A first feature by 27-year-old Cuban director Arturo Sotto Diaz kicked off the 17th Intl. Festival of New Latin American Cinema at the Karl Marx Theater on Dec.5 in Havana.

Sotto Diaz’s “Pon Tu Pensamientos En Mi” (Think of Me) was a surprise choice for many longtime observers of the Cuban fest, which traditionally has given the top slot to veteran helmers such as Tomas Gutierrez Alea, whose “Strawberry and Chocolate” opened the fest two years ago.

“We wanted to show something new and fresh in Cuban cinema,” said a spokesman for ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte y Industria Cinematatografico), organizer of the event, a showcase for Latin American product that includes a market.

Gutierrez’s latest, “La Guantanamera,” is expected to be a fest highlight and is a strong contender for the Coral awards.

This year’s fest appears to be resurgent after suffering a decline in recent years due to the pullout of Russian financial support. The peso is now 25-30 to the dollar, compared with 120 two years ago, island sources said.

ICAIC reported more than 450 features, documentaries, short films and videos mainly from Latin America are entered in the competition. More than 100 feature pics are included.

A larger contingent of U.S. citizens than last year is expected to attend, according to Sandra Levinson, of the Center for Cuban Studies in Gotham, which is hosting a group of 50 visitors to the festival. A Clinton administration clamp-down on travel to the island, which is officially embargoed by the U.S., limited the number of U.S. attendees last year.

“Land and Liberty,” by Brit helmer Ken Loach, will be screened in a special presentation, along with several U.S. films including “Pulp Fiction,” “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” and “Malcolm X.” Fest runs through Dec. 15.

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