On February 16–17, 2015, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York will present Hotel Nueva Isla, a Cuban documentary film directed by Irene Gutiérrez Torres and Javier Labrador. The Spanish-Cuban production will be shown in the Documentary Fortnight series, MoMA’s international festival of nonfiction film and media, opening tomorrow, February 13 and screening through February 27.
MoMA’s interest in Cuban moving-image media is by no means new. In 1972, following the celebration of a Cuban film festival sponsored by American Documentary Films Inc., at the Olympia Theater in Manhattan, MoMA screened a program of documentaries by festival participants. Among those titles were classics of ICAIC production, including Tercer Mundo, Tercera Guerra Mundial (Julio García Espinosa), Muerte al invasor (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea), Historia de un ballet (José Massip), and Now, 79 primavera, Ciclón, among others by Santiago Álvarez.
More recently, MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight organized a program entitled “New Cuban Shorts,” in collaboration with Americas Media Initiative-Cuban Media Project (AMI-CMP)—a U.S.-based organization, founded in 2010, that distributes independent community productions and documentaries produced in Cuba. And last year, as part of its series “Iberoamérican Images: The State of the Art,” MoMA also screened the feature film Melaza (Molasses, 2012) by debut director Carlos Lechuga.
In “New Cuban Shorts,” filmmakers Armando Capó and Ariagna Fajardo presented a selection of their works at MoMA. Capó is a graduate of Cuba’s prestigious San Antonio School of Cinema and Television, and his nonfiction pieces (La marea, 2009; Nos quedamos, 2010; and La certeza, 2011) have won awards in such festivals as Documenta Madrid, Sao Paulo’s Fest Latino, the DocTV Latin America Project, and the International Festival of New Latin American Film in Havana. His work is considered among the most innovative in the new Cuban documentary.
Meanwhile, Fajardo is the most prominent third-generation representative of Serrana Television, the only community video producer in Cuba. Since 1993, Serrana TV set out to create a repertoire of audiovisual works that reflect the human and cultural values of peoples in the most remote regions of the country, especially in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in eastern Cuba. Today, Ariagna Fajardo is among the most promising female voices in Cuban cinema.
MoMA’s continuing presentation of Cuban titles reflects the growing interest in a creative stream that’s gaining prestige and international visibility: independent film production, which since the middle of the last decade has shown the strength of young filmmakers in the Cuban media scene today. Capó and Fajardo, both around 35 years old, are only two names in a field that involves not only short films, cartoons, and documentaries, but ventures into complex feature films.
The most visible example of this trend is the international success of Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead, directed by Alejandro Brugués, 2011). This film about zombies was made in Cuba and co-produced by Spain. It received the 2012 Goya Award from the Spanish Film Academy for best Latin American film released in Spain and has been screened in fifty festivals. In addition to critical success, Juan de los Muertos was a commercial triumph: distribution rights were sold in three dozen territories, including the US—a rare feat for Cuban cinema, which finds it difficult to break into the international film market.
Juan de los Muertos is the best-known release of the independent production house Producciones 5ta Avenida. Headquartered in Havana’s Vedado district, this company has supported independent productions for ten years—another accomplishment in a field where support is often intermittent. The company’s mission statement says:
“Our main activity is the production of independent films, in keeping with the need to diversify and encourage a creative space and collaboration among Cuban filmmakers. With swift and effective production formulas, our intention is to channel fresh, bold projects for the international market, projects that would otherwise be difficult to make.”
Hotel Nueva Isla (71 min., 2014) took more than three years to make, financed through various funds that promote production in America and Europe. In 2013 it received the decisive support of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, and was also one of the projects supported by the Ibermedia Fund. Hotel Nueva Isla is now on the worldwide festival circuit following its premiere at the 2014 Rotterdam International Film Festival—considered one of the major European festivals, after Cannes, Venice, and Berlin.
The film follows individuals who inhabit the ruins of an ancient Havana luxury hotel in the district of Centro Habana. Jorge is a retired government official, and Reina a 23-year-old new mother. The synopsis reads: “Jorge spends his days locked in the formerly luxurious Hotel Nueva Isla, which is today a shelter for homeless people. But time and neglect have turned it into a ruined and dangerous place to live, and the few remaining residents are gradually moving away, leaving Jorge alone, clinging to a universe he has built. With evacuation imminent, Jorge knows that the demolition of the hotel will soon follow, marking the end of a way of life and also the end of an era in Cuba.”
This is the first feature film by the directors. Irene Gutiérrez is Spanish, and studied Audiovisual and Multimedia Communication at the University of Seville before enrolling in Cuba’s EICTV, where she graduated in documentary in 2004. Javier Labrador Deulofeu is Cuban and graduated from EICTV in photography. Both work as freelance filmmakers and photographers in Spain and Cuba.
In 2014, while participating in the Sao Paulo Fest Latino, Gutiérrez gave details of this production to the LatAmcinema news site. According to her, the ability to undertaking this production with a very meager budget allowed them to follow their characters during a one-year shoot. “It chronicles Jorge’s last year and as such, in another country, it would have been uneconomical to have a year of shooting full time,” she said.
About the origin of the project, Gutiérrez said: “The film began in conversations with Javier, discussing movies we liked, which are about a quiet strength. Seeing the hotel and meeting Jorge was like entering a dream. Seeing that man, who had made a strong personal world among the ruins of that building and was reluctant to leave, made us feel that his was a way of life that goes against the entire world, just as making films in Cuba is. (…) We found that Jorge and Cuba were part of the same thing, a downward cycle and a change that has not yet come.”
For the director, Cuban independent production is in a state of “effervescence.” The EICTV had played an important role, not only in Cuba but in Latin America: “If we take stock of Latin American works that circulate to international festivals, most of them, whether long or short, are by graduates of EICTV or include graduates on their teams.”
These productions have begun to find their way, through alternative routes, to commercial distribution and release networks. Film festivals are still the most common scenario. The novelty is that, beyond events such as the annual Havana Film Festival New York, which usually includes productions from the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC)—the main Cuban state producer—other spaces are opening up to the work of young independents.
Thus, the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) 2015 has announced a program of “Emerging Cuban Independent Film/Video Artists.” It’s a first for this festival which, for cultural and geographic reasons, is one of the events most attuned to Cuban production.
This section starts on March 8 with the premiere of La obra del siglo (The Project of the Century) by Carlos Machado Quintela. This feature-length fiction film just won the Lions Club L’Esprit du Temps prize of 20,000 euros at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR). This award is given to a promising filmmaker whose films show a clear interest in social and political affairs, and is supported by the Hubert Bals Fund.
La obra del siglo was co-produced by Cuba, Argentina, Germany, and Switzerland. It looks at Cuban men of three different generations, forced to live together in an apartment called Ciudad Nuclear in the province of Cienfuegos—the province where the only nuclear power plant to be built in Cuba remained unfinished in the late 1980s.
In the Miami screening, Producciones 5ta Avenida executive producer Claudia Calviño and directors Marcel Beltrán and Jessica Rodríguez will also participate. Calviño will present Hotel Nueva Isla, Rodríguez will show fragments of her debut Espejuelos Oscuros (Dark Glasses), currently in post-production, and Beltrán his short fiction La Nube (2014).