Havana Festival Report

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, p. 71-72
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

I went to Cuba for the first time with a small group of film scholars, critics and distributors in June 1978. We spent a day and a half in Varadero, a beach resort, and visited one of the new boarding schools that has so transformed Cuban life. One day Julia Lesage and I took a long hot walk along the Malecón, fronting on the sea, to visit ex-patriate New Yorker, Estelle Bravo, who has worked in Cuban TV for many years. Other than that, I sat in the dark screening rooms of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) watching the best of Cuban cinema.

Seeing three and four feature films a day and many shorts, talking to directors, such as Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Santiago Álvarez, Humberto Solás, Julio García Espinosa, Sergio Giral, Manuel Octavio Gomez, and many others, greatly impressed me. I returned home after eight days confirmed and strengthened in my support of the Cuban Revolution. I remained critical of the sexism and homophobia I saw there. Three special sections on Cuban film and continued coverage in JUMP CUT have articulated our admiration and support, which we also expressed in our opening editorial:

"For those [from our editorial board] who went to Cuba, the trip only served to reinforce emotionally and politically the solidarity they felt with the accomplishments of the Cuban revolution, which has built a society that stands as one of the most impressive achievements of this century, won and maintained in spite of the fiercest opposition of the United States government" (JC, No. 19).

In an article, entitled "Homosexuality in Cuba," we tried to place this sensitive issue in context. We explained how it seemed to us that official Cuban policy around issues of sexual politics was in advance of popular sentiment. We explained the factors in Cuba that hinder a more open discussion: the importance of the family as the basic unit of society, Havana's former role as hetero/homosexual whorehouse for North American and European tourists, the notions of homosexuality as bourgeois decadence and also as disease (a notion greatly enhanced by the recent spread of AIDS), and finally, the still problematic ethic of latin machismo.


It was with this combination of admiration, solidarity, and concern that I returned to Cuba this past December to attend the eighth Festival International del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. This time I was staying for two whole weeks. I could now speak some rudimentary Spanish. I had had more experience in Third World countries, having spent time in both Nicaragua and Mexico. And I had written about and taught courses on New Latin American Cinema. In addition, I had many people to visit and mail to deliver from friends here. I looked forward to deepening my relationship with Cuba.

The first evening there, we all went to the Karl Marx theater for the official opening of the festival. Anticipation ran high in the theater as people milled about greeting one another. Then the lights dimmed and the curtain rose. There at the front dias were Fidel Castro, Fernando Birri, who directs the new international film school in Cuba, Julio García Espinosa, the Vice Minister of Culture, Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Marquez, and Armando Hart, revolutionary hero and Minister of Culture.

Amongst the judges seated behind them were Jorge Amado, the Brazilian author, Octavio Getino, Spanish-Argentine director, and Norberto Fuentes, a Cuban writer whose recent book on Hemingway in Cuba had recently come out. Though most were men, women were well represented amongst the judges: Fina Torres and Susana Suranyi, Argentine directors; Lourdes Portillo, filmmaker from San Francisco; Rosmery Zambrana, Nicaraguan director; Ana Maria Salas, Ecuadoran programmer; and Florence Toussaint, Mexican communications professor.

This gathering reminded me once again of the enormous intellectual and creative power of Latin America today and equally of the important role Cuba plays in this growth and development. In fact, Cuba is one of the few countries in all of Latin America where this group of people could gather to share their films, tapes, writings, and politics in a safe, congenial, and supportive atmosphere.


Simultaneous film screenings took place at least seven different theaters while videotapes and TV programs were shown in at least four different places. In addition the festival put on special shows at the university, at a union headquarters, and in various cities outside Havana. Finally, many distributors made videotapes of their films available at the film marketplace in the Havana Libre Hotel.

The center of social activity was the huge, old Hotel Nacional, overlooking the entrance to Havana's harbor. Many of the festival-goers stayed there; and non-stop conversations took place in the lobby, bars, restaurants, and by the pools. Often it took me two or three hours to get from one end of the hotel to the other. Most evenings at least three different musical groups performed until four in the morning. These included the finest in Cuban music, such as the group Los Van Van and Arturo Sandoval.

