This year, in 2019 Cuba is celebrating 60 years of ICAIC, the institute for the Cuban film industry. This article by CubaDebate looks back at its very special history.
Law 169 – the first of several decrees that the Cuban Revolution ratified in the cultural scene less than three months after its triumph – established in its introductory line that “film is an art”. However, the law of 24 March 1959 also recognised that film production covered far more than just art, establishing the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) as a result.
Since then, a cultural policy that would discuss and focus on national identity accompanied film production. Above all, this cultural policy would emphasise the primordial condition of art that “freed from petty ties and pointless constraints” it could “talk about the great conflicts of man and mankind, dramatically and contemporarily”, which defined according to the Cuban social experience would be the basis for many films.
The creation of ICAIC, followed shortly thereafter by the Casa de las Americas – another institution with an integrationist and decolonising outlook from Cuban culture to Latin American culture – made the yearning for a national film industry a reality in the early 1960s, a dream that people like Julio Garcia Espinosa, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Alfredo Guevara and Jorge Haydu shared while filming El Megano [a film about the exploitation of coalworkers] in 1955.
Several of the most successful films in the history of Cuban film came from ICAIC in the first decade of its history – also the first decade of the Cuban Revolution. Some of them are included on lists of the best international films of the twentieth century. [Lucia is frequently quoted outside of Cuba as in the top ten of best Latin American films ever.]
In a recent workshop organised by the International Festival of New Latin American Film [every December in Havana] and ICAIC, Dr Graziella Pogolotti noted that not only did ICAIC design a cultural film policy, but also contributed to shaping the cultural policy of the first decade of the Revolution.
The Sixties – a time of revolutionary artistic vanguards, defence of the social function of art, the Salon de Mayo and the Cultural Congress of Havana – were years in which Cuban film brought out pieces like ‘Historias de la Revolucion’, ‘Memories of Underdevelopment, ‘Lucia’, ‘I Am Cuba’ (co-produced with the USSR), ‘Now!’ and ‘Death of a Bureaucrat’. Cuban film had never before reached such levels of production and aesthetic and conceptual exploration.
ICAIC produced and stimulated creation, but also distributed film. That was one of the great social and cultural gains of the early years: the creation of new audiences, the production of a national film whose premise was the artistic and social commitment of those who made it and the vocation – without making concessions in one’s own art – of taking it to the wider public, to the people.
Many people still remember the travelling cinemas (an experience dramatised in the 1967 documentary “For the first time”) that ‘scattered’ or sowed the film throughout mountains and rural areas. Many saw film for the first time – and good film. Beyond the figures, it is important to imagine how many new cultural landscapes, how many new ideas were opened up in communities that otherwise would not have accessed the same films that were projected in the halls of the cities.
Other related art forms came with the growth of film. Animation studios released short and feature films, introducing classic characters that accompanied Cuban men and women into adulthood and older age; now they can enjoy the same films with their children and grandchildren. Film poster making, which became its own category and even its own school of art, surpassed the realms of advertisement and became art in the hands of artists and graphic designers such as Raúl Martínez, René Portocarrero, Servando Cabrera, Alfredo Rostgaard and Eduardo Muñoz Bachs.
In 1969, the ICAIC Sound Experimentation Group (GESI) emerged. This generated a hub of exploration and creativity based on the idea of making music for the new Cuban film. While the group shut down in 1977, the impact of its work went far beyond the institution itself, and its echoes continue to resonate in Cuban music.
Initially under the leadership and creative direction of Leo Brouwer – in addition to Juan Elósegui, Federico Smith and Gerónimo Labrada – workshops, studio recordings and study sessions at GESO brought together music stars such as Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Noel Nicola, Sergio Vitier and Eduardo Ramos. They were joined by Leoginaldo Pimentel, Leonardo Acosta, Emiliano Salvador, Pablo Menéndez, Armando Guerra and, finally, Sara González, Amaury Pérez and other young musicians.
