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Cuban Reels: A Diary from the First International Festival of No-Budget Cinema

By Paolo Davanzo

Looking over Gibrara, Cuba. Photo: Lisa Marr.

I am not a filmmaker. I don't even play one on TV. Last year, however, I did write direct and edit a three-minute film as part of a project called Funtown. Even better, I managed to talk ten friends into making films too. No restrictions on style or format. No budget. And a two-week time limit. We put the eclectic results on an enhanced CD with some music and released the package through a local record label. An amusing little experiment.

At the end of March, I received an email letting me know Funtown would be shown as part of the Primer Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre (aka The first International No-Budget Film Festival) in Gibara, Cuba, and I was invited to attend. Hmmm. Intriguing. It was short notice. It was bad timing. My Spanish was dubious at best. It would be expensive to get there and I was broke. But when would I get another chance to participate in a film festival, Cuban or otherwise? Besides, the online schedule indicated there was going to be an "homenaje a Albert Maysles." Albert Maysles! I was obsessed with Grey Gardens. The possibility of meeting Maysles cinched it. I was going to Cuba.


I am on a bus filled with an international array of filmmakers and festival junkies, moving east from Havana. Everyone is drunk on rum, sweating and singing sad, romantic Cuban folk songs at the top of their lungs. It's 11 a.m. Little do I know that I'm sitting next to the Julia Roberts of the Cuban cinema and just up the aisle, doing the cha cha chá, are the Cuban Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Everything seems surreal after 14 hours traveling time (including two plane changes and a sneaky meeting in Cancun with a mysterious man named Mario, who was holding my US-disapproved ticket to Castroland) and a few hazy hours in Havana spent making the scene at an all-night rave. But Cuba is a country that feels like a waking dream, regardless of sleep deprivation. You could stand in one spot, any spot at all, and see enough wondrous things pass by to keep you rooted there, amazed and enchanted, for the rest of your life...

Eleven hours later, we arrive at our destination: the dusty little city of Holguin. The Hotel Pernik, which will serve as film festival dorm and clubhouse for the next six days, is kind of a Club Med for good communists. In party terms, it's known as "the Stimulation Package." There are five floors of modest but comfy rooms, a giant pool, a disco blasting tropical music, a gift shop selling 3-D Che Guevara postcards, a restaurant with terrible food and a bar with Internet access. Although built by the Russians in the 1980s, the hotel's décor is mod '60s all the way. Festival reps greet us bearing copious trays of Cuba libres. I feel like I'm in a James Bond movie.


The bus leaves for Gibara at 9:00 a.m. and returns to the Pernik at 1:00 a.m. Gibara was chosen as the festival site for its relatively low humidity and because it was a setting for the films Lucia and Miel Para Oshun (Honey for Oshun), both directed by the beloved Humberto Solas, who also happens to be the festival's founder and executive director. But Gibara is a small town-too small to contain a hotel. Or any taxis. Hence, the daily two-hour round trip on the ancient yellow school bus. The unbelievably beautiful scenery mitigates the fact that the vehicle has no shocks and apparently no brakes.

Gibara itself is a pretty little fishing village nestled against the ocean with many shady plazas, a cultural center, a crumbling colonial theater and one movie house, Cine Jiba, recently dolled up in honor of the festival. There are homemade welcome signs everywhere and people have hung streamers in the streets and put their houseplants on the sidewalk as gestures of hospitality.

Most of the day is taken up with the kind of bureaucratic nightmares all too familiar to anyone who has ever spent time in a communist country or the offices of the INS. I feel very out of it until I realize that no one—festival organizers, judges, filmmakers, Cubans, foreigners (English-speaking or otherwise)—seems to know what's going on. At last, hours later, I have my all-access pass and a bunch of meal tickets.

Although Funtown isn't listed in the festival program, I'm assured by one of the programming assistants that the films will be shown; she just doesn't know exactly when. Or where. Could I check back tomorrow? Certainly. I decide the best thing to do at this point is settle down at the open-air café beside the cinema and enjoy a mojito. Or five. As the sun fades away, the entire town turns out for a jubilant kick-off parade. There is music, singing, dancing, giant puppets, a whole lot of flag-waving and some truly terrifying homemade fireworks. When Solas makes an appearance, the crowd goes absolutely wild. This is a highly literate country that adores its movies, and this festival is a very big deal.

At the opening ceremony, I scan the packed Cine Jiba auditorium for Maysles. No dice. The judges and other important folks are introduced. The representative from post-production company Swiss Effects (a major festival sponsor) receives a standing ovation despite some disgruntled mutterings about the appropriateness of such blatant ass-kissing. Money makes the world go round, it seems, even at a "no budget" film festival.

And no matter how far from home you go, there's just no escaping Hollywood: the first film shown is Confessions of a Filmaholic, a putridly smug short spoofing the struggles of Tinseltown wannabes, followed by an overwrought, seemingly endless saga of sex, drugs and Santeria from Spain entitled La Novia de Lazaro (Lazaro's Fiancée). Uh "no-budget" going to be synonymous with "no-quality?"


