Films on Cuba Stir Past and Present
Two films by foreign based directors with special ties to Cuba won significant awards at the 29th Havana Film Festival, which closed its curtains over the weekend after two weeks of well attended screenings.
“The Man of Two Havanas” by Vivian Lesnik Weisman (Cuban-American) and “The Sugar Curtain” by Camila Guzman (Chile) examine events in Cuba over the last 50 years with a strong personal and critical touch. They both strike an emotional cord for locals and reach out to foreigners who want to understand more about the Cuban revolution and its complexities.
Both films were heavily applauded by audiences that, in the case of The Man of Two Havanas, included Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament, popular TV commentator and program host Reynaldo Taladrid and other personalities.
IF YOU HAD BEEN IN MY SHOES
The Man of Two Havanas is a biographical sketch of Vivian’s father journalist Max Lesnik (http://www.radio-miami.com/). It shared the award for best film about Latin America by a non-Latin American director.
The 96-minute documentary allows you to retrace the steps of Lesnik from his university anti-Batista activism to his exile in the United States in 1961, followed by his decades long battle as a journalist bucking the violent extremism of the old guard of the Miami Cuban-American community and opposing the US blockade on the island.
Max Lesnik returns to visit Cuba in the 1990s in a rapprochement promoted by the Cuban government with exiles not connected to the violent Miami Mafia. When he is welcomed by Fidel Castro, his old friend from the years of the student protests against Batista, the Cuban leader asks him: “Max, Why did you leave?” Lesnik responds with what Castro already knew, about his differences over Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union. Castro then tells the journalist that if he would have been in his place he would have done the same thing in order to save the revolution.
CUBA IN THE GOLDEN YEARS
After a screening of “The Sugar Curtain,” a Cuban doctor approached 36-year-old Camila Guzman to thank her for the accurate portrayal of his student years and also for putting forth what he considers important issues and problems facing today’s Cuba.
In her soft spoken narration that won the award for best documentary, Guzman, who lived in Cuba from 1973-1991, presents the dilemma of a generation of happy, carefree children and teenagers of the 1970s and 80s, supposedly predestined to create their own future and build a more fair and just society.
Instead, they saw the rug suddenly pulled out from under them after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of what is known as The Special Period, which put survival ahead of dreams and saw inequalities and contradictions grow.
Guzman recalls Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Cuba and seeing the Soviet “perestroika” as a possibility for less bureaucracy and more tolerance in Cuba, a revolution within the revolution she called it. Like her friends, she had no idea what was unfolding.
The director states that the degree of Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union hadn’t really concerned her generation because nobody thought the 70 year revolution was going to disappear.
“The Sugar Curtain” notes the slow reaction of the Cuban media to the whirlwind of events that swept Europe at the end of the Cold War. For example, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, The Island’s leading newspaper reported it as a minor news item saying simply that East Germany had decided to open up its borders.
Several of Guzman’s school friends reflect on what’s left of their collective dream and how they feel about the current situation in their country. Other contemporaries look at Cuba as she, after having living for years abroad.
AN EVENT THAT CAPTIVATES HAVANA
Living on a blockaded island gives added desire to see what other filmmakers are doing from other latitudes. The Havana Film Festival, which is totally non-commercial, offers the chance. Many movie lovers try to take part of their one month yearly vacation time to catch as many flicks as possible.
Before the festival began a “passport” was sold allowing the holder to go to 15 films at all the 20 participating cinemas for 20 pesos, the equivalent of US $0.80 or just over 5 cents a movie.
A daily tabloid is published with programs and film reviews which costs 1 peso. Cuban TV runs nightly festival news real, with information on collateral events, visiting movie industry personalities and highlights some of the films.
The landmark Hotel Nacional, pre-revolution hang out of the US Mafia, is the festival headquarters where press conferences are held and film buffs and students mingle with the visiting and local film industry personalities.
The current edition just concluded and most agree it was a good harvest. The best fiction film and three other awards went to “Silent Light” by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. Julio Chavez (Argentina) won the best actor award for his role in "El otro" (The other) and Roxana Blanco (Uruguay) best actress in “Matar a todos” (Kill them all). The audience popularity award went to “The Black Pimpernel”, a Swedish-Danish-Mexican co-production.
“Who Am I”, the story of hundreds of Argentineans discovering who their real parents were and what the US backed dictatorship did to them in the 1970s and 80s, by acclaimed US director Estela Bravo, shared the award for best film on Latin America by a non-Latin America based filmmaker with “The Sugar Curtain.”
From Cuba, “Madrigal” by Fernando Perez won a Special Jury Award and another for best Art Direction, “Personal Belongings” by Alejandro Brugues finished third in the fiction category. A Colombian-Cuban short “Pucha Vida” finished second in the documentary category, and "Siberia," by Renata Duque Lasio, received a special mention in the short film category.
Festival President Alfredo Guevara gave the closing speech at the awards ceremony. He officially opened invitations to submit films for the 30th Havana Film Festival, to take place next December, only weeks before a major celebration expected for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.