Fast and Furious Cuba
Courtesy of Universal

After more than half a century’s absence, Hollywood returned to Cuba in 2013, though in a slightly roundabout way. “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” a film about the American writer, was shot on the island as a Cuban-Canadian-U.S. co-production, requiring elaborate permissions from both Washington and Havana.

But thawing relations meant that Universal could land with a bang in Cuba this year with “The Fate of the Furious,” the latest in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. The mega-production created more than 300 jobs for six months — producers, personal assistants, drivers — and generated an unprecedented amount of money for the state-run Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), though the official figure has not been made public. The new “Transformers” film also shot in Havana this year, and more interest from Hollywood is sure to follow. As Frank Cabrera, the Cuban producer on “The Fate of the Furious,” puts it: “Cuba is an aphrodisiac. The island is a natural market for the U.S. film industry.”

What affect Fidel Castro’s death Nov. 25 will have remains unclear, but as a shooting location, Cabrera says, “it is very easy to film in Cuba.” ICAIC supports up to 15 foreign productions every year, and independent producers — though not legally recognized by the government — also offer their services for international projects. Productions are scrutinized and approved by the institute on a case-by-case basis. And if you have the budget for it, you can get official authorization to import more than 40 trucks full of technological equipment, fly a noisy helicopter over Havana, or even close main streets for 12 days, all of which “The Fate of the Furious” did.

Favorite shooting sites are Old Havana and Centro Havana, districts where history and the feeling that everything is about to collapse create a unique ambience – but also perpetuate a stereotype. Old cars and pre-Revolution buildings give the idea that Cuba is still stuck in the 1950s. Prices certainly aren’t. “Although Cuba is not a cheap location anymore and hotel prices are high, Cuban people are good hosts, socially skillful, and technical personnel are very well-prepared,” Cabrera says.

Claudia Calviño, an independent producer and filmmaker at production company Quinta Avenida, recently worked on “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios,” a sequel to Wim Wenders’ 1999 “Buena Vista Social Club.” (“Adios” is being directed by Oscar-nominated British documentarian Lucy Walker.) “It is good to have big productions coming to Cuba. It creates jobs; it enriches the industry,” says Calviño, who is now working on a project with Colombian filmmakers. “But we need the money that comes out of that to support the Cuban film industry,” instead of just going into government coffers via ICAIC.

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There was a time when Cuba occupied a leading role on the Latin American film scene. But that time has faded, with the domestic movie sector now the virtual monopoly of the state. Independent producers like Calviño say that changing the law to recognize them as legitimate players would energize Cuba’s movie industry and elevate its status. “We need to start thinking of our relations with the U.S. industry as more of a partnership, in which both parts are equally important, and not as the American industry hiring Cuba’s cheap labor force,” Calviño says.

For Hollywood, as long as it sticks to politically inoffensive themes – whether Hemingway or Autobots and Decepticons – moviemaking in Cuba should go smoothly. But President-elect Donald Trump’s warning that he might turn back the clock on improving U.S.-Cuba ties could hobble a Hollywood-Havana rapprochement. And if American filmmakers try to dig deeper into Cuban reality, the ideological hostility that kept Cuba and the U.S. apart for more than 50 years is likely to rear its ugly head.

Right now, Havana is hosting its annual International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which runs from Dec. 8 to 18. But don’t expect to see “Santa & Andres,” an independent co-production between Cuba, Colombia, and France that had its world premiere in Toronto. Centering on the unlikely relationship between a gay, dissident Cuban novelist and his government-appointed minder, the movie is about tolerance. But its release has not been authorized in Cuba. Even after Castro’s death, the full social and cultural effects of which remain to be seen, Cuba is not ready for tolerance just yet — on the streets or on screen.

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