Last night's excruciating display makes me decide to stick to the documentaries from here on out. After checking in with the festival organizers on the status of Funtown ("Can you check back with us again tomorrow?") and dodging a rather over-enthusiastic reporter/stalker from Radio Havana, I hightail it to catch a group of shorts. But first I have to find the screening room. The Cine Jiba has only one screen and the program isn't playing there. There are no other venues, so where the hell could it be? The "Sala de Video" turns out to be a storage closet underneath the cinema itself, with a noisily temperamental air-conditioning unit, two dozen uncomfortable chairs, a VCR hooked up to a smallish monitor and a lady dressed like a stewardess who inserts the tapes and guards the door. None of the documentaries are in English and none of them are subtitled.

Luis Carbonell (despues de tanto tiempo/After All These Years) celebrates the career of the innovative and influential Cuban entertainer, utilizing incredible pre-revolution home-movie footage from the legendary Tropicana nightclub, stills from New York City hot spots, clips from a bizarre-looking 1970s Cuban television variety show and interviews with Carbonell's contemporaries, his new generation of admirers and of course the man himself, still a high energy performer (in his 80s!). The older woman squeezed in the seat next to me constantly yells at the stewardess to turn up the volume on the TV or complains that the big hair in front of her is blocking the view. I realize the cranky old broad is none other than Adela Legra, the famous actress who was cha cha cha-ing on the bus from Havana!

She's here to catch Ecos de un final (Echo from the End), a first-time filmmaker's tribute to his hero, Humberto Solas, and Miel Para Oshun, Solas' first foray into DV territory, which features a stirring cameo by, you guessed it, Señora Legra. Isabel Santos, the film's female lead and the Cuban Julia Roberts, is also in attendance, and soon they, and every other national in the audience, are sobbing throughout this sentimental journey down memory lane, which alternates between scenes from the film and interviews with the stars and some of the extras who live right here in Gibara.

Who knew that Cuban women are plagued by a plethora of public masturbators? Mirame me amor(Look at Me, My Love) was produced by El Instituto Cubano de las Artes e Industrias Cinematographicas (ICAIC), and explores this pressing social problem in detail through a combination of lurid re-creations; interviews with victims, including a "recovering" perpetrator (his face turned to the wall), and people on the street; "expert" opinions (the priest blames it all on short skirts; the university professor discusses the role of machismo in Cuban culture); and possible solutions (some ladies hit 'em with rocks!).

The program wraps up with another ICAIC project. Surprisingly, despite being the state-run agency of a government not considered particularly open to dissident voices, ICAIC filmmakers have traditionally used the medium to criticize and comment on Cuban society, politics and culture. Hasta que la muerte nos separe (‘Til Death Do Us Part) is a surreal little "documentary" about a boy and the bovine he loves. Pastoral scenes of Demitrio and Matilda making cow eyes at each other clash with brutal bloody footage from the slaughterhouse and shots of meat being hacked up, packaged, cooked and eaten. The imagery underscores the fact that cattle in Cuba are raised strictly for the tourist trade and Cubans are rarely allowed the luxury of eating beef. Tourist apartheid is one of the more disturbing by-products of a contemporary Cuban society in which the lure of the American dollar is becoming far mightier than Che's revolutionary ideals.

After eating a tasty lunch while being serenaded by a trio crooning "Guantanamera" and that annoyingly ubiquitous Buena Vista Social Club song, it's time to get a direct cinema fix. It turns out the Maysles "homage" consists entirely of a showing of Gimme Shelter in the storage room! I'm crushed. Two old American hippies and some teenage girls trickle in. Now, Gimme Shelter is a fabulous film but I've seen it a million times. I decide to check out what's playing upstairs. Sorry, Albert. Wish you were here.

As it turns out, I get my direct cinema fix after all. After Bestias y Bellas (Beasts and Beauties), a delightful, dynamic and witty look at the Cuban body in all its glorious shapes and sizes, made by an Argentinean student at Cuba's La Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television, the feature—luxuriously shown on an actual big screen in an actual theater! -begins.

Shot on DV with no enhanced sound or lighting over a period of 18 months, Apart (Section), from Uruguay, epitomizes the debt contemporary documentary owes to direct cinema pioneers like Maysles. The camera here is an unblinking eye focused on a group of teenagers struggling to survive on the mean streets of Montevidéo. There are scenes of heartbreaking intensity, but there is the pure joy of youth in this world, too. Although unseen and unheard on camera, filmmaker Mario Handler is a constant, palpable presence throughout the film. At times, the kids address him directly, as though he's just another one of the gang. When he loans them cameras so they can film whatever they want, unobserved and unrestricted, they talk about him. Near the end, two of the girls are hanging out in his apartment and, surrounded by his editing gear, they do an impromptu striptease for him. How removed is Handler from the lives he is so unflinchingly documenting? My initial impression is that Handler must be barely older than his subjects; the relationship seems so close, relaxed, nonjudgmental. Later I discover he's a prolific, award-winning filmmaker, born in 1935, founder of the Third World Cinematheque and, like Maysles, an acclaimed innovator in film technique and technology.

