In the 21st century, Cuban independent cinema has experienced a notable growth, backed by its presence in important international events, as well as by the aesthetic quality of its works. It has investigated different ways of making cinema and has addressed issues related to Cuban reality, inside and outside the island.
The possibility, or rather the need to make films independently―the term is understood as a film made outside the country’s highest cinematographic entity, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC)―has given young filmmakers greater creative freedom, both in the technical-artistic aspect and in the topics addressed.
These filmmakers, mostly graduates of the Faculty of Audiovisual Media of the University of the Arts or the International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños, have spent several years looking for alternative ways to carry out their projects, not always well seen at ICAIC, the governing body of national cinema for the past 60 years.
The boom of the digital age has allowed new opportunities for new filmmakers, who take advantage of technology to make film products of high artistic quality, despite the lack of production, financing and resources in general.
In this regard, producer Claudia Calviño comments to OnCuba: “I don’t share the idea that independent cinema is poor. I do understand that there may be a certain agility and austerity in the formulas and the ways in which independent cinema is made. Sometimes these are not production and financing criteria, also artistic. Sometimes independent films have another expectation.”
While those characteristics were part of the independent film movement at one time, the patterns have changed over time. Currently, we can find independent films made with the same technical requirements of large production houses, a peculiarity that applies to the Cuban environment as well, thanks to the work of independent production entities such as Island Films, Producciones de la 5ta Avenida, El Ingenio, among others, now with legal recognition by the Cuban State as a result of the measures adopted last year.
“It’s something very new, of which we don’t have many certainties, but we hope that things will work in the best possible way and that they respond as much as possible to Cuban cinema and the interest of filmmakers, based on the demands that have been made in recent years by groups like the G-20 and movements like El Cardumen, several generations with similar demands,” says young director José Luis Aparicio.
The emergence of the Registry of the Independent Audiovisual and Cinematographic Creator and the recent approval of the Fund for the Promotion of Cuban Cinema (FFCC), satisfy the long-awaited demands of the country’s creators, Calviño tells us: “The Fund’s document came first as a proposal made by the filmmakers, although the final result was elaborated by ICAIC. For many years, the Institute’s mechanism for the production of its films has not been inclusive or democratic, or open to everyone, but the Fund is not that, it is designed to really be a contest where the best projects win and the best are not the best stories, but also the ones that have the best chance of being made, the most elaborate and convincing plans, that can be proven to be indeed the most feasible.”
In its first stage, the FFCC launches the call for the category of feature films, divided into the modalities of script writing, development and post-production of fiction, documentary and animation feature film projects, each with its specificities. The presence of a jury made up of Cuban and foreign filmmakers stands out in each category, to give greater credibility and professionalism when selecting feasible candidates.
“As the Fund was conceived, ICAIC should not influence the decisions that are made. This selection is mediated by a jury of artists with a resume and trajectory in Cuban cinema, as well as an international jury, to achieve impartiality,” says Aparicio.
There, one of the main doubts of many people stands out, although the Fund’s bases make it clear that “the members of the selection committee evaluate each project individually based on the scoring system established, within a certain period. After the end of this period, each member of the selection committee gives the technical group their scores and considerations on each project.”
This committee is made up of a representative of ICAIC, who chairs it, and up to six 6 audiovisual and cinematographic creators “with extensive experience,” specifies the Regulations for the Allocation of Financing to Cinematographic Projects by the Fund for the Promotion of Cuban Cinema (Resolution 22/2019).
“When evaluating in a Fund like this, which exists in almost the entire world, I don’t think you have to think of words like ‘control’ or ‘loss of independence,’ quite the contrary. ICAIC will come to play the role it has to play in these cases: to organize and help promote and carry out these projects, and not to decide what to do,” says Calviño.
The final proposal and the amounts to be awarded for each of these projects “are presented to the president of ICAIC for final approval,” specify the FFCC bases in each specialty. It would only remain, then, to wait.
“This decree law that puts into operation the Fund for the Promotion of Cuban Cinema and the Registry of the Creator, among other things, has not yet been fully implemented. Therefore, this is a road that must be trodden, which comes from a long way of much debate and many years of struggle between filmmakers of all generations and the Film Institute and the political and governmental leadership of our country. So like everything, it’s time to move forward, and see,” says Carla Valdés, a young filmmaker and president of the ICAIC Young Filmmakers Exhibit, before the events of the last edition.
