Digital distribution helps ease export problems

A new breed of filmmaker is emerging in Cuba, where travel restrictions to and from the U.S. have eased, allowing digital-savvy helmers — many of them alumni of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez-founded Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV), which has spawned two generations of Latin American and Cuban filmmakers — to aim at a wider audience.

Helmer-scribe Alejandro Brugues’ zombie satire “Juan of the Dead” drew thousands of rabid filmgoers at its Havana Film Fest preem in 2011, and has been sold to 40 countries. Now he’s prepping his first English-lingo pic, to be shot in Cuba. Tentatively titled “The Wrong Place,” the pic tracks a retired thief who has been exiled to the island nation, with his dwindling funds motivating him to pull one more heist.

“Our government didn’t notice ‘Juan’ until it became successful, and then they realized they didn’t like it,” says Brugues, whose satire takes some sharp digs at the current state of affairs in Cuba. “They say censorship has loosened, but that’s not entirely true.”

National film org Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC) wanted Havana’s December Festival of New Latin American Cinema to pull the plug on Carlos Lechuga’s feature debut “Melaza” (Molasses) for its political tone, says Brugues, who co-produced the drama. The pic is set against the closure of a sugar mill and the impact the shuttering has on a young couple. ICAIC, the sole distributor of Cuban pics on the communist island nation, has no intentions of releasing the pic, but Lechuga has been fielding offers from various fests, and has taken the film to Rotterdam. Next up is Miami, where it will have its U.S. debut.

Lechuga, who adapted another Havana Fest feature debut, Charlie Medina’s black-and-white “Penumbra,” based on the allegorical baseball play “Penumbra en el noveno cuarto” by Amado del Pino, is prepping a more mainstream project, “Vampires on Bicycles.” “Vampires” is set in the early 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s key trade partner and benefactor, plunged it into economic crisis. In Lechuga’s pic, the ensuing famine turns people into vampires. One of them converts a Yank Tank — slang for the vintage American cars that pepper Havana’s streets — into a taxi, and preys on his passengers.

One sign that the grip of censorship may be loosening somewhat is that helmer Daniel Diaz Torres’ wry comedy “La Pelicula de Ana,” about an actress who pretends to be a prostitute in order to earn extra money, is being released by ICAIC, which backs just four to five nonfiction Cuban pics a year, as well as a handful of co-productions. At the Havana fest, the film took home prizes for screenplay and actress (for Laura de la Uz) and scored a distribution deal with Venezuela’s Amazonia Films.

Docus are also making headway in Cuba, but with subject matter seemingly more in line with the national agenda. Last year, says ICAIC senior adviser Luis Notario, the funder invested in 10 docs.

Standouts include Catherine Murphy’s short docu “Maestra,” a chronicle of Cuba’s groundbreaking 1961 literacy program that sent thousands of students and teachers into the countryside to teach peasants to read and write. Murphy, who was given access to ICAIC’s national film archives but leaned on private funding, uses archival footage and testimonies of women who participated in the program in their teens to recount the effort, which raised the national literacy rate to 96%. The docu has screened at some 30 film festivals worldwide.

“As a result of making this film, I found out that literacy is the biggest factor that determines the life expectancy of women in the world,” Murphy says.

Cuban women are also the focus of docu “The Cuban Wives” by Alberto Antonio Dandolo; the pic features the spouses of five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. over espionage allegations.

Meanwhile, EICTV has grown into a breeding ground not only for Latin American filmmakers but also for film students from around the world, representing some 36 countries. Charging an annual tuition of €5,000 ($6,676), EICTV is arguably the most affordable film school in the world, says its director, Rafael Rosal.

Getting in, however, isn’t easy.

“We get 400 to 500 applications a year, of which 40 are accepted,” Rosal says. Lechuga, Diaz Torres and Brugues are former students; the latter two now mentors.

Mirtha Ibarra, the grand dame of Cuban cinema (“Strawberry and Chocolate,” “Guantanamera,” both helmed by her late husband Tomas Gutierrez Alea), is impressed with the nation’s fresh crop of talent.

“There’s a new generation of filmmakers making interesting films,” she says simply. The takeaway: Digital distribution has made Cuban film exports easier, whether for zombie satire “Juan of the Dead” or government-approved docus.

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