Havana Film Festival New York

The 2014 Havana Film Festival New York (HFFNY), a project of the American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba (AFLFC), showcased 45 films from twelve Latin American countries and the U.S., with a special emphasis on Cuba this year. Over nine days, April 3-11, the festival presented screenings and special events in various locations in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. The Cuban selections included ten feature films—two documentaries and eight fiction works—plus several shorts by emerging Cuban filmmakers and a special sidebar celebrating 55 years of the “New Cuban Cinema” since the founding of ICAIC in 1959.

The underlying themes of most of the fiction features—which included some of the most talked-about Cuban productions of recent years—seemed to be survival and coping strategies. Cubans, as one film character says, are “specialists in the art of survival.”

Conducta: Carmela (Alina Rodríguez) and Chala (Armando Valdes Freire)

Conducta / Behavior (2014, 100 min.), by Ernesto Daranas, opened the festival. Chala (Armando Valdés Freire) is an energetic and clever 11-year-old who has to find ways to care for his drunken prostitute mother, Sonia (Yuliet Cruz). He has great respect for his veteran sixth-grade teacher, Carmela (Alina Rodríguez), who knows how to cope with the young smart-ass. But when Carmela has a heart attack and has to take time off, the young substitute teacher (Idalmis García) and by-the-book principal (Silvia Águila) decide to send Chala to an “escuela de conducta”—essentially a reform school for delinquents. Carmela strongly objects, knowing this will leave a black mark on the record of a capable youth who needs help and understanding. Carmela’s willingness to bend the rules to do what is best for her students brings her into conflict with the principal, who tries to force Carmela to retire.

Conducta offers a thoughtful look at the challenges posed when individuals try to cope with a rigid education and social system. In the post-screening Q&A, actress Alina Rodríguez said the film had been very well received in Cuba. It had the approval of all necessary government agencies. The Minister of Culture, as well as many teachers, said it should be shown in all schools. The young star of the film, Armando Valdes Freire, was also present for the opening night screening, as was actress Idalmis García and casting director Mariela López, who noted that they had tested thousands of youngsters before selecting Armando to play Chala; he had never acted before. The film can be viewed here (without English subtitles).

Melaza / Molasses (2012, 80 min.) is the first feature directed by Carlos Lechuga, who also wrote the prize-winning screenplay. The local sugar cane mill has shut down and the town of Melaza has been left devastated. A young couple, schoolteacher Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez) and sugar mill office worker Mónica (Yuliet Cruz), along with her wheel-chair confined mother and young daughter, struggle to find ways of surviving in a dying rural town. Melaza is a moving depiction of people living lives of quiet desperation, disrupted by a changing economy.

Jirafas / Giraffes

Director Enrique (Kiki) Álvarez and actress Claudia Muñiz were also in New York to present Jirafas / Giraffes (2012, 94 min.). Tania (Olivia Manrufo) is evicted from the house she inherited from her uncle. A week later she surreptitiously returns to find a couple of squatters occupying her home. The young lovers, Manuel (Yasmani Guerrero) and Lia (Claudia Muñiz), aggressively refuse to leave. Manuel is a would-be songwriter and musician (“only the giraffes understand me”) who considers himself too much of an artist and free spirit to get a job. The couple live off Lia’s earnings as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, where she has to endure the sexual advances of tourists. Tania works at home as a seamstress. The three circle around each other, eventually coming to a cautious accommodation—both domestically and sexually—while also fending off the housing inspector who is trying to evict all of them. Jirafas could be viewed as a commentary on the housing situation in Havana, and what people have to do to survive.

Chamaco / Kid (2011, 100 min.), by Juan Carlos Cremata, is the latest film from the acclaimed director of Nada and Viva Cuba!Chamaco explores the death of a young man in Havana’s Central Park, exposing aspects of the city’s nightlife that are rarely talked about: male prostitution, homosexuality, and police corruption. The story centers on the complex relationships among the central characters: the Depás family—a respected judge (played by Aramís Delgado), his doctor daughter and college-student son; Karel Darín (Fidel Betancourt), a young male hustler, and his gay Uncle Felipe; and Saúl Alter, a corrupt cop. A stark and disturbing story filled with startling, apparent coincidences.

Humor also featured prominently in a number of the films, where coping strategies are greatly exaggerated for comic effect, as in the following three productions.

Jorge Perugorría’s Se vende / For Sale (2012, 90 min.) is a dark comedy that satirizes a society where everything is for sale in the effort to survive. Nacar (Dailenys Fuentes) is a young lab technician facing economic difficulties. When she visits her parents’ gravesite, her mother’s spirit advises her to sell the tomb (which now holds four coffins). The mother had always been the support of the family and had sold their other assets over the years to sustain them through hard times. As Nacar says: “My mother is a specialist in the art of survival….” Nacar’s friend and co-worker, Pilar (Yulia Cruz), also encourages her to sell the tomb—and to sell the bones of the disinterred. When Noel (Jorge Perugorría), a hardworking painter, enters Nacar’s life, they embark on the complicated adventure of emptying the tomb and disposing of the remains. A darkly humorous and outrageous comedy, Se vende ultimately makes a point about the extremes that people are forced to go to in order to survive.

