For an Impossible Cinema: Cuban documentaries of the 1960-70s – tickets special offer

BFI (British Film Institute Southbank) looks back at the documentaries and experimental films of the 1960s-70s

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Venue BFI, Southbank London SE1 8XT

Nearest tube: Waterloo

For an Impossible Cinema: Cuban documentaries of the 1960-70s

"Give me two photographs, a moviola and some music and I'll make you a film"Santiago Alvarez

Under the aegis of new film institute the ICAIC, enthusiastic young filmmakers went out onto the streets to chronicle the spirit of the times with fresh eyes. At the core of this season is the boldest innovator, Santiago Alvarez, who was in charge of the weekly newsreel, which he soon transformed with his own experimental montage-driven style of agitation and special brand of political satire, usually directed against US imperialism. Also included are four documentaries by Sara Gómez, the first woman to bring an Afro-Cuban sensibility to the screen, plus films by foreign filmmakers including Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker, attracted by Cuba's tropical socialism. This is not an excuse for nostalgia, but the rediscovery of a remarkable body of innovatory documentaries with attitude.

Season curated by filmmaker and Cuban cinema specialist Michael Chanan

Details from 17 August onwards

Thursday 17 August 18:10: Foreign Visitors

Foreigners’ perspectives on the Cuban Revolution, from two Direct Cinema pioneers and acclaimed filmmaker Chris Marker.

Foreigners’ perspectives on the Cuban Revolution. From 1960, Yanki No! was shot by Direct Cinema pioneers Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles for ABC television and represents a liberal stance towards Latin America. Chris Marker’s much more intelligent La Bataille des dix millions dates from 10 years later – when Fidel caused huge problems by miscalculating the sugar harvest – and makes for an effective piece of counter-propaganda to Western disinformation.

Friday 18 August 18:15: Santiago Alvarez

A triple bill of Alvarez in his prime, with films about resilient Cuban athletes, North Vietnam and Che Guevara.

A triple-bill of Alvarez in his stride. Cerro Pelado playfully follows Cuban athletes to Puerto Rico, where the USA tried to prevent them participating in the Games. Hanoi martes 13 is a subtle and poetic anti-reportage on North Vietnam. And Hasta la victoria siempre is Alvarez’s emotional instant response to the news of Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia.

Saturday 19 August 20:40: Culture

These two marvellous films by Octavio Cortázar take us to a travelling cinema screening and a chess tournament in Havana.

In this programme we present two marvellous films by Octavio Cortázar. In one, Por primera vez, a mobile cinema brings films to a remote village for the first time. Acerca de un personaje que unos llaman San Lázaro y otros llaman Babalú takes an ethnographic look at Afro-Cuban religious syncretism, where Lazarus fuses with Babalú. José Massip’s Nuestra Olimpiada en La Habana is a nicely observed report on an international chess tournament in Havana (where the amateur players include Fidel). Lastly, one of Sara Gómez’s most extraordinary films, En la otra isla, offers a collection of portraits of people living on Isla de Pinos, drawing out their stories and reflections, touching on awkward subjects like racism and delinquency, which most filmmakers at this time were reluctant to treat.

Monday 21 August 20:45: Perspectives II

A quartet of films of contrasting styles and themes – from touching portraits of war veterans to explosive satire.

A quartet of films of contrasting styles and themes. Alejandro Saderman’s Hombres de Mal Tiempo is a touching meditation on history and memory told through five centenarian veterans of Cuba’s War of Independence. Santiago Alvarez’s LBJ is an explosive piece of satire on assassination as a political weapon in 1960s USA. Octavio Cortázar’s Hablando del punto cubano is an intriguing inquiry into traditional improvised singing competitions, with the delightful twist of a commentary that is sung, instead of spoken, by the popular singer Joseito Fernández. Rounding off the programme, Isla del Tesoro is a short poetic evocation by Sara Gómez of the island where Fidel Castro was imprisoned by Batista.

Wednesday 23 August 18:10: An Impossible Cinema: Cuban documentary in the 1960s TALK

Join us to explore what fuelled Cuba’s truly remarkable radical film culture during the 1960s.

As our season shows, Cuban film culture in the 1960s was truly unique, both in terms of production and exhibition. What were the historical, cultural and theoretical contexts that enabled Cuban cinema to flourish? How did key filmmakers produce radical cinema that also served their own artistic ambitions, and audience appetites? Join our group of experts – including academics Michael Chanan and Jean Stubbs, and curator Chema González – to explore the experimental, artistic and revolutionary nature of these films.

Wednesday 23 August 20:30: Beginnings and Battles

Fascinating portraits of rural charcoal burners and volunteer militia, and Santiago Alvarez’s reinvention of the newsreel.

To start with, the film regarded by the ICAIC as its precursor, El Megano, about the hard life of rural charcoal burners, made by Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in 1955 and immediately seized by the secret police. The battle in Historia de una batalla by Manuel Octavio Gómez is the literacy campaign of 1961. From 1962, Cuba, pueblo armado is a portrait of the militant spirit of the volunteer militia fighting counterrevolutionaries in Escambray, with the great Dutch documentarist Joris Ivens as the invited director. Ciclón and Now are the first short films where Santiago Alvarez re-invents the newsreel.

Thursday 24 August 18:10: Long Struggles

This programme of films includes Santiago Alvarez’s lyrical tribute to Ho Chi Minh.

79 primaveras is Santiago Alvarez’s lyrical tribute to Ho Chi Minh. This is paired with Manuel Octavio Gómez’s striking La primera carga al machete, distinguished by Jorge Herrera’s stunning B&W camerawork, in which (a bit like Peter Watkins’ Culloden) a famous battle of the 1868 War of Independence is filmed as a piece of contemporary documentary reportage, complete with the songs of Pablo Milanés as a wandering troubadour.

Saturday 26 August 20:40: Perspectives III: ¡Viva la República!

Pastor Vega utilises the entire archive of Cuban cinema to deconstruct the revolution’s prehistory.

Pastor Vega does for the Cuban Revolution what Esfir Shub did for the Russian Revolution in her great compilation film Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Vega has at his disposal the entire archive of Cuban cinema going back to the earliest days to allow him to deconstruct the Revolution’s prehistory.

Thursday 31 August 20:40: Wide Angle: Giron

Manuel Herrera’s brilliantly original take on the Bay of Pigs.

With Herrera’s feature we show once again how adventurous Cuban documentary became in the early 70s. It’s a brilliantly original take on the Bay of Pigs, told through the recollections of ordinary combatants but filmed in wide screen like a war movie, with the effect of subverting the dominant mode of cinema as spectacle and its representation of heroism.