Panorama of Cuban cinema made by women

Cuban film director Magda Gonzalez and actors on set of ‘Why do my [female] friends cry?’

From La Jiribilla

At the same time that the #MeToo movement denounces sexual abuse and harassment committed by prominent men in the North American film industry, Cuba is gradually beginning to recognize that the history of the seventh art on the island, or at least the tradition of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), has not been free of a certain underestimation regarding its female filmmakers. It is not a matter of importing foreign trends that impose protest and summary prosecution, but of highlighting, in practice, the scarce presence of women directors during the first fifty years of feature film production in Cuba, as well as trying to find solutions to this absence.

As the panorama of Cuban cinema made by women is quite limited, we will try a quick outline, not exhaustive, that will take us to the current moment, when female poetics are increasingly present. According to Arturo Agramonte in his ‘Chronology of Cuban Cinema’, the first woman linked to cinema in Cuba was Mirtha Portuondo, who drew on celluloid for an animation called ‘The Son of Science’ (Santiago de Cuba, 1948). Agramonte includes in his research, completed in 1962, Evelia Joffre as the only female director, with the film ‘Rumba on television’ made in 1950.

In 1962, already working within the new national film institute ICAIC, the first woman to direct was Rosina Prado, with her documentary ‘Ismaelillo’, about the construction of a nursery in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. Of Spanish origin and a graduate of the Moscow Higher Institute of Cinema, Rosina Prado worked at the ICAIC as director of other documentaries (‘Palmas cubanas’, ‘Qué es lo bello’, ‘La Llamada del Nido’), and later she devoted herself to film criticism until in the 70s, she moved back to Spain.

During the 70s and 80s, Marisol Trujillo, Miriam Talavera and Rebeca Chávez stood out for their work in documentary and short film. The circumstances that prevented Marisol Trujillo from directing her first feature film, ‘El mundo de Ociel’ are surrounded by controversy and fable; while Mayra Segura, Mayra Vilasís and Ana Rodríguez debuted together with remarkable short films that formed part of the underrated film ‘Mujer Transparente’. Segura, Vilasís, and Rodríguez were expected to go on to make feature films, but the economic crisis of the 1990s prevented such premieres. When (top male filmmakers) Humberto Solás and Orlando Rojas went a whole decade without producing a film, it was assumed that there was neither space nor resources to promote the debut of emerging women filmmakers, no matter how promising they may seem. This is the only way I can explain the circumstances in which the film careers of some women were paralyzed, or lost.

Transparent Woman (1990), fiction feature film consisting of five stories starring women.

Inside and outside of ICAIC —and sometimes in collaborations— Teresita Ordoqui, in the Television Film Studios, and Belkis Vega, in the Film Studios of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, also worked through the 1980s and 1990s. A little later, Lourdes Prieto, Gloria Rolando, Lizette Vila and Lourdes de los Santos, among others, joined the group of filmmakers, especially in the field of documentary making.

It seems it was too difficult, in a country where equality was guaranteed by law, for a woman to direct a fictional feature film in the first 50 years of the institution. As is already known, only Sara Gómez (‘In a certain way’, 1973) achieved it with an anthological work that, following the tragic early death of Gomez, had to be finished by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Rebeca Chávez, who eventually went on to direct a fiction feature film herself (‘Ciudad en rojo’, 2008).

The late Cuban film director Sara Gomez on film set

Shortly before ‘Ciudad en rojo/City in Red’ by Chavez, the fiction feature films ‘So Simple’ (2001), ‘Wedding Dress’ (2014), and ‘Why do my friends cry’ (2018), were the debut films by Carolina Nicola, Marilyn Solaya and Magda González Grau, respectively. However, the hopes of greater female participation in film and video, especially in management, were sustained by the increase in the number of graduates of the International School of Film and Television (EICTV) at San Antonio de los Baños, (near Havana) and the Faculty of Audiovisual Communication Media Art (FAMCA).

The EICTV film school produced, among many others, the documentary filmmaker Susana Barriga, who debuted in 2009 with the documentary ‘The Illusion’, and the screenwriter Patricia Ramos, who made the successful fiction feature film ‘El Techo/The Roof’ (2017) after completing the documentary ‘¡Ampárame! Religiosity in Cuban music’, and several fiction short films (‘Na-Na’, ‘El patio de mi casa’ and ‘I Love Lotus’). Jessica Rodríguez and Carla Valdés graduated from FAMCA, and their respective works ‘Espejuelos Oscuros/Dark glasses’ (2015) and ‘Días de Diciembre’ (2017) contributed to the gradual transformation that is currently taking place in Cuban filmmaking in terms of disrupting traditional male dominance in the genre.

