I recall past Festivals, when the renowned and much admired Argentine director Eliseo Subiela presented his Hombre mirando al sudeste and then El lado oscuro del corazón, and confessed to this paper that showing his films in Havana was a real gauge as to whether or not they worked.
Since this is a unique moment in the country's cinematic life, with productions from the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and so-called independent cinema, Cuban cinema is strongly represented in the Festival, with no less than nine feature films, the type of picture which truly sets the standard of an event of this level.
Robert Smith, president of ICAIC, said during an encounter previous to the December event (3rd to 13th), that Cuban cinema is distinguished as "a greater whole and we are part of it," for which "it is a pleasure, a joy for us to have so many films chosen to compete for the Coral awards."
It was a sign of respect that Smith, referring to the ratio of films, began precisely with the independent films that have a "high production value," of which we will outline certain features.
Perhaps the most talked about among these independent films is El acompañante, the third offering from director Pavel Giroud (La edad de la peseta and Tres veces dos,ICAIC co-productions).
According to certain interviews given by Giroud, the film received financing from France, Panama, Venezuela and Cuba, and the leading role is played by the famous singer Yotuel Romero, of the rap group, Orishas.
The synopsis states that "the plot is set during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic in Cuba, when HIV-positive patients were admitted to the Los Cocos specialized hospital, and they had the opportunity to go out once a week to see their families, partners or friends under the supervision of a "companion". This work was performed by health professionals, students linked to medical sciences or people who were seeking the job due to its more than appealing salary".
Carlos M. Quintela returns with a second feature film La obra del siglo (after debuting with La Piscina in 2011), which premiered at the 14th ICAIC Young Filmmakers Showcase.
In the words of Quintela, his film "addresses a confrontation of views between three generations of a family living in the same apartment. Set in Ciudad Nuclear in Cienfuegos province where the first nuclear power plant in the Caribbean would have been located, but which remained unfinished due to the collapse of the USSR."
Starring Mario Balmaseda, Mario Guerra, Manuel Porto, Jorge Molina, Leonardo Gascón and Damarys Gutiérrez, the film has seen an extensive international tour, and has been awarded at festivals in Toulouse, France and Rotterdam, Holland. Regarding the financing Quintela assured: "La obra del siglo is Cuban, Argentine, German, Swiss and has Dutch and Norwegian support."Three youths are debuting in the feature fiction film category: Jessica Rodríguez with Espejuelos oscuros: Fabián Suárez, with Caballos, and Rigoberto Jiménez with Café amargo, which among other virtues features music from maestro Juan Piñera. In order to shoot the film, Jiménez said he had "the support of TV Serrana, EICTV, the Martin Luther King Center, the Ludwig Foundation, and many others, but without the help of ICAIC, it would not have been possible to finish it, it was ICAIC that gave the last push and we are very grateful."
In announcing the films produced by ICAIC that will compose part of the official competition of the 37th Festival in Havana, Roberto Smith placed special emphasis on those which have not yet been released: Bailando con Margot, the first feature film directed by Arturo Santana, and La cosa humana, by the already recognized filmmaker Gerardo Chijona.
Bailando con Margot, a co-production with Venezuela, sees the lead character played by famed actress Mirta Ibarra, who is accompanied by Yenisse Soria, Edwin Fernández, Niusbel Ventura and Jorge Caballero, and whose story begins "December 31, 1958, when a detective is investigating the theft of a painting in the house of a wealthy widow in Havana. The relationship between the two, between inquiries and danzóns, reveals the history of the house and the family. The arrival in Havana of "the bearded ones" changes the meaning of things."
La cosa humana is another comedy by Gerardo Chijona, who already provided us with a landmark film for Cuban cinema in Adorables mentiras. In the midst of so much debate regarding shooting with ICAIC or independently, Chijona, speaking with Granma International at the Fresa y Chocolate Cultural Centre, noted: "I was born and trained in the ICAIC. It is my second home and I have a sense of belonging. When you are trained in the industry it is a family. Before directing you had to do everything else and I learned a lot, that was my school. Here nobody asks how much they will get paid, they are here for the project, I protect my staff and the actors, without them there is no movie."
And what is it that distinguishes La cosa humana from the rest of his films?
"What distinguishes this one are all the nods to popular stories such as The Godfather or The Soppranos and a tribute to great figures of film such as the Coen brothers and Woody Allen. The story is told from cinematographic references, from the first to the last shot, and some literary as well. Although it is Cuba today, it's an atypical story with atypical characters. It uses a much more refined, more sophisticated, more intellectual humor. The question now is to see whether it works or not."
For this "reserved, ironic" comedy, Chijona called on renowned actors: Enrique Molina, Héctor Medina, Vladimir Cruz, Carlos Enrique Almirante and Mario Guerra. La cosa humana is a SONTRAC.E.I.R.L (Peru) co-production with the support of the IBERMEDIA program.
The other two Cuban films competing for the Coral awards are Cuba Libre by Jorge Luis Sánchez (produced in conjunction with the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund) and Rigoberto López's Vuelos prohibidos (in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and FUNGLODE of the Dominican Republic), both of which have been previously released and were commented on at the time in this publication.
Although the Cuban documentary genre has seen golden moments and has been a refuge for many filmmakers, only two national productions, both from ICAIC, were accepted by the Festival Selection Committee: Últimos días de una casa and Una luz de inteligencia y amor.
Una luz de inteligencia y amor, from director Regino Oliver is "a feature-length documentary, which chronologically narrates significant aspects of the professional activity of outstanding Cuban film producer Humberto Hernández Rodríguez, winner of the National Film Award 2015."
Documentary filmmaker Lourdes de los Santos qualified for the competition with her already premiered Últimos días de una casa, with a running time of 14 minutes, collaborating on the script with Cary Cruz, while Ivan Nápoles provides stunning photography and featuring the music of the recently deceased Lucía Huergo.
What distinguishes Últimos días de una casa from her previous work?
"I always deal with celebrities, music, dance, but I had never before set out to make a documentary about a house. It is a house full of mystery and I wanted to expose it so people know what there was there. We need to reflect on the importance of saving our heritage, the work of all of us who live in the city. Become aware of the environment in which we live. I included a lot of archival material, for example an interview that Vicente González Castro conducted with Dulce María Loynaz, where she talks about the house. The fundamental things are the images and the poetry that emerge from the place."
While animated films did not occupy an important place within the Festival for some time, due to low production in the region, the situation has been changing in recent years. Cuba, for example, noted Esther Hirzel, director of the ICAIC Animation Studios, had released 28 films up until last August and will present a further 20, as well as two new video games by December.
The animations competing in the Festival are: Xip Zerep contra los vampiros lácteos, plot, script and direction by Juan Padrón; Las aventuras de Juan Quin Quin, directed by Alexander Rodríguez and based on the novel by Cuban author Samuel Feijoo, and El camarón encantado, directed by Adrián López Morín.
The competition for the Corals is never simple, there are always disagreements among jurors, critics and audiences, added to the fact that there are high quality productions from across Latin America and this year offerings from the major regional film industries, such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico will feature, having already received numerous awards at other festivals.
Most importantly, the Festival brings Latin American and Cuban films to the big screen, and in Havana they find a decidedly enthusiastic and outspoken public. With regards to the competition? Winning looks good on any résumé, but more importantly the filmmakers, as Subiela noted, find here a real gauge as to whether or not their films work.
official Havana Film Festival website www.habanafilmfestival.com