The 15th HFFNY also paid tribute to director Daniel Díaz Torres (1928–2013). His friend, director Gerardo Chijona, was on hand to present two of Daniel’s films, and also offered a moving homage to his colleague in the festival catalogue.

Hacerse el sueco / Playing Swede

Hacerse el sueco / Playing Swede (2000, 105 min.), by Daniel Díaz Torres, is an earlier comedy on the themes of survival and coping. Björn (Peter Lohmeyer), tall and blond, arrives in Havana, claiming to be a professor of literature who is there to study local language and customs. At the airport, the wife and daughter of a retired policeman (Enrique Molina) offer to rent him a room in their home. The family needs the money, but the proud father would object, so they tell him the stranger is a guest who is doing research related to the daughter’s university study of philology. Björn gradually develops a friendly relationship and mutual respect with all of the family members, while he goes about the city day and night doing his “research.” Meanwhile a spate of robberies at knifepoint  begins to occur—the assailant described as a tall, blond foreigner—and the local museum is exhibiting a priceless necklace from the crown jewels of the Queen of Sweden. Hilarious complications ensue and tensions arise as Björn contends with greed, friendship, and a growing love for the daughter of the family. Amusing and filled with interesting characters, including the denizens of the housing complex as well as the principal characters, Hacerse sueco can be seen here (without English subtitles).

Laura de la Uz in La película de Ana

Díaz Torres returned to the theme of coping strategies in his final comedy, La película de Ana(2012, 100 min.). Ana (Laura de la Uz) is an actress, the star of a “historic” telenovela, but her creative urges are stifled by her controlling director. Because she is “over 35,” her options are limited. When her friend, Flavia (Yuliet Cruz), tells her that a German film company is making a documentary about prostitutes and is paying the girls for interviews, Ana takes on a new role. With Flavia’s help and coaching, Ana throws herself into the role of a prostitute, inventing a life story loosely based on her own family. But when the company wants to film in her home, things spiral out of control. A clever and satirical look at how people have to reinvent themselves to get by, with an engaging cast of characters. The entire film (no English subtitles) can be viewed on YouTube.

Gerardo Chijona’s own film in the festival, Esther en alguna parte (2013, 95 min.), was a departure from the recurring theme of survival. Based on the novela by Eliseo Alberto (Lichi) Diego, this charming tale assembled an all-star cast headed by celebrated actor Reynaldo Miravalles, who now lives in Miami. Director Chijona got special permission from the Ministry of Culture to bring Miravalles to Cuba to star in this production. Miravalles has said this will be his final film and he was happy it could be in Cuba, his homeland.

Reynaldo Miravalles and Enrique Molina in Esther Somewhere

The story: At the grave site of his late wife, Maruja, the elderly Lino Catalá (Reynaldo Miravalles) encounters an eccentric old man who calls himself Larry Po (Enrique Molina), among other aliases. Larry tells Lino that Maruja (Daisy Granados) led a double life and that she had asked him to tell Lino about it after her death. Thus begins a curious odyssey as the pair uncover the previously unknown aspects of Maruja’s double life as a celebrated bolero singer, while also trying to trace Larry’s long-lost first love, Esther—much to the concern of Lino’s niece, Ofelia (Laura de la Uz), and her policeman husband (Luis Alberto García). Other veteran actors who appear in the film include Paula Ali, Alicia Bustamente, Elsa Camp, Verónica Lynn, and Eslinda Núñez. The Spanish version of Esther en alguna parte can be seen on YouTube.

Although these eight films were directed by different individuals, there appears to be almost a repertory company of Cuban movie actors, sometimes playing the lead, other times in supporting roles. Yuliet Cruz appeared in three of the HFFNY selections, Enrique Molina in two. Alina Rodríguez, who starred in Conducta, makes a brief appearance as a bag lady in Chamaco. Laura de la Uz stars in La Película de Ana and plays a minor supporting role in Esther en alguna parte. (She was also a judge at this HFFNY.) Acclaimed actor/director Jorge Perugorría starred in his own film, Se vende, and also in a short film by emerging director Daniel Chile. Armando Miguel Gómez stars in Melaza and also plays the putative father of Chala in Conducta. Aramís Delgado has a key role in Chamaco and also appears in Conducta. Actors take on a variety of roles, and Enrique Molina said that Cuban actors move easily from movies to stage to television, and even radio.