Further on, José Luis points out that “independent cinema, in the bureaucratic and productive aspect, is going to gain much more with these measures, as they are supposed to work. Through this ICAIC registry, they have the possibility of accessing bank accounts, customs authorities and possibilities of productive operation that they did not have before, since they had no official link with the State.”
In this sense, director Armando Capó, winner of the Coral Award for Best First Film at the last Havana Film Festival, points out that “it is true that this is a great step, now what remains is to understand it and see how it works in practice. I think the appearance of the Fund and the Creator’s Registry is an incredible step forward. Now, with this come issues concerning operation, which we are not used to. It is not just a matter of the culture necessary to make use of it, in practice it almost means operating as a company.”
“The Development Fund is one of the most important things that has happened in Cuban cinema almost since the formation of ICAIC. We have to see how it will work,” says Calviño.
Admittedly, it’s still early for guesswork. Time will tell, to see how events unfold around these first measures, which greatly benefit filmmakers and groups, in terms of legality and real possibilities of financing.
“This will mean,” Aparicio says, “an increase in production and also in the quality of Cuban cinema. It will not be an immediate process, but the fact that more films will be produced is going to create, among this multiplicity of views, artistic proposals of greater technical and aesthetic finish.” He adds that “what happens with Cuban cinema is that very little is produced and we haven’t managed to build that industry with productive stability, where media professionals, all kinds, can be trained. That constant filming is missing, which will guarantee us in the long run a more varied, diverse and more mature Cuban cinema.”
“At the thematic level, there is a great variety of necessary topics that the institution is not willing to present and are made visible thanks to these films. Also, thanks to the recognitions and the aid granted by the international funds and other directors, we have made our first film, even if our projects are not within the editorial policy of the institution. It seems to me that the recognition obtained by this cinema has helped the union to promote a Fund, a Registry, changes in the Institute, etc. It means being in the present and looking toward the future,” says Capó.
Coronavirus, cinema…the backdrop?
In the current circumstances the planet is experiencing, any help is necessary, as many budgets for cinema have been affected due to the crisis caused by the new coronavirus. Although the Fund has a budget granted by the Cuban State, foreign financing, through various channels, has been the basis of independent national production in recent years.
“Cuban independent cinema applies to international aid funds, public funds in countries in Europe and Latin America. The crisis that will come due to the pandemic will make for fewer funding spaces, making it more difficult to give films a ‘pick up’,” says José Luis Aparicio.
However, regarding this aspect, Cuban filmmakers, who are used to adapting to work autonomously, have a certain advantage. “Not only now with the coronavirus, independent cinema has been contributing a great deal to Cuban cinematography in recent years. Cinema is the face of countries. If it weren’t for Cuban cinema, we would have lost part of what Cuba is. Independent cinema has been showing that, not only internationally, here too,” says Calviño, who has been on the production team of renowned films from the international environment such as Juan de los Muertos, Santa y Andrés, El viaje extraordinario de Celeste García, Yuli and A media voz.
He adds: “In recent times, there is much we can contribute. Sometimes the mechanisms of large industries are more complex, in the sense that they need many people, not only resources, but also people and time. We, who have sometimes worked with little access, well yes, we may have some mechanisms that can be used in these times.”
Under these precepts, Valdés points out that “the coronavirus turns everything upside down. How we are going to think again is the big question. Cuban cinema has always been made in situations of scarcity, crisis and needs, ever since ICAIC was founded as an institution and even before. We are a third world country, economically blocked and with a very specific cultural policy: we are and will be marked and ruled by that. So I would say adjusting to a crisis is not new for us.”
Aparicio points out that, considering the practical-productive aspect, “Cuban independent cinema is used to working in disadvantaged, precarious conditions, with what it has at hand, with minimal resources, using imagination and solidarity to achieve artistic and transcendent results, sometimes much greater than in institutional cinema, which works in better production and budget conditions. Cinema, in general, is going to be affected.”
Cuban cinema, according to Carla Valdés, “is something between rustic and clandestine.” “If something has characterized the independent film movement, it is dealing with issues more related to everyday life, seeking greater closeness and identification with the public or with specific audiences.”
“What I would be interested to imagine,” Carla points out, “is how the theme could change with this new experience. What will we talk about? More intimate stories, perhaps a return to more familiar stories. Perhaps, as was already happening, a greater force of genres: more horror movies, more science fiction. Although I am one of those who believe that in the coming years we will have much more cinema about memory, identity construction, rewrites of the past and writings of pending stories. We are turning the page and we have to ask ourselves again: who are we as a country? Where do we come from? And where are we going?”
