On a jury for Cuba’s film festival, our critic revels in a vibrant culture
Brian D. JohnsonJanuary102005
IT WAS INSANE, skipping off to Cuba at the height of the holiday movie season. What was I thinking? I’d miss the advance screening of Spanglish. But I’d been invited to sit on a jury at Havana’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (Dec. 7-17). For years, my Colombian friend Ramiro Puerta—musician, filmmaker and programmer with Toronto’s film festival—had tried to drag me to the Havana festival. He went on about it as if it were a portal into a lost world, a Neverland of Latin culture. But I was always too busy to go. Three years ago Ramiro died of cancer, at the age of 48. Now, finally, I know what he was talking about.
I’m in a vast room on the 23rd floor of the Habana Libre hotel—a monument to American modernism that was erected as a proud new Hilton just before the Cuban revolution, then abruptly confiscated and rechristened. Fidel Castro and his guerrilla cohorts set up headquarters on the 22nd floor, directly below me. That was 46 years ago. I try to imagine Fidel sitting in his fatigues in a room like mine, ordering a club sandwich from room service. It’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep. The walls are vibrating with the bulldozer grind of a bass from the disco two floors up. Might as well check it out. Almost before I’m in the door, a caramel blond clutching a pink cellphone chats me up in broken English. This young model of refinement says she’s studying journalism and synchronized swimming, then politely offers herself to me for $100. I politely decline. Yes, Havana has too many hookers and too many cops, reminders that this place is no utopia; it’s a poignant contradiction, a last outpost of Communism locked in a time capsule of faded colonial grandeur. Yet it also has one of the most vibrant cultures on the planet. I showed up at a film festival expecting to see movies, and found myself in the middle of one—an extravagant musical.
On my first afternoon in town, I’m whisked off to an art opening at La Guarida, a Spanish colonial landmark on a derelict street. We climb a marble staircase to a grand ruin of vaulted ceilings, eroded pillars and crumbling ochre walls. Paintings hang from clothes pegs on lines strung across the room. The painter is Jorge Perugorría, a celebrated actor, and the building was a location for his best known role—in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry & Chocolate (1994), the Oscar-nominated hit that challenged Cuba’s official taboo against homosexuality. (The taboo has since eased. But I love the story of two famous gay Europeans who once visited the festival, a filmmaker and fashion designer: arrested at an underground rave, they spent a torrid night in jail—apparently the highlight of their trip.)
In a corner, a bartender mixes mojitos, stuffing wads of fresh mint into plastic glasses. And a band begins to play—a jam band of Cuba’s hottest young musicians. The music isn’t traditional son or salsa but an urbane mix of pop, jazz and reggae, cut with inflections of Brazil. Singers take turns at the mike. The guy hand-drumming on a plywood beat box is one of Cuba’s top concert pianists. The charismatic woman on bass is Yusa, a black singer/guitarist with an inverted pyramid of Grace Jones hair who has toured Europe to rave reviews. It’s only late afternoon, but soon this small crowd of Havana’s cultural elite—writers, artists, filmmakers, soap-opera stars—is a delirium of singing and dancing. Music pours out the open balcony into the soft light of the street.
We tend to associate Havana with a time warp—the vintage beat of the Buena Vista Social Club, and the cartoon-finned cars that have been restored so many times they look like ceramic sculptures. But this is the sound of a 21st-century Cuba. I ask Perugorria about his paintings, which feature a lot of dark highways with screaming white lines. “They represent Cuba at a crossroads,” he says. “Now the roads are going just one way, but I see a time beyond the crossroads when they’ll go in many directions.”
Perugorria is also a jury member at the film festival, which after 26 years remains the world’s liveliest intersection of Latin American cinema. And it’s still ruled by the man who created it, Alfredo Guevara, the godfather of Cuban cinema and a close friend of Fidel. A pale, delicate man, he opens and closes the festival reading long speeches from a spotlit pulpit at the back of the cinema, a suit jacket draped over his shoulders like a papal vestment. Guevara (no relation to Che) founded Cuba’s state film studio, just three months after the revolution. Cinema has been a state sacrament here ever since.
