U.S. Filmmaking on the Rise in Cuba After Diplomatic Relations Improve

Ben Chace Cuba filmmaking
Courtesy of Ben Chace

Now that the U.S. and Cuba have confirmed the official opening of their respective embassies this month, interest in Cuba continues to mount, not just among U.S. filmmakers, but also among producers from Latin America and Europe.

“Ever since both countries announced the thaw in their relations, more film and TV producers from the U.S., Latin America and Europe have been making inquiries and visiting Havana to explore and, in some cases, begin developing their projects here,” said Lia Rodriguez, the Havana Film Festival’s industry department head. A Spanish-German miniseries, “Vientos de Cuaresma,” is currently shooting in Havana.

Some American filmmakers have managed to make their feature films in Cuba, despite current restrictions, by including documentary footage and reenactments to qualify. To date, only U.S. docs are allowed to shoot in Cuba.

The first such U.S. film to hit the bigscreen is Rhode Islander Ben Chace’s “Sin Alas” (“Without Wings”), which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, preempting Bob Yari’s English-language Hemingway biopic “Papa,” which was shot roughly at the same time in Cuba, and is also seeking U.S. distribution.

Elias Axume of Premiere Entertainment Group started international sales of “Papa” in Cannes this year, where it sold to Latin America, the Middle East and China, among others. Both movies are seeking more film festival berths.

“To me the line between fiction and documentary is a bit arbitrary,” said Chace. “My film is a narrative attempt to make an honest document of Cuba.”

Shot in 16mm, “Sin Alas” tracks an aging Cuban scribe who seeks to reconcile the love and idealism of his youth with the reality of modern Havana. Based on his own Spanish-language screenplay, Chace helmed the romantic drama entirely in Cuba with a local cast and crew. Given his micro-budget, Chace used a more “guerrilla” approach to filmmaking, which took his Cuban crew by surprise.

“They didn’t get it initially,” Chace recalls. “They wanted to block traffic and light everything, do takes and repeat things until everything went according to script.”

“I joked that they were more Hollywood than me,” he said, but they told him their training harked back to Soviet-influenced early revolutionary filmmaking. “Most of the crew were experienced middle-aged people, and had come up through the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) whose shooting protocol went back that far, to the ’60s.”

In other respects, Chace went by the book, securing shooting permits and script approval from ICAIC.

The “De Nuestra America” (“Our America”) program on Cuban national television will be airing “Sin Alas” in September. Bill Strauss of BGP Film is handling domestic sales.

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