Feature films usually grab the spotlight at film festivals. But this year’s Havana Film Festival New York is showcasing an exceptionally rich selection of documentary films about Cuban life and culture, all made within the past two years. Documentary film expert Nadine Covert surveys the top picks, including films screening today, tonight, and tomorrow.

In Los cien sones cubanos (The 100 Cuban sones), composer Edesio Alejandro offers a primer on the origins and history of Cuban son: a rhythmic musical style with roots in African (Bantu) and Spanish sources, it has become the soul of Cuban music. Alejandro and his team interviewed hundreds of Cubans about their favorite sones, traveling to remote areas of the island to record and select the music groups—the conjuntos—that appear in the film. The result is 90 minutes of authentic music and interviews with families of musicians, many of whom make their own instruments and play mostly at local festivities. Filled with warmth and humor, this is an affectionate tribute to a beloved musical genre. The director, who was on hand for the New York screening, explained to the enthusiastic audience that the team began by asking people which son they would like played at their death, with the idea of compiling a list of 100 titles. But the responses were so rich, he decided to make a film. In addition to directing this documentary, Edesio Alejandro composed original music scores for two feature films in this year’s festival: Bailando cha-cha-cha (Manuel Herrera, 2005) and José Martí—El ojo del canario (Fernando Pérez, 2010).

Director Tané Martinez continued the musical tribute with Caminando Aragón (Timeless Journey: Orquesta Aragón). Known as the “kings of cha-cha-cha” in the 1950s, the orchestra was founded in Cienfuegos in 1939. It has remained active ever since, frequently replenishing itself with the sons and grandsons of the original members. The film follows the Orquesta to concerts in Cienfuegos, Havana, and New York. Today’s band members share their memories and experiences, and others trace the origins of the Orquesta and pay homage to its founders and early leaders, Orestes Aragón Cantero and Rafael Lay Apesteguía. Rousing performances past and present set the packed house at the festival clapping, swaying, and singing along. A repeat screening of the film, with the director present, will take place tomorrow night (Friday, April 20) at 6:00 p.m. at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Admission is free.

Other documentaries revealed less well-known aspects of Cuban history and culture. In Maestra (Teacher), U.S. director Catherine Murphy focuses on the Cuban National Literacy Campaign and its longterm social ramifications. In 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution, the government launched a campaign to wipe out illiteracy in Cuba. More than 250,000 volunteers, many in their teens and over half of them women, spread out across the island to teach reading and writing in remote farms and urban shantytowns. These brigadistas lived with their students, sharing the hardships of working the land and living in crowded conditions without electricity. For the young women who joined the literacy brigades, this was their first taste of freedom and empowerment. The Cuban National Literacy Campaign was a huge success: within one year, more than 700,000 people had learned to read and write. By 1962, Cuba’s literacy rate was 96%—one of the highest in the world. In an after-screening Q & A, the director was asked why she had interviewed only women brigadistas. Murphy responded that she’d interviewed both men and women, but the experiences of the women were so profoundly life-changing that she wanted to acknowledge that. Many of the girls who volunteered did so against the wishes of their parents; many had never even been allowed out of their homes alone before joining the literacy campaign. The experience gave them a sense of their own abilities and potential, and they never looked back.

Education also plays a key role in El Maestro Saharaui (The Saharan Teacher), by Nicolas Muñoz. For more than thirty years, children living in refugee camps in the Algerian desert have had to travel to distant places, including Cuba, to complete their schooling. This documentary chronicles the daily lives of some of these students, who are often away from their families for as long as twelve years. The Saharan Teacher will screen at 2:30 p.m. today (Thursday, April 19) at the Quad Cinema.

Director Roberto Chile profiles two very different personalities in his short documentaries. Soy Tata Nganga (I Am Tata Nganga) introduces Enriquito of La Hata, a 93-year-old priest of Afro-Cuban religions. Sencillamente Korda (Simply Korda) focuses on the life and work of acclaimed photographer Alberto Korda, best known for his iconic image of Che Guevara. Korda reminisces about his background, his first experiences with a hand-held camera, and his fascination with feminine beauty. New Yorkers can see this film portrait of Korda tonight (Thursday) at 6:00 p.m. at the Quad Cinema.

Founded in 1986, the International Film and Television School (EICTV) in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, trains students from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Ser un ser humano (To Be a Human Being) is a collaborative work comprising a series of six documentaries made by young filmmakers in eight diverse communities. The series explores six universal human characteristics: Sustenance, Love, Culture, Faith, Fear, and Hope. Cuban students produced the segment on Love (Amor).

The Havana Film Festival New York wraps up on Friday evening, April 20, at the DGA Theater, with an awards ceremony and a screening of the breakout zombie hit, Juan de los muertos (Juan of the Dead), by Alejandro Brugués.

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Nadine Covert
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).