refreshingly indecisive, boundless optimism: “When I began this search,” he says, “I was reaching for the sky, the stars.” Shifting his perspective downward towards the earth, he concludes that he has found the ultimate meaning of Utopia. It is “where you walk towards, always. Utopia is for walking.” Perhaps he had also located the compass and direction for future Cuban film, a cinema of astonishing joy and insight mixed with pain, which reveals itself through its own distinct, sustained passions.