Arts & Culture

The Cuban Film Industry – Havana’s Hollywood

From the 2015 hit, Héctor Medina in VIVA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures

The film industry in Cuba has made an indelible mark in world cinema from the early days of its inception to contemporary cinema today. Movies arrived in Cuba in the early 20th century and have been a major component in safeguarding and educating the globe about what is Cuban culture. The early films were mainly focused on historical documentary-type films which attracted the government control, support, and close regulation as an important aspect of the Cuban culture.

Cuba’s first full length movie “Manuel García, o el Rey de los campos de Cuba” by Enrique Díaz Quesada was released in 1913.  By the 1950s, Cuba had become a mecca for art, movies, and culture more than any other country in the Latin American region.  Havana was a cultural center at the time, but with the limited consumer market, there was alos limited funding for actual movie production.

Post Revolutionary Cinema in Cuba

The post-revolutionary era is considered the golden age of Cuban film as the government paid more attention to the film industry, supporting it with funding to develop and promote movie production. A cinematographic department within the Ministry of Culture was created to sponsor production of Cuban films. The department saw the film industry as the best way to bring “history, radical politics and European influence” to the public.  In the remote areas, trucks were used to screen these films to the masses free of charge. This golden age of Cuban films expanded to other genres like animation, romance, fiction, and short clips.

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Made in 1964, “Soy Cuba,” (“I am Cuba“) a Russian-Cuban co-production directed by Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov is a cinematic masterpiece.  It was not well received by Cuban audiences when first released.  Only in the early 1990s when the film was discovered by filmmakers outside of Cuba was it given the credit and recognition it deserved.

Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC)

The cinematographic department of culture preceded the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC).  ICAIC was formed following the enactment of the first Cuban cultural law. Film culture grew rapidly in Cuba and become highly creative and artistic.  The new body of the ICAIC oversaw the production, circulation, and presentation of all films in the nation up to 1965.

In its early stages, the ICAIC widely promoted the Cuban films throughout the nation, which was a major development to the film industry. Through the ICAIC support, the film industry in Cuba saw a wide spread in its popularity across the Latin America as well as an expansion into other genres. ICAIC’s focus was on the documentary style.  It also encouraged the sharing and spreading of cinema and film knowledge from diverse regions in the globe, saw an enhancement of nationalistic and artistic values. The influence of the Institute has continued to maintain Cuba’s movie industry by offering support to the new era in films production, processing, and promotion through collaboration with the international film producers such as Hollywood, Europe and Canada.

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During the time of what is known as the “Special Period,” Cuba and Cubans experienced massive shortages in all the necessities of life.  There was no funding to spare for the arts and no films were made during this time.

ICAIC’s role today continues to support and further develop the Cuban film industry.

International co-productions:  Hollywood goes to Havana

The Cuban film industry has seen an increase in international collaborations ranging from the early Spanish and Russian co-productions to the current day Americans filmmakers of Hollywood. Cuba has become a darling of Hollywood producers who are using the Cuban streets, sets, and culture in their films following better trade and conducive political environments.

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It is only recently that filming in Cuba has been well publicized because of the change in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.  However, movies were already being shot in Cuba a few years before.  Hollywood is now able to access the Cuban locations to shoot some of the world’s bestselling actions films, fiction movies, and documentaries.

In 2012, actor and director Benecio del Toro directed “Seven Days in Havana,” a collaboration with Full House, Morena Films and Havana Club International.

More recent co-productions include “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” a 2015 Canadian-American co-production.   And then came the highly publicized filming of “Fast and Furious,” of which we have no need of further discussion here.

Various collaborations between the ICAIC and Hollywood have been entered to co-produce other movies, an act that will not only sell Cuban locations, culture and film to the globe but also extend Cuban movie culture. These collaborations have also opened new frontiers to Cuban filmmakers who are now exploring American markets through collaborations with Hollywood. In addition, these collaborations give Cuban actors the opportunity to be featured in Hollywood movies where they can display their acting abilities and find global exposure.

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Most recent Cuban film productions which are winning awards and gaining audiences include “Conducta” (Behavior) 2015 directed by Ernesto Daranas, “Alicia en el Pueblo de Maravillas,” “Melaza” and “Viva”.  These films have taken it upon themselves to address complex social issues such as homosexuality, poverty, and prostitution.  The movies have been circulating in the international film festival circuit and picking up awards at the same time.

Other excellent Cuban films to be on the lookout for, to name a few are:   “The Forebidden Shore,” “The Companion,” “La Nube,” “The King of Havana,” and “Dark Glasses.  These movies occasionally appear in international film festivals or can sometimes be found on YouTube.

For film buffs who can’t get enough of Cuban movies, head to Havana for the 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema taking place from December 8-18 this year.  The International Festival of New Latin American Cinema is a major film festival in the world of the contemporary cinema.

Cuban films such as Ernest Daranas Serrano’s Conducta (Behavior) lead in the world of contemporary cinema.

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