Cuba’s Film Business Struggles to Emerge After Decades of Communism

In Havana, when you talk movies to a young filmmaker like Adolfo Mena Cejas, you quickly learn he’s already seen most of the pictures that haven’t come out yet, as well as next season’s top miniseries. In Cuba, you don’t wait for pirated films to be released, and you certainly don’t pay to see them — that would inhibit the love affair with Hollywood.

Cuba is supposed to be an isolated nation (“the island time forgot,” says Time magazine) but that’s yesterday’s news, and so are stories about Havana’s backwardness. The city is buzzing with hot new bars and restaurants, and despite six decades of communist-style poverty, I’ve met a lot of smart young Cubans with money to spend. And the film culture reflects it.

“Film schools here are opposed to commercial cinema,” notes Carlos Lechuga, a young filmmaker who nonetheless yearns for commercial success. His new movie “Melaza” won several festival prizes, but has no U.S. distributor. Observes Carlos Alzugaray, an important Cuban diplomat and historian, “We want to be recognized again as part of the world.”

To be sure, the Obama administration has taken steps to make that happen, pledging to restore relations between the U.S. and the island nation, but academics and filmmakers realize that the process is going to take time. Big-finned Ford Fairlanes and Plymouths from the ’50s still haunt the streets, but they’re more fun to look at than the new Hondas and BMWs that cramp Los Angeles. Indeed the creaky cars and the crumbling buildings that dot the city combine to create a surreal pop art of poverty.

In visiting with filmmakers and artists here in Havana, I’ve been impressed by their energy and ambition, though life under Fidel Castro has shaped their experience in bizarre ways. Cuban intellectuals like Alzugaray were dispatched to Russia rather than Europe for cultural enrichment. Military service entailed duty in Angola or Ethiopia, not Iraq. Film schools have focused on Japanese or Soviet films, not Hollywood fare.

The bonds between Cuba and America were severed when Castro came to power in the early ’60s, in a blaze of revolutionary fervor, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by some of the achievements of the Castro generation — almost 100% literacy, universal health care, and absence of the guns-and-drug traffic that terrorizes much of the Caribbean (and most of Chicago). Indeed with the buzz of change in the air, Havana is a fun place. People actually talk to one another rather than texting. They also sing and dance. When they want Wi-Fi, they can line up outside a studio run by an artist named Kcho (he’s actually Alexis Leiva Machado) who provides it for free.

In terms of cold economics, to be sure, history will judge Castro and his communist advisers to be major failures. Rather than leveraging East against West for financial gain, they gambled on Russia and lost. Cuba literally starved for years in the early ’90s when Russia turned its back on its island partner. Further, Cuba’s new ally, Venezuela, is fast becoming a gangster state. After a couple of weeks here, however, I feel Cubans deserve better than broken dreams. The exile community in Florida furtively funnels considerable resources to their neighbors to the south, but that doesn’t pay the bills. Filmmakers struggle to assemble their skimpy budgets. Mena managed to extract money from the Norwegians. Producer Claudia Calvino found several friends with extra cash. Says film professor and writer Luis Notario, “We all wish that the government would recognize independent production as legal, and we think it will happen some day.”

Meanwhile, until better times, Cuba’s filmmakers will live off Hollywood’s unintended benevolence — pirated movies awaiting release, and yet-to-be broadcast TV shows.

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