Generally speaking, however, most people I talked to did not consider the quality of the films very good. The best films today seem to be coming from Argentina and Brazil, two countries that have recently returned to civilian rule. The recent experience of military rule and repression and then of the social resistance necessary for change seems to have pushed filmmakers to examine their national past and their countries' intense struggles for human rights and some vestige of democracy. Perhaps, too, because this struggle was primarily for bourgeois democracy, most of the films deal with the middle class. Workers and peasants, as in Hollywood films, appear as villains, as fools, and most often in comedies.

Remembering Julio Garcia Espinosa's warning to the Cuban filmmakers at the end of the 1960s about the dangers of "Perfect Cinema" [i.e. a cinema modeled on Hollywood or the European art cinema] and the need for an "Imperfect Cinema" [a raw, innovative, committed cinema], many saw in the main films of this festival the death of "Imperfect Cinema" in New [now aging] Latin American Cinema.

More closely approximating the notion of Imperfect Cinema were the African films I saw in the extensive retrospective of African film, which ran every day in a theater called La Rampa. There I had the opportunity to see Med Hondo's fascinating WEST INDIES (1979). Based on a stage play, it is staged on a set that looks like a slave ship. The film renders a vicious critique of neo-colonialism, and of the internal racism and the tourism-necessitated "colorfulness" that goes along with it (See JUMP CUT, No. 31 for more on Hondo's work and this film).

As a result of agitation by videomakers last year and also as part of the increasing prestige of Cuban TV, now directed by Sergio Corrieri, who played the main role in MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, there were extensive showings of video and TV programs during the festival. Yet very few people attended the screenings. Next year it would be useful to give these important screenings more shape and organize them by theme, country, maker, or type of tape. Also it would be helpful to provide more information about the tapes.

The tapes provided an extended audio/visual lesson in Latin American life. They examined neighborhood cultures and many of the best were about music as well. Though few of the feature films were directed by women, a much larger proportion of the tapes were, and thus one got a much more sexually balanced view of latin culture. It is clear that video has become a major cultural and political medium in Latin America and this festival will be the best place to sample that production in future years. Clearly, in the next few years we will be talking about New Latin American Video.

Representatives of El Salvador's FMLN sponsored an historic video screening. They showed a wonderful new tape-in-progress by Radio Venceremos about the earthquake, TRAS LA GRIETA EN LA GUERRA (An Additional Crack in the War) and the first production by the FMLN's Unidad de Cine y TV, called NO APAGARÁN MI SONRISA (They Won't Wipe the Smile Off My Face). The FMLN has formed the Unidad to coordinate and draw together the great and varied experiences of Radio Venceremos and the Film Institute of Revolutionary El Salvador.

Because of agitation by women participants last year, supported by Cuban TV, in which women have risen to very important positions (unlike ICAIC which remains almost completely male dominated; Sara Gomez's ONE WAY OR ANOTHER remains the only feature film directed by a Cuban woman in ICAIC's 26 years!), there was a three-day seminar on women in the media. The large number of participants in the seminar forced an extension to a fourth session. In this meeting ICAIC's sexism was challenged not only by the foreign women, but also by the Cuban TV women. It seems sadly clear that ICAIC has lost much of its prestige, has ossified into a conventional studio system, and faces strong cultural and political challenges both from TV and from the other arts in Cuba. One can only hope that this challenge will force change and bring about a renaissance in Cuban filmmaking.


Perhaps the most exciting moment of the two weeks was the inauguration of the International School of Cinema and Television, nicknamed the School of Three Worlds, in San Antonio de los Baños about 35 miles south of Havana. The school is a project of the international Foundation of New Latin American Cinema, chaired by Gabriel García Marquez. They selected the Argentine Fernando Birri as its first director. He is often called the father of New Latin American Cinema because of his pioneer work in social documentary filmmaking during the 1950s and because he has worked with and inspired many Latin American filmmakers.