Exploration, fusions, collective experimentation with the sounds of Europe as well as the United States and Brazil, concert music and Cuban genres such as son or guaguancó – at GESI, music was made for film and also for Cuban music history: ‘Cuba Va’ (Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Noel Nicola), ‘Los Caminos’ (Pablo), ‘For an Imaginary María del Carmen’ (Noel), ‘Danzón’ (Sergio Vitier), ‘America Your Distance’ (Pablo), ‘A Man Rises’ (Silvio) and Song of the CDR’ (Eduardo Ramos).
It has been sixty years of film and much more. If we look at the history of ICAIC, we have to mention ICAIC News, the Cuban Film Magazine, the Cuban Cinemateca and its archive, which have been maintained and put at the disposal of generations of Cubans, the best of national and world film and, in recent years, the Youth film festival [La Muestra Joven], a window on the innovations of the next generation of filmmakers.
Since 1979, the International Festival of New Latin American Film [Havana film festival] has been a meeting point and promotional opportunity for filmmakers from the continent, a way to bring the region’s film to the Cuban public and to exchange and discuss trends and new areas of film production in Latin America.
During the award ceremony at the most recent Festival in December 2018, president Iván Giroud stated, “It is essential that new generations take their place at our festival and contribute to re-imagining it with their works, concerns and obsessions. Only then can we continue calling it New.”
“I think one of the great virtues of the Festival has been to maintain a coherent line since its conception, a very clear purpose of what was proposed, which was, first, to create a space of confluence for filmmakers and Latin American cinema , a meeting space, but also create new audiences for that cinema. It is one of the great works of the Festival, the public that has formed during these forty years watching and appreciating Latin American cinema. I believe that Cuba is the only country in Latin America that today has, at a public, massive level, that knowledge of a cinematography like that of Latin America.”
(Iván Giroud, president of the Havana Festival, in an interview with Cubadebate )
Sixty years of far more than film
In the history of ICAIC there have been films like Now! that some consider the precursor of the videoclip, and classics of the twentieth century such as ‘Memorias del Subdesarrollo’ (Memories of Underdevelopment). Hundreds of fiction films and documentaries, thousands of scenes and faces, an immense multifaceted work.
When it comes to remembering images, it could be Sergio who wanders around the city, Rachel in The Island of the Parrots on the stage of the Alhambra, the monumental brawl in front of the cemetery in ‘Death of a Bureaucrat’, the embrace of Diego and David in ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’, the final race in Lucia’s salina, Concha’s tribulations in ‘Plaff!’ or the barbecue that falls apart while two young people make love in ‘Vertical Love’; intense and unforgettable endings such as those in ‘Clandestinos’ or the meditation, the feeling of loss and isolation in films like ‘Madagascar’, the emotional depth that lives on in films such as ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’.
Everyone will have their image, or their images. There is everything in Cuban film of the last sixty years, mostly produced and created under the umbrella of ICAIC: cinema with a strong imprint of the documentary, in which there is no shortage of historical re-enactments, hilarious comedies and others in which laughter takes turn with tragedy, difficult lives, introspection and heresy, and in whose evolution the historical moments, the bonanzas and crises are reflected – in themes, in approaches, in tones – even the states of mind that the Cuban nation has experienced over decades.
“Heresy is not easy. However, practising it is the source of a deep and encouraging satisfaction, and this is greater the more authentic the rupture or ignorance of the commonly accepted dogmas. In this sense, heresy is a risk because it involves the abandonment of paths, and the rejection of its replacement. There is no adult life without systematic heresy, without the commitment to take risks. And that is why this attitude to life, to the world, is an adventure with the possibility of failure. But it is also the only real opportunity to approach the edges of truth.” (Alfredo Guevara, “Cuban Cinema 1963”, in Cine Cubano magazine ).
The last few years have borne witness to the emergence of new technologies in the making and distribution of films, as well as new ways of financing and promoting them; those of the independent film and the controversies and debates on the role of the institution and the need of new legal forms in a filmmaking landscape that, like the social and economic one of the country, has changed and requires updating.
A filmmaking landscape in which state and non-state forms of production coexist; in which there is an external context to the artistic fact that generates confrontation, and in which, as many voices in industry recognise, the independent need not be at odds with the institutional, as the practice has shown in recent years. It is part of the logic of a country that changes, even without renouncing its essence.
Translated by Cuba50