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Havana is Not Just a Film Festival

27 December 2014 11:50 AM, PST | Sydney's Buzz | See recent Sydney's Buzz news »

On December 17, El Dia de St. Lazaro, something extraordinary happened! Equivalent to the “Fall of the Wall”, President Barak Obama simultaneously with Raul Castro of Cuba announced that diplomatic relations between our two countries was being restored; the last of the Cuban Five imprisoned for 15 years in the U.S. for spying (on Cuban terrorists based in Miami) would be returned to Cuba in exchange for Alan Gross (imprisoned for 5 years for bringing Cuba forbidden internet technology), and an unnamed CIA agent incarcerated for 20 years, along with other Cuban political prisoners; And that this would be the first step in finally normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S.A.

Read More: Sydney Levine's First Impression at the 2014 Havana Film Festival

As my friends and I were driving from Trinidad to visit a sugar plantation which was the basis for the Cuban wealth of the 19th century, we got a message that in one hour Raul Castro would make the formal announcement and President Obama’s address would also be broadcast.

As we entered the former plantation home, now a restaurant, we heard the singing and jubilation coming from the bar and immediately joined in as the only Americans to share the joy; the Scotch (not rum) was flowing and the dancing and singing continued until the address came on the television.

I realized that in my 15 years of coming to Cuba, this was the moment I had been waiting for. We watched Raul Castro explain, and we watched President Obama explain, and as I watched the faces of the beautiful Cuban people as they listened, some with tears and others with smiles, all with great intensity, I understood the meaning of “rapprochement”. We turned toward each other in pure happiness and felt ourselves united after 55 years of separation.

This is The Place and I am here.

We knew when the Mercosur Heads of State were gathered under tight security at the Hotel Nacional during the first days of the festival that something was afoot. We heard that not only were they planning a possible counter boycott of U.S. in their upcoming May meeting, shutting out U.S. from attending, but the Hotel Nacional’s guest roster included the name of an American who was negotiating something much bigger.

Some speak of the idealism behind this long-wished-for move of U.S.; others speak of the economic necessity. Looking back at my most incredible year of traveling around Latin America, I understand that with the new expansion of the Panama Canal enabling the huge Chinese container ships to pass through, the most convenient next-stop-port for them is Havana. And from Havana, the most convenient port is not Cartagena or Cali in Colombia but New Orleans! And so we may see the rapprochement bring back the glorious days when music and adventure were equated with the Louisiana-Cuban connection. My hope is that the values held so dear in Cuba spread to U.S. and that we Americans don’t spread our U.S. arrogance when we land on the shores of the country which has managed 55 years with no help from us.

There is still more to this tale of reunion, but I am sworn to secrecy for the moment. But you will read it in papers other than this blog. Thirteen months of secret negotiations took place in Canada with the help of the Pope. At a wonderful dinner at a newly opened up Cuban-Russian restaurant on the Malecon, “Nostrovia”, our friend the restaurant owner, Rolando Almirante, whom we know as a documentary filmmaker and host of a weekly Cuban TV show, introduced us to a Canadian and an American both of whom had been involved with the long negotiations. Together we toasted the event with vodka.

To return to the Hotel Nacional and the festival:

Exceptionally quiet for those political reasons, it was also quiet because but there was none of the active debating over the new Law of Cinema which so excitedly animated the festival here last year. There was a low-key conference about the law of cinema and audiovisual culture held by the Cuban Association of Cinema Press with Fipresci and other invited guests to discuss and express opinions about whether most countries by now have a law of cinema, whether developing countries are planning on establishing a law of cinema, whether a law of cinema is necessary for a country aspiring to a higher level of culture for its population, and in what way would a law contribute to the development of production and to the appreciation of cinema. But you do not see everyone gathering in groups to discuss these ideas as they did last year.

Some of last year’s top filmmakers – producers like Ivonne Cotorruelo and Claudia Calvino are so busy preparing their next coproductions that they have no time for such discussions. Others shrug and resignedly express Cuban forbearance as usual.

I asked my friends what is the status of the law being established here in Cuba where only one law of cinema exists, which is the establishment of Icaic, the government institute that determines everything about film behind closed doors. Their answer was “Nothing”. Nothing has changed since last year. Discussions are continuing, and there will be a law established, but not yet…and so I learned that once the first big step is taken here, the next steps are very slow to follow.