At a press conference, Birri said the school wants to cut through two false dichotomies: generalization versus specialization and marginalism versus professionalism. He wants to train students so that they can go home and participate in what every media production goes on there — independent, marginal, oppositional or within a progressive national film and/or TV industry. The first group of about 150 students comes from all over the third world, but mostly from Latin America. About one third are women and most of the students have had some media experience. As I talked to some of the students during the festival, they seemed very talented, committed, and enthusiastic about the school and their future work.


The most important and thought-provoking experiences for me in Havana were two very different encounters with Afro-Cuban religions still practiced by many Cubans today. The second day in Havana, I set off with several friends to Guanabacoa, a small town outside Havana, looking to film a particular Santería religious ceremony, the feast of Santa Barbara. Though there was no ceremony that day, our cab driver took us to the house of a Palero priest [Paleros, we found out, belong to a sect parallel to Santeria. Unlike Santerâ, which is based on Yoruba traditions, the Paleros religion is based on Congo traditions and they practice black magic.]. After some negotiation he and his group took us back to a private home in Havana where they continued the ceremony they had begun the day before.

They did not perform the sacrifices again, but the goats' freshly severed heads graced the blood spattered altar room. The drumming, singing, generous consumption of rum, and the all-embracing warmth of community produced an hypnotic effect on everyone packed into the small area between two houses. In talking to the participants and then to my friends after the event, the contradictions of what we had seen became clear. Many of the men were un- or underemployed and clearly alcoholism was a serious problem. [This problem is not exclusive to these people; there was heavy drinking every night at the Hotel Nacional.] It was even clearer that the women suffered more from the poverty and lifestyle of the neighborhood. They particularly expressed their dissatisfaction and longing for a different life.

The contradictions became even clearer a week later when we went out to Lenin Park with members of a dance troupe called Grupo Raices Profundas (Deep Roots Group). They performed Afro-Cuban dances in colorful costumes. Community ritual one week and folkloric performance the next. What was the connection between these two cultural expressions?

I thought a lot about Sara Gomez's justly famous film, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, which portrays the Cuban effort to end the separation of marginal cultures from the general Cuban society. I now have questions about her presentation of afro-cuban culture. She distances the viewer from the Abacuá initiation rite by putting it in a grainy documentary segment with a voice-over narration. [Abacuá is yet another parallel Afro-Cuban religion, but only for men.] She portrays this male association as a foundation of Cuban sexism, but does not say how it relates to Afro-Cuban culture in general. She portrays Mario's mother's involvement in Santería as a harmless holdover in this otherwise militant woman. She seems to minimize the obvious importance of these ritual and religious constituents of Cuban culture.

It seems that Cuba continues to have a marginal culture, mostly black and rooted in African cultural practices. In turn there is prejudice against these people. In conversations with several Cubans, blacks were often blamed for street crime and prostitution. Their poverty was explained (as it often is here) by saying that these people did not want to work. There is no doubt in my mind that Cuba has made enormous strides against racism and all its associated horrors; the government has made a strong effort to end racism. We have much to learn from the Cuban experience.

However sanitized Sara Gomez's film now seems to me, her courage in taking on the subject at all seems even greater. No other Cuban film I have seen or read about takes on the issues of marginality and the place of Afro-Cuban religious practices in Cuban society. No other films deal with the centrality of African religious practices in contemporary Cuban life, except as folklore.

Returning to the U.S. after two weeks in Cuba felt like going back in time. Rape, murder, disease, and scandal blared out from the newsstands. Abysmal ignorance about Cuba and most of the rest of the world surrounded me. I realized how important learning some Spanish has been in opening me up to experiencing more of Cuban culture. Learning about Cuba and Latin America and in turn teaching others about that vibrant, developing, humane reality contributes to the fight against racism here. This is an important responsibility for all of us and an important part of JUMP CUT's work.