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When Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asked Jorge Perugorría to become a member this January, the 50-year-old Cuban film star was delighted but perplexed. “I had to ask around if I was allowed to join. I didn’t think it would be possible,” he says. “Then I had to ask the Academy if they could send me physical DVDs — Cuban internet connections are too slow for downloads.”
Perugorría, the “Johnny Depp of Havana” or “Pichi”, as he is nicknamed, is best known internationally for his lead role in the 1993 Oscar-nominated Strawberry & Chocolate, the story of a friendship between an orthodox Communist and a homosexual artist. His bemusement at the Academy’s membership invitation reflects the ideologically ambiguous, legally uncertain and woefully underfunded state of Cuban film. Two years into the restoration of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington, the industry is opening up, albeit haltingly. “No es fácil — it’s not easy,” he says.
Claudia Claviño, 33, the producer of the 2012 surprise hit Juan of the Dead, a darkly comic Havana-based zombie flick, is bolder in her assessment of the state of Cuban film-making. “It’s bad,” she says.
For decades, Cuban film was at the forefront of official revolutionary culture. One of Fidel Castro’s first acts after his revolutionary government took power in 1959 was to create the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (the ICAIC), whose express purpose was to develop a powerful mass communication medium, albeit at the expense of independent voices, which were suppressed under the Communist dictatorship.
Nearly 60 years later, the situation has changed somewhat. US production companies have arrived. Local independent producers and directors, who sprang up in the 1990s as digital technology made film-making more accessible and state funding ran out, are becoming more established. Ideological red lines have blurred.
“It’s curious: in the same breath a Cuban might say, ‘Viva Fidel!’ and then ‘This is a very f**ked-up country’,” observes Marcel Beltrán, 31, an independent film-maker based in Havana.
Beltrán’s short film The Cloud premiered at this year’s Miami Film Festival, in another softening of traditional enmities between the US and Cuba, while his feature-length documentary on Chinolope, a one-armed Cuban photographer who worked for Life and Time magazines, explores such tensions further. Chinolope was born in poverty and went on to be awarded revolutionary hero status, photographing Castro and the rebels in the Sierra Maestra. He was later pushed aside by the government after he sided with homosexual writers and other artists.
Like The Rolling Stones, who played a gig in Havana in March, and French fashion house Chanel, which two months later turned the Paseo del Prado boulevard into a catwalk, Hollywood has long been seduced by the island’s forbidden exoticism. That interest has become manifest since new US Treasury regulations, published in January, allowed American production companies to shoot scripted shows on the island — something previously illegal under the economic embargo.
The Showtime comedy series House of Lies was shot in Cuba this year, as was action-fantasy Transformers: The Last Knight. Actor and director Ethan Hawke has stated his intention to scout for locations in Cuba for an adaptation of Camino Real, a Tennessee Williams play set in a dead-end desert town. Most dramatic of all, the action series The Fast and the Furious shot its eighth instalment, Fast 8, in Havana in May. This was a massive logistical exercise. In co-operation with the Cuban army, the shoot involved at least two firsts: a US company hiring a helicopter to fly over the city and obtaining permission to use pyrotechnics during the filming.
Whether this influx will be a boon or a bane for local film-making, though, is open to question. “I am all for US film-makers coming here if it helps cinema and Cuba’s economy generally,” says Claviño. “But it would be good if the ICAIC reinvested some of those Fast and Furious dollars into local film. There’s no sign of that.”
With little private or public money available locally, Cuban films are invariably co-productions funded by foreign sources — to date, largely from Europe or Latin America. Viva, a touching drama released this year about a drag queen son and his boxer father (played by Perugorría) was written, directed and funded by Irish movie-makers. US-based independents, meanwhile, can turn to crowdfunding, as they did with The Oldies, a bittersweet documentary about ageing that was filmed in Santa Clara province.
For Cuban film-makers, though, there is little sign the country’s tentative opening-up has had many benefits, although it has generated income for independents with a sideline in production services for foreign commercials and music video producers. “We are in a cultural recession,” says Carlos Lechuga, 33, director of the prize-winning 2012 film Melaza, about a destitute former sugar-producing town. “There was hope that when the US came, cultural life would get better. It hasn’t happened.”
Lechuga says his European co-producer called Melaza’s budget “embarrassingly small”, while Beltrán shot his film “with a zero budget”. Budgets aside, they also still have to turn to the ICAIC for script approval, shooting permits and cinema distribution.
It is an unusual, sometimes uneasy relationship. Some worry that while the government opens its arms to Hollywood, it will shut out independent film-makers who address more sensitive themes. Complicating matters for the film industry is its lack of formal legal status. “You can own a restaurant, you can own a guest house, but you can’t have a legally registered local film company,” bemoans Claviño, who is lobbying for legal change.
Further challenges range from the lack of credit cards — the financing mainstay of so many first films — to rundown cinemas that limit audiences, poor internet speeds and, most recently, sharply rising costs.
“It’s a universal worry,” says Paul Federbush of the Sundance Institute, a US organisation that supports emerging film-makers and is running a series of film workshops in Cuba for Cubans. “The US influx has pushed up Cuban production costs.”
Like the country as a whole, the Cuban film industry is in transition. The ICAIC, in common with other state institutions, is struggling to redefine its role, and the novelty and allure of Cuba as a backdrop will eventually fade. Film-makers will therefore need to develop storylines with more universal themes if they are to flourish. Meanwhile, local film-makers face many of the same problems as independents everywhere — but with some added difficulties. “You can always find actors under 17 or over 50,” says Lechuga. “Between those years, though, it’s hard: almost everyone has emigrated — or wants to leave.”
The sleuth who shines a light on Cuban foibles
Mario Conde is slovenly, often drunk and always hard-up. He is a womaniser, prone to doubt and self-examination, a police detective who would rather be a writer and an anti-hero who feels solidarity with “writers, crazy people and drunkards”.
He is also the island’s best-loved fictional character and the creation of Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s most famous living novelist. “I think of myself as being a bit like Conde,” says Cuban actor Jorge Perugorría, to shrieks of laughter from his family.
Conde is unique in Cuba in that, through him, Padura is able to describe Havana’s multiple and obvious failings (the crumbling houses, the lifts that don’t work, the Scotch whisky that only the well-connected can afford, the dirty streets) in a politically acceptable way.
Four Conde novels — the so-called Havana Quartet — have been adapted for the screen, in a European/Cuban co-production directed by Spain’s Félix Viscarret due to premiere this year. Hollywood actor and producer Antonio Banderas has optioned the rights for a mooted English-language television series.
An even hotter ticket, though, promises to be the eventual adaptation of Padura’s masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Dogs, his prize-winning novel that tells the story of exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s assassin, who ended his days in Havana. “That book is a very sought-after project,” says Lía Rodríguez, the Cuban co-producer of the Conde films.