VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press
Cuban film director Juan Carlos Cremata’s new movie is about a young girl who runs away from home because her mother plans to leave Fidel Castro’s Cuba and she doesn’t want to go.
But “Viva Cuba” isn’t a political film - it’s a human one.
“It’s not that the girl wants to stay in Cuba because of the Revolution,” Cremata told the Associated Press in a recent interview. She wants to stay, he said, because Cuba “is where her friends are, where her school is, and above all, where her beloved grandmother is buried.”
Depoliticizing the subject of Cuban exiles is about as easy as taking the fruit out of an apple pie, but judging from the international reaction, Cremata has succeeded in moving beyond nationalism to reach a universal audience.
The film has swept awards in countries as politically and culturally varied as Guatemala, Germany, Taiwan and France, including the Grand Prix Ecrans Juniors from a panel of child judges at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
Now, the buzz is it could grab a nomination for a foreign-language Academy Award in the most anti-Castro country of all - the United States.
The Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, with awards presented March 5. “Viva Cuba” is among a record 58 entries in the foreign-language category - just five will be nominated.
Cremata loves his country, but does not consider himself a communist. He took great care to avoid all political references in the film.
It is never made clear what country the girl, who appears to be about 12, is supposed to move to. Her mother, separated from her father, simply spends much of her time on the phone with “a foreigner” complaining about everyday problems on the island. When young Malu overhears her making plans to leave, she runs away with her best friend, Jorge, heading to the remote eastern tip of Cuba, where her father works at a lighthouse.
The movie chronicles the pair’s adventures as they flee authorities across the island, from fancy beach resorts to provincial towns to the rural mountains. They sing, they fight, they get lost, they make up. They finally arrive at the lighthouse, but once there they realize they have nowhere else to run.
Cuban migration is in the director’s face daily: he lives near the American mission in Havana and sees his countrymen lining up every morning hoping to get U.S. visas.
But the issue is a global one for Cremata, who has lived in cities across the world, including New York for a year on a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.
“The predicament of whether to leave or not to leave is not an exclusively Cuban problem,” he said. “It exists all over the world.”
Cremata himself chose his own country, returning to Cuba after his 1996 stint in the United States.
“It was this year, living in the center of New York, with lots of money and everything, that I realized all I wanted was to return to Cuba and make Cuban films,” he said.
The director’s first full-length film was “Nada,” or “Nothing,” a 2001 comedy that also revolves around the issue of emigration. The movie is the first in a trilogy, but Cremata is still looking for funding for the next two installations: “Nadie,” or “Nobody,” and “Nunca,” or “Never.”
“Nada” received international recognition, but Cuba’s official film institute was far from crazy about the movie, said the outspoken and sincere Cremata. When launching the “Viva Cuba” project, he said he faced closed doors, leading him to take an independent route, filming the entire movie with a small digital camera and 15-member staff.
“The whole process was very difficult, because no one wanted to help us on this film,” he said. “I had no idea where the film would take us. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to make Cuba’s first-ever children’s movie.”
The project became a family affair. Cremata pulled child actors from his brother’s internationally known theater group and tapped into his mother’s decades of experience in children’s television programming. Iraida Malberti, his mother, served as co-director of “Viva Cuba.”
Cremata even used his own grandmother to play the role of Malu’s grandmother, who dies near the beginning of the film after a comic scene in which the girl paints the elderly woman’s face with makeup.
The young actors preferred to work without a script, lending to the natural, confident tone throughout the movie. The small camera actually helped them relax, Cremata said.
“The kids played, they expressed themselves,” he said. “There were no problems working with them. Adult actors are themselves like children - only more spoiled.”
Cremata said he also resists adulthood at times. The 44-year-old director even dressed up as a uniformed Cuban schoolboy when presenting the movie at Havana’s international film festival in December.
The island’s film institute eventually warmed up to Cremata’s project - especially when it won the Cannes award, he said. “Now everyone in officialdom loves me,” he said.
Cremata grew up playing in the television studios where his mother worked, a world of “confusion between reality and fantasy.”
At 13, he lost his father in a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner.
Hardship helps breed creativity, Cremata said.
“In the third world, and of course in my country, the conditions of life are so difficult that imagination is beyond necessary - it’s urgent,” he said. “One needs to travel to another world to be able to endure the world in which he or she is living.”
Cremata, who loves silent movies and foreign films from countries like Iran, said he likes very little coming out of Hollywood, movies he finds “plastic” and predictable. The wealth and convenience of the United States seems to have obliterated the country’s originality, he said.
That’s why, perhaps, he has always returned home to Cuba, never joining the millions of Cubans living elsewhere.
“I believe that this country, with all of its problems, is still much richer in imagination, much richer in human warmth, than any developed country in the world,” he said.
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