Watch the trailer for El Techo (Patricia Ramos, 2017)

It is worth putting the spotlight on Jessica Rodríguez, who quickly established herself among young Cuban filmmakers with the acclaimed documentary ‘Tacones cerca/Heels close up’ (2008), that shows the world of Almodovarian fantasies of a young gay man, and the hate crimes of which he was a victim. ‘Tacones’ not only won the prize at the Cuban Young Filmmakers festival ‘Muestra Joven’, but was also selected by the Havana and Miami film festivals, won an award at the Gibara Festival and at the Santiago Álvarez in Memoriam festival. It was followed, in 2009, by ‘Raúl’s World’, co-directed with Zoe Miranda, which was shown at film festivals abroad – Clermont Ferrand, Sao Paulo, Krakow, – and won a prize at the Young Filmmakers festival. Rodriguez then spent several years raising the funds to make the fiction feature film ‘Espejuelos Oscuros/Dark Glasses’ (2015), composed of three stories that occur at key moments in the history of Cuba, and that address the intimate world of a woman and the masks of her partner.

Although the ‘Muestra Joven’ (Young Cuban filmmakers festival) has contributed to mapping the contours of young Cuban film, this landscape has also been transformed in order to strengthen the inclusive and egalitarian spirit through various events and awards. Among the first young female filmmakers benefitting from this was the animator Yemeli Cruz, who made ‘Horizons’ (2005) together with Adanoe Lima, and later the highly praised ‘The Moon in the Garden’ (2012) and ‘The Two Princes’ (2017). Ivette Ávila was also successful, with ‘La madre’ (2013) and ‘La huida’ (2019), the latter co-directed with Ariadna Liz Pimentel. In addition, Gabriela Leal, with ‘Huesitos’ (2014), and Yolanda Durán, with ‘No country for old squares’ (2016), co-directed with Ermitis Blanco, won the main awards. Cuban animation filmmakers came to the fore in recent years.

As for documentary, ‘Muestra Joven’ awarded a prize in 2008 to Daniellis Hernández (‘Stray’); in 2009, the aforementioned ‘The Illusion’; and in 2010 Horizoe García and Jessica Rodríguez (‘Raúl’s world’), and Ariagna Fajardo (‘Where are we going’); the latter represented the epitome of poetry generated by Televisión Serrana. In 2014, Lenia Tejera’s ‘Island’ triumphed in this category, and it took three years for recognition for the memorable ‘December Days’. Last year the awards for best documentary, script, soundtrack design and photography went to the directors Lisandra López Fabe and Katherine T. Gavilán, for the surprisingly mature ‘Brouwer, el origen de la sombra’.

As regards the category of fiction, the first female ‘Muestra Joven’ winner to appear in the records was Heidi Hasán, with ‘Tierra roja/Red Land’ (2008), followed, three years later, by ‘A moment’, by Marta María Borrás, who also won awards in the categories of best director, script, art direction and soundtrack design. Despite all this evidence, female directors devoted to fiction are still scarce.

In the official selection of ‘Muestra Joven’ number 19 – due to be held at the beginning of 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic – several works by female filmmakers stood out. In fiction there are Ana A. Alpízar (‘Hapi Berdey Yusimi in Yur Dey’) and Lisandra López Fabé (‘Last song for Mayaan’), while in the documentary category – Ariagna Fajardo (‘The passage of the torrent’), Rosa María Rodríguez Pupo (‘Organ’) and Daniela Muñoz Barroso (‘Umbra/shadow’).

While in Cuba we wait for the new normality and the resumption of daily life in the world of filmmaking, the Venice and Toronto festivals announce with all fanfare the new works of renowned celebrities such as the Indian Mira Nair (A suitable boy), the Japanese Naomi Kawase (True mothers ) and the Polish Malgorzata Szumowska (It will never snow again). In tune with these times of inclusion and greater balance, the Malaga Festival proudly proclaimed that this 23rd edition will be the most female in history, with a large number of female filmmakers and a special section entitled ‘Affirming the rights of women’.

One of the most important Cuban documentaries of recent date, ‘A media voz’, co-directed by Cubans Patricia Pérez and Heidi Hasán, is included in the programme of the Malaga Festival…

Spanish media is proud of such a female Malaga Festival, and those of us who love Cuban cinema can also boast that our filmmakers are part of the global boom in female-made cinema. It is not a question of being fashionable or of following the dominant trends at all costs, but of ensuring that the Cuban film scene, inside and outside the island, is free from inequality and discrimination.

Link to original article by Joel del Rio for La Jiribilla magazine