Outside the backdrop
There are several aspects that still have to be addressed around Cuban cinema in the future, with problems to solve, whose first steps, for the moment, start on the right foot.
“If what I understand as the great goal, which is the Film Law, happens, all of Cuban cinema will have a systemic formation and organization, ranging from the training of professionals, to the distribution of materials, conservation and heritage…. There is much to do and organize. A Film Law could group all these small regulations that have been happening in a large organized system,” says Calviño, one of the many defenders of the long-awaited Cuban Film Law.
Decree 373 is transcendental in the history of Cuban cinema, although we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by the euphoria and analyze starting now aspects that could improve ICAIC’s initial proposals with these measures. One of these is presented by Aparicio: “To apply for a project you have to be registered in the Creator’s Registry. This is a limitation. It is, in theory, what’s most limiting, but it still works as an ICAIC mechanism to decide on project proposals.”
In the first closing of entries to the Registry of the Audiovisual and Cinematographic Creator, 1517 applications were received; 60 were denied, for a total of 1,457 approved, of which more than 350 are of creators under the age of 35. The figures correspond to the month of January of this year, not bad to start off.
In the financial and administrative aspect, filmmakers’ other issues and concerns stand out. Armando Capó points out: “Right now I’m wondering how the ONAT (National Office of Tax Administration) can audit my account, what it accepts and what it does not, according to the country’s regulations. How am I going to hire lawyers specialized in copyright or film production? They can be counted on the fingers of my hand and I’m not sure that those who already work for an institution can be hired. I think it’s necessary to establish some kind of training on how a collective works because, although we have found a possible formula, it isn’t perfect and it will collide with many obstacles, or the very awkwardness we may commit.”
Looking in a future perspective, he adds: “In a few years we will have a diverse production, we will be discussing how to recover the money invested, the restoration of the movie theaters or the distribution mechanisms. And it will be a cinema that not only represents our identity, our demons as a nation or the accumulated cultural heritage; it will also generate audiences and wealth.”
Another concern is censorship, which persists within ICAIC and has led to more than one conflict, mainly related to the works of young filmmakers. Its consequences are mainly seen in the exhibition of the materials in Cuban theaters.
“Now we have a new legality, but this matter is still not clear,” clarifies Carla Valdés, head of the Young Filmmakers Exhibit, which suffered last year, as on previous occasions, from the burden of film censorship.
“I think the exhibit is still the big stone on the road. Many of our films have been able to be made, with more or less obstacles and needs, but there is always a place where not even inventiveness, rights, legality or the quality of artistic work seem to be the most important thing. This has prevented many of the films, mostly independent cinema, from being shown in theaters. In principle this was due to the lack of a legality that allowed the natural course of the film, from its production to its premiere and national exhibition, as a birthright.”
The independent filmmakers are endorsed, their works will be submitted to a partial and balanced jury, which will respond to the artistic quality and viability of the projects, above any other criteria, but the final decision rests with ICAIC, the governing body of the national film industry.
It’s OK to ensure the aesthetics and quality of what is exhibited to the public. Cinema is, in many cases, a reflection of society and a part of the national identity of the country it represents, but that is not why a cinematographic product should be subordinated to the precepts of an institution, when it limits artistic creation itself.
“Let’s hope this (the creation of the FFCC) influences a greater organizational capacity, not only in the practical sense, when making films, but in the union aspect, so that our proposals and opinions are stronger, facing events of censorship that have occurred, such as the Young Filmmakers Exhibit and other spaces,” says Aparicio, director of the documentary Sueños al Pairo.
“Many of our films risk being made and not seen. Like condemned at birth,” Carla tells us. “How should the right to screen in theaters work in the country? How much Cuban cinema is exhibited in the year? How much Cuban cinema is produced or will be produced with these new possibilities? How much of the independent cinema already made has not been shown in theaters? That is why this year, as a result of everything that happened with the film Sueños al pairo and the decisions made by the board of directors of the Young Filmmakers Exhibit, a debate was proposed about censorship, in its broad sense, about cultural policies and Cuban cinema’s position in the face of these problems, which are not minor. This is not a situational issue; it is a constant debate in a country that is presenting a revolutionary cultural project.”
Capó comments that “we must think that Cuban cinema is only one. It should be ‘Cuban cinema,’ without a label. That the independently produced works have had greater visibility in international competitions, for me, speaks of a different way of understanding the distribution and production processes of the cinematographic work and a connection with these mechanisms at a global level.” Undoubtedly, one of the most necessary processes to achieve a greater growth of Cuban cinema… of all Cuban cinema.