The two feature-length documentaries in the festival explore Cuba’s musical heritage:

Hay un grupo que dice…

Hay un grupo que dice… (2013, 81 min.), by Lourdes Prieto, is named after a song by Silvio Rodríguez. This documentary recounts the history of ICAIC’s Grupo de Experimentacion Sonora (GESI), a symbol of cultural resistance and creativity founded by Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Eduardo Ramos, Sara González, Noel Nicola, and Leo Brouwer. The group was active in the early 1970s during the Gray Period (el Quinquenio Gris, 1970–1976), a time of cultural oppression in Cuba. ICAIC director Alfredo Guevara supported the group, and their songs became the music track of many early ICAIC productions. Their music was often considered the “sound track of the Revolution;” many of the musicians later became known as part of the Nueva Trova movement.

According to director Lourdes Prieto, most cultural movements have a limited life span. GESI lasted only a few years because the young musicians matured and developed their individual voices. In the film, Silvio Rodríguez also observes that ICAIC didn’t want all the films to have the same sound. In spite of their contributions to the “sound track of the Revolution,” many GESI members did suffer from the repression of the time. The documentary includes archival footage of performances and interviews with the now mature group members (except Pablo Milanés, who was too ill to participate), who reflect on the GESI and their experiences.

For 100 sones cubanos / 100 Cuban sons (2010, 81 min.), songwriter Edesio Alejandro interviewed Cubans across the island to select a list of the 100 most relevant and authentic Cuban sones in order to compile them into one single album that portrays the roots of this genre. Filled with humor and authentic Cuban music, this documentary captures the essence of the sones, exalting the main characters behind the rhythm. First shown at the 14th HFFNY, 100 sones was presented this year in a special pre-festival First Friday at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

In addition to the documentary features, a Puerto Rico-Cuba coproduction also premiered at this year’s festival: Coro de silencio / Choir of Silence (2013, 50 min.), by Roberto Rodríguez Díaz. Between 1960 and 1962 the CIA and the Diocese of Miami organized “Operation Peter Pan,” which sent 14,048 unaccompanied children from Cuba to the U.S. This documentary touches on memories of mental and sexual abuse committed by priests and social workers, a story that went untold for decades.

The festival showcased the next generation of Cuban filmmakers, with a selection of three fiction shorts by emerging directors:

Camionero / Truck Driver (2012, 25 min.), by Sebastian Miló, is an unflinching depiction of devastatingly harsh bullying in an agrarian school in 1970s Cuba, and the tragic consequences as the quiet Raidel witnesses the tormenting of his classmate, Randy. View it here.

In Daniel Chile’s Tarde para Ramón / Too Late (2013, 10 min.), Havana taxi driver Ramón (Jorge Perugorría) attempts to meet and mend his fraught relationship with his daughter who is leaving the country. But like so much else in his life, everything goes wrong for Ramón on this critical day. View the trailer.

La Trucha / The Trout

La Trucha / The Trout (2013, 20 min.) was Luis Ernesto Doñas’ thesis film for his graduation from EICTV. During the day, Pilar works as a dresser for the prima ballerinas of the Cuban National Ballet. At night, wearing borrowed ballet costumes, she makes her living as Gloria the Trout, entertaining at a club for foreigners—until the youthful Ramoncito ruins her plans. Doñas sees the story as a commentary on the need to adapt in order to survive today.

In her opening and closing remarks, AFLFC President Carole Rosenberg praised HFFNY Artistic Director Diana Vargas and AFLFC Executive Director Inés Aslán and the staff for their outstanding work in organizing the festival. She noted that the U.S. State Department had approved all of the visas requested, which made it possible for so many of the Cuban directors and actors to attend the festival. Also present during the week: film historian Luciano Castillo, director of the André Bazin Media Library at the EICTV in San Antonio de los Baños; Roberto Smith, president of ICAIC; and Rosa María Rovira, former director of International Relations, ICAIC.

And the winners: the Havana Star Prize for Best Picture went to Ernesto Daramas’ Conducta (Behavior). Its star, Alina Rodríguez, was present to receive the award for Best ActressBest Actor honors went to 90-year-old Reynaldo Miravalles for his role in Gerardo Chijona’s Esther en alguna parte (Esther Somewhere). The award was accepted on his behalf by fellow actor Enrique Molina, who co-starred with Miravalles in the film. Carlos Lechuga was awarded the Best Screenplay prize for Melaza (Molasses), which was also his feature film directorial debut. The Best Documentary prize went to the U.S.- Mexico coproduction Of Kites and Borders / De cometas y fronteras, by Yolanda Pividal, and the Best Director award to Diego Quemada-Diez for La jaula de oro / The Golden Dream (Mexico-Spain). The Fiction jury members were Laura de la Luz, Deborah Kampmeier, and Donald Rabinovitch;  Documentary jurors were Juan Cáceres, Alfonso Díaz, and Luis Naguil.

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Nadine Covert is a specialist in visual arts media with a focus on documentaries. She was for many years the Executive Director of the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA) and Director of its American Film Festival, then the major documentary competition in the U.S. She later became director of the Program for Art on Film, a joint venture of the J. Paul Getty Trust and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Covert has served on the board of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and is currently a consultant to the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).