Some films just charm the pants off you immediately, and Marangmotxingmo Mirang (From the Ikpeng Children to the World) is certainly one of them. Shot and directed by Kumare Karane and Natuyu Yuwip Txicao of the Ikpeng tribe in Brazil, in response to a video-letter sent by children from the Sierra Maestra region of Cuba, the film follows four Ikpeng youngsters as they take us on a whirlwind tour of their village deep in the Brazilian jungle. They show us their families, their friends, their houses, their toys, their ceremonial costumes and their celebrations, talking a mile a minute and laughing infectiously all the while. This is Nanook with a twist; here we get an inside look at an exotic culture but it is presented to us by the Ikpeng themselves.

Pamela Sporn is a high school teacher and filmmaker living in the Bronx. Her film, Raises Cubanas/Historias de Bronx (Cuban Roots/Bronx Story), is structured around her husband's return to Cuba after leaving for a new life in the United States as a child in 1962. The audience is moved to tears by the family stories, the home movies, the memories and the emotional reunion with an aged favorite aunt not seen in 33 years. The story of separated families is an all too common one here and when the lights come up, people swarm the director.


The late-to-bed-early-to-rise life imposed by the school bus schedule combined with incessant partying is beginning to take its toll... My Friend Su, a hauntingly lyrical examination of culture and sexuality in modern day India, unfolds as a series of nighttime conversations between two college friends, the filmmaker and Su, who has come to the realization he is a woman trapped in a male body. The film's sloooooow pacing, beautiful muted red tones, hypnotic music and Su's droning Indian-accented English lulls the other four people in the Sala de Video and me to sleep in no time...

I barely manage to rouse myself for Aftershocks: The Rough Guide to Democracy (India), shot on mini-DV and narrated in English by volunteer relief worker Rakesh Sharma when he spent time in two rural villages near the Pakistani border after a devastating earthquake in January 2001. Despite some absolutely gorgeous shots of rural India, this film is so dense with so many interlinked elements and issues, the imagery often takes a backseat to the intellectual content. Sharma freely admits "I don't have any answers," but his film stands as the only document of this appalling example of "business as usual" and a powerful demand for accountability.

Suddenly I get the word: We're showing your films at the Casa de la Cultura in ten minutes!  Alas, it is not to be. Despite previous assurances to the contrary, they don't have the necessary equipment.  A desperate last-ditch attempt to come up with a workable alternative involving a tangle of cords, cameras and computers is foiled when it becomes clear that no one on this island has a firewire cable! In recent days I have watched seasoned filmmakers and cinematic superstars have major meltdowns and flying freakouts over the slightest technical and scheduling glitches. I have observed Yuri, the boyish but permanently exhausted lone projectionist, wrestle valiantly with machines that appear to be around 40 years old. (Maybe I can cultivate a career as a film festival participant whose films never actually get shown...) But hey, there's still one more documentary I want to see today!

Mozambique Where Film Goes (Italy) is about as Griersonian as it gets: an educational documentary about the power of film to educate. Between August and October 2001, the Cinemovel group (its motto: "You get a screen, a projector and a couple of movies and you've got a cinema!") went to Mozambique, traveling 3,500 miles and bringing movies and AIDS education to more than 120,000 people, many of whom had never seen a film before. Amazing reaction shots of crowds enthralled by everything from Buster Keaton shorts to African animation to Edward Scissorhands are interspersed with founders of the Mozambique national cinema program discussing the absolute necessity in any post-colonial country of forging a strong new identity through film. Politics and entertainment, hand-in-hand.


After spending Thursday at the beach, I return for the last day of the festival and the closing ceremony. It begins with two documentaries. The first, Del Mar Su Pesca (Fish from the Sea) is a pretty ode to the fishermen of Gibara made by a local filmmaker. The second, Siyamo, filmed by 28-year-old Iranian filmmaker Mahmoud Reza Sani in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is about the search for love in our war-torn world. After the filmmaker has a dream about a dark-haired Afghani girl ("Siyamo"), he travels the country in search of her, encountering a cemetery worker, a gun dealer, a carpet salesman, a taxi driver, a mystic, a schoolteacher, a veiled young woman and many others who all aid in his quest. A scant 27 minutes, Siyamo is a stunningly beautiful, humble masterpiece: part dream, part politics, part folklore, part travelogue, part history lesson, part love story.

And then, the awards. The jury gives Siyamo the prize for best documentary (Sani's beaming acceptance speech in Farsi, Spanish and English brings the house down), with special mentions going to Marangmotxingo Mirang and Aparte.

But after six crazy days and a whole bunch of films the question remains: What exactly is "Cine Pobