By Doreen Hemlock | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
As a young filmmaker in communist Cuba in the 1980s, Jorge Luis Sanchez never worried where to find money for his work. The government’s Film Institute provided him everything—a full-time job, technical crews, equipment and funding.
But to launch his recent release, El Benny, about the life of Cuba’s acclaimed big-band singer Benny Moré, Sanchez pounded the pavement.
He spent nearly four years meeting with producers from Spain, Canada and other capitalist nations, before reaching an agreement for cash and other help from a British group.
“I must have had breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks or coffee with close to 40 international producers,” said Sanchez, whose new film has become a Cuban box-office hit and won an award at a Swiss film festival.
“In the 1980s, no Cuban film director ever had to do all that. Now, we do it like any other director in the world.”
Following a sharp slump, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet subsidies decimated the island’s economy, Cuba’s cherished film industry is making a comeback.
The government Film Institute expects its biggest crop of films this year since 1989, with 10 full-length releases including El Benny.
Key to the resurgence is foreign funding, with co-productions largely from Europe and Latin America. Plus, Cuban filmmakers are learning to stretch limited cash on low-budget productions, sometimes using new digital technology to minimize costs.
Sanchez, 46, represents a group of Cuban film directors from generations before and after his: The idealistic pioneers of Cuba’s state-controlled film industry in the revolutionary 1960s and the entrepreneurial youth who came of age during the island’s 1990s economic crisis and depend less on government.
While studying to be a teacher, Sanchez began to experiment with moviemaking at government-sponsored clubs, sometimes working with old equipment and expired film.
After graduating from college in 1981, he took a job at the Film Institute, with even his transportation costs covered by the government.
“Cuban moviemakers didn’t work as waiters, busboys or odd jobs. All we did was film,” said Sanchez, recalling the prosperous time when generous Soviet subsidies helped lift Cuba’s economy, and with it the island’s movie industry.
But then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet bloc collapsed and Cuba’s economy shrunk. The island’s film industry crashed—from a record output of 12 full-length films in 1989 to zero in 1996.
The Film Institute cut salaries, and Sanchez left for Venezuela to join a friend in launching an ad agency to make TV commercials.
Business prospered, since few competitors in Venezuela had as extensive a resume in filmmaking. Venezuela rarely subsidized its film industry, and most Venezuelan ad makers could only dream of working on full-length films like Cubans had, Sanchez said.
As Cuba’s economy slowly recovered in the late 1990s, thanks in part to foreign investors and tourism, Sanchez returned to Havana.
But the film world had changed, with the advent of digital technology. Cash-strapped Cuba needed money to update, and looked to Spain and other countries for help, especially since Washington’s trade embargo on Cuba prevented the island from buying or licensing U.S. products, including Dolby Surround Sound.
Sanchez began seeking out a co-producer overseas for his film, El Benny, a biopic in the vein of Hollywood’s Ray (on the life of Ray Charles) and Walk The Line (about Johnny Cash).
His British partners provided cash and arranged to license the Dolby sound in Mexico, skirting the U.S. embargo, he said.
The Cuban Film Institute provided the rest of the funding, partly through a low-interest loan from an Ibero-American cooperation program, he added.
Even so, with a budget of less than $2 million, Sanchez said he pushed to slash costs, filming everything in just nine weeks and all in Cuba. He brought in props and at least one actor from abroad to create scenes supposedly set in Mexico and Venezuela.
Some veteran directors, who started Cuba’s Film Institute to de-colonize movie theaters dominated by Hollywood, also started to seek out commercial producers abroad.
Manolo Perez, 66, for example, got financing from a Spanish producer and Spanish TV for his recent release, Paginas del Diario de Mauricio, or Pages of Mauricio’s Diary, a story of how an older Cuban man and loved ones coped with the Soviet collapse and its painful fallout on the island.
Taking the risk
For the older generation, seeking help from capitalist groups can be controversial. Steeped in a socialist culture where art took priority and profit didn’t matter, some fear co-productions will require political or commercial concessions. But Perez said he has found no unreasonable pressures—only collaboration from his overseas partners.
“You have to take the risk” to make films in cash-strapped Cuba these days, he said.
Some of Cuba’s younger directors, who came of age in Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, never expected government help for their films.
Pavel Giroud, 34, who studied design and visual arts, earns a living as a freelancer, largely by making music videos for record companies.
He invests some of his income in equipment and film projects, which he undertakes with a network of colleagues who also work on video clips.
“We’re in the jungle—day after day, with a knife in our mouths, trying to earn a living,” said Giroud of his freelance colleagues.
In contrast, filmmakers in the government Film Institute are “in the zoo,” safe but in rusting cages and facing more bureaucracy, he said.
Giroud recently released La Edad de la Peseta, or The Silly Age, a family drama about a boy living with his mother and grandmother.
The Film Institute contracted him for the project and secured co-producers, after Giroud won acclaim for work on one of the cheapest films made on the island.
His new movie is among a batch Cuba is showing at its annual film festival now under way in Havana. The 11-day event also is honoring the 20th birthday of Cuba’s international film school co-founded by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Both the festival and school aim to showcase Latin American cinema as alternatives to U.S. fare.
Despite its resurgence, Cuba’s film industry—and its budget—still pales in comparison with Hollywood.
“With the money it takes to make one major Hollywood movie, about $24 million to $26 million these days, you could probably finance all of Latin America’s film industry for a year—including Cuba’s,” said Camilo Vives, the co-production specialist at Cuba’s Film Institute.
He estimates full-length films in Cuba and most Latin American nations cost between $750,000 to $1.5 million each.
Cuba’s Film Institute generally funds about 50 to 60 percent of each local film it produces, with foreign funds used mainly to pay for imports or work abroad, such as overseas film developing, he said.
The future for Cuba’s film industry could be quite different.
Vives predicts that if the U.S. embargo on Cuba were lifted, the island could become a haven for on-location filming by U.S. companies.
Costs would be a fraction of those of other tropical sites, such as the Dominican Republic. Plus, Cuba could offer professional crews with decades of experience in the Film Institute.
More income from filming by overseas groups would help the island finance its own national industry, likely boosting Cuba’s homegrown production, Vives said.
But for now, some question whether this year’s expected output of 10 full-length films can be sustained. Cuba’s economy remains shaky, largely dependent on subsidized Venezuelan oil and on sending doctors and other professionals on missions abroad.
“Our future continues to be uncertain,” said pioneer Perez. “We can have one good year, but there’s no guarantee of a stable recovery.”