Among the premieres at this festival is I Am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth, a Brazilian documentary that tells the amazing story of 1964’s Soy Cuba (“I Am Cuba”), a monumental epic by Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov. Arriving just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kalatozov spent two years filming on the island. He was intoxicated by the young romance of a tropical revolution— and the opulence of hotels built as mafia playgrounds. With a story that swings from the erotic decadence of Batista’s Havana to Castro’s guerrilla assault, Soy Cuba may be the most lavish propaganda film ever made— a bravura feat of black-and-white cinema more akin to opera than to socialist realism. Kalatozov pioneered techniques that would influence a generation. He even procured infrared film that the Soviet military had created to shoot the dark side of the moon—it gave palm trees and cane fields a silvery gleam brighter than the sky.
But Soy Cuba was Havana’s Heaven’s Gate. The Cubans, who dubbed it “I Am Not Cuba,” found it pretentious, slow and alien. The Soviets didn’t like it either. After a week it was buried in the archives, where it languished for 30 years until, ironically, America unearthed it—in 1995, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola re-released Soy Cuba to great acclaim. I watch both it and the documentary in a vintage cinema with worn red leather seats. Havana has about 200 theatres, and not one multiplex. Ordinary people line up for films just as they line up for ice cream at the legendary Coppelia. The city seems more prosperous these days; there’s stuff to buy. But still not an advertisement in sight. Aside from revolutionary icons, Havana remains a no-logo oasis in the global brandscape. Yet, once the Vegas of the Caribbean, it’s also a living shrine to the American Dream-frozen at the apogee of fifties optimism.
Meanwhile, the Cold War continues in miniature. The security fence around Havana’s U.S. Interest Section (there’s no embassy) is adorned with white lights, candy canes and a big red 75—the tally of Cuban dissidents jailed in April 2003. Across the street Castro has fired back with anti-U.S. billboards showing swastikas and photographs of Abu Ghraib prisoners. Last spring, George W. Bush hardened the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In past years, such stars as Coppola and De Niro would visit the Havana festival. This time there are virtually no Americans.
Lounging in a great wicker chair on the terrace of the venerable Hotel Nacional de Cuba, British filmmaker Sally Potter tells me the U.S. wouldn’t allow her star, Joan Allen, to attend her Havana screening of Yes—made in response to 9/11, it’s a romance between an Irish-American scientist (Allen) and a Lebanese cook that ends, idyllically, in Cuba. Potter shot in Havana, but the U.S. wouldn’t let her star work there. So she stitched Havana backdrops into footage of Allen filmed in the Dominican Republic.
As a juror, I watch movies from Cuba, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay. But Havana seduces me more with music than film. One afternoon I’m invited to a party in a dreamy country house owned by José María Vitier, a celebrated pianist. We drink and smoke cigars in his home studio, with a grand piano serving as the bar. Vitier plays us an unmixed recording he’s cut with two opera singers and Afro-Cuban percussion. Carlos Varela, a famous Cuban folkie with black hippie hair and beret, sings a heartbreaking ballad he’s about to record, and asks Vitier’s advice about arrangements. Vitier entertains us with some comic bursts of fantasia on the piano. An opera singer lets fly with a brief aria. Later we stroll to a neighbour’s house—a painter who also crafts wicker furniture. As we chat over nougat and Nescafé, out in the yard his night watchman, an old man with a mahogany face, sings opera at the top of lungs, as if to remind us that he, too, is an artist.
The beauty of Havana’s film festival is that it overlaps with its jazz festival. On my final night, I’m sitting in an intimate concert hall with an audience that includes author Gabriel García Márquez. (His friend Fidel stays home with a broken leg.) Backed by bass and drums, two jazz legends—Cuba’s Chucho Valdés and France’s Michel Legrand—sit at dovetailed grand pianos and engage in two hours of dazzling musical diplomacy. A duet between Cuban id and European ego. Valdés, a big bear of a man, plays from the inside out, backwards and forwards, overturning the rhythm with an Afro-Cuban edge. Legrand—Oscar-winning composer, chansonnier and showman—skates the surface. He looks frail at 72, but his fingers are a blur. The music plays like a movie, an epic dialogue of whimsy, drama and farce. It starts with Valdés unearthing new colours for Somewhere Over the Rainbow and ends with Legrand calling out a carnival of styles for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: “Bossa nova... tango ... ragtime... Cuban... Martian!”
On to the closing party of the film festival. Under the stars, behind the ramparts of El Morro, Havana’s 16th-century citadel, hundreds dance to a big salsa band. It seems the night, drunk with music, will never end. But at 3 a.m. the band stops, like the air going out of a balloon. As the crowd files out across a shadowed moat, I think of Cuba, this Communist sandcastle so rich with culture, and wonder—as the clock ticks down on Castro’s regime—what will become of it.*
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