So here is what happened on Day 3, December 7 of the my festival:

Our friend Pascal Tessaud whose short from France “City of Lights” brought him to Los Angeles several years ago, had a screening of his new film “Brooklyn”. Its premiere screening here (It premiered in Cannes’ Acid section earlier this year) was to an odd audience of older people. No doubt they were expecting a film about “Brooklyn” (which used to be the name of a bar in Central Havana) but instead got a film about a young Afro-Swiss rapper-girl named “Brooklyn” who enters the rap scene of Paris, made up of Arabs and Africans. 

“Afronorteamericano” films were also spotlighted with Oscar Micheaux’s “Assassination in Harlem” (1935), “Within our Gates” (1920), “Body and Soul” (1926) starring Paul Robeson, “Underworld” (1937), “Swing” (1938), and Spencer William’s “The Blood of Jesus” (1941).

Also showing were North American documentaries “Citizen Koch”, “The Notorious Mr. Bout”, “The Overnighters”, and an homage to filmmaker, Eugene Jarecki (“Capturing the Friedmans” 2003, “Arbitrage” 2012, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” 2002, “Why We Fight” 2006, Emmy Award winning “Reagan” 2011 and 2012’s “The House I Live In” about the war against drugs which along with “Why We Fight” won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance) and a retrospective of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. Trinidad & Tobago’s annual showcase featured “Creole Soup” from Guadalupe and “Legends of Ska” by American DJ and ska specialist Brad Klein. And of course there was the latest crop of new films from Latin America and the newest films from Cuba, and much, much more.

Today Benecio del Toro, a regular at this festival, won the Coral of Honor for his role as “Che” in Steven Soderbergh’s movies and for his role as the narcotraffiker, Pablo Escobar in the NBC miniseries “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story” and here now, as Escobar in “Escobar: Paradise Lost” directed by the Italian Andrea Di Stefano. For Benecio, Cuba is “a dream come true”.

Day 4, December 8.

There seems to be a trend toward films about children. The prize winning film “Conducta” and Cuba’s submission for Academy Award Nomination as Best Foreign Language Film has already won awards around the world including The Coral for Best Picture and Best Actor here in Havana. This young boy loses every government protection because of his family’s dysfunctions and yet he maintains the spirit of survival and transcendence. Another story from Argentina, Poland and Colombia, France and Germany, “Refugiado” directed by Diego Lerman, also deals with a child who returns home from a birthday party to find his mother unconscious on the floor. The mother then flees seeking a safe place for them and he experiences fear in all the formerly secure places he has known. “Gente de Bien” a Colombia-France coproduction directed by Franco Lolli also explores the world of a young boy, abandoned by his mother and placed in the disheveled home of his impecunious father, who is taken in by a teacher who means well but whose family refuses to accept him. This little kid reaches his limit when his dog dies; but thrown back to his caring if off-kilter father, you get the feeling he too will be all right after all.

A couple of new gay films showed: Cuba’s “Vestido de Novia” was so crowded I could not get near it. Lines around blocks and blocks to get into the 1,000 seat theater were incredible proof of how much Cubans love cinema. Winner of last year’s prize for a work-in-progress, “Vestido de Novia” (“Wedding Dress) will soon be on the festival circuit. Two years ago, at Guadalajara’s coproduction market “Cuatro Lunas” by Sergio Tovar Velarde was being pitched. A sort of primer on gayness, four stories tell the tale of 1) discovery of one’s gayness, 2) first gay love, 3) first gay betrayal of love and 4) love at a mature stage of life. Producer Fernando … hung out with us a bit as we all come from L.A. and have friends in common.

What – aside from the new rapprochement between Cuba and U.S.A. – is “good for the Jews”? A wonderful film from Uruguay, Spain and Germany, “Mr. Kaplan” directed by Alvaro Brechner and produced by my most helpful friend Mariana Secco, and my German friends Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner (Isa: Memento) brought a new understanding for the good and the bad in our recent history. Almost a comedy and almost a tragedy, the film’s resolution served to transform our propensity to see and judge in black and white. »

- Sydney Levine

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