HAVANA, Apr 12 (IPS)
Run-down neighborhoods, cynical, skeptical young people, locals surviving in buildings crumbling around them, people forging new paths in remote mountain villages: these are all fragments of reality that live and breathe in documentaries by a new generation of Cuban filmmakers.
Born out of the crisis that has afflicted the Cuban film industry since the 1990s, a new wave of young, mainly independent directors has opened up space for low-budget productions, and generated a certain amount of hope for the future of filmmaking in this Caribbean island nation.
“I’m trying to portray social issues that are hardly touched on by other media in our country, or are only addressed from a distorted, triumphalist point of view. These subjects, because they are in a way hidden topics, are not debated in society,” Aram Vidal, director of two documentaries about Cuban youth: “Calle G” (G Street) and “De Generación,” told IPS.
“Behind the questions, doubts and reflections of these young people in ‘De Generación’ there is a very clear warning: our society is not perfect, and we want to be a part of it, to contribute our ideas and participate in possible changes,” said Vidal, 26.
The film shows interviews with a group of young Cubans who grew up in the shadow of the economic crisis that has affected the country over the last 15 years, and the contradictions in the social and political project constructed by their elders.
Vidal studied social communication, not film-making, and yet he has already been awarded prizes for his work, including a Distinction at the Sixth National Exhibition of Young Filmmakers held in Havana in February.
“In my opinion, films have the power to bring issues to public attention that are more interesting when they are debated, not just among a group of friends in a narrow corridor, but when discussion expands and they become a social force for change and creative transformation,” he said.
However, the films by this new generation of directors are seldom screened outside festivals and special exhibitions, and are hardly ever broadcast by the mass media.
According to Cuban director Enrique Colina, there is a whole list of documentaries by young filmmakers that have suffered a sort of “unwritten censorship” at the hands of national television.
“It’s a pity that their efforts and concerns, expressed in what are sometimes truly significant films, should be relegated to being shown just once at an annual festival,” Colina said in January, in an email debate about Cuba’s cultural policy among local intellectuals and artists.
Colina’s message, one of more than 100 emails exchanged in the debate, mentioned a long list of films produced in Cuba that have never been aired on TV here. Among the most significant is “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1993), by co-directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio.
“I have thought for a long time that television ought to make room for Cuban audiovisual productions in general, and should also show these films made by young directors, which are barely seen outside the week that the young filmmakers exhibition is on,” said Vidal. In addition to their invisibility in the media, independent productions face the difficulties inherent to their low budgets, and the barriers put up by the authorities to filming in certain locations.
“One of the main problems is the lack of funding. Getting enough resources is a big challenge, and since usually very little money is available, this has a direct and immediate effect on the planned film,” said Alina Rodríguez, the director of “Buscándote, Habana” (Looking for You, Havana), a documentary about life in the neighborhoods where migrants from the interior live without authorization from the government in the Cuban capital.
“Filming permits are another major constraint, because shooting a film becomes a bureaucratic hassle. Any official can stop the filming at any time,” said Rodríguez, 23.
A student at the Higher Institute of Art, Rodríguez was arrested by the police several times while making her first film, in spite of having permits. In the end, she was not allowed to shoot scenes in the Havana neighborhood of San Miguel del Padrón, where she had done six months of research.
Those who remain outside government institutions also receive no backing for “searching the archives, or distributing the material and having legal protection so that no one can steal that material and exhibit it without permission in other countries,” Vidal said.
Rodríguez said she feels part of a tradition of Cuban women filmmakers, although she said that few of her generation know anything about them. She and seven other women showed films at the Sixth Exhibition of Young Filmmakers.
The exhibition presented six works of fiction and 23 documentaries, demonstrating the preeminence of the documentary category among novice filmmakers.
“In Cuban cinematography, the documentary form outstripped fictional films, until the film production crisis in the 1990s, when the genre died out,” said Jorge Luis Sánchez, the director of “El Benny”, about the life of popular Cuban musician Benny Moré (1919-1963).
Sánchez is one of the Young Filmmakers Exhibition’s most fervent fans. In his words, the exhibit “widens the circle” to make room for new entrants to the movie world. He said their work “is part of the best tradition of Cuban filmmaking.”
“It’s part of it, and sometimes it also contradicts it, which is a good thing, because every alternative film should contribute to broadening what we call Cuban filmmaking, not by contributing to a narrow vision, but to a vision which takes diversity into account,” he said.
In Sánchez’s opinion, even when the state Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC), the main producer of films on the island, recovers financially from the economic crisis, “there should be room for freedom.”
By freedom he meant “not only personal fulfillment, freedom of expression, freedom from censorship, but also the freedom of being able to gather a small team together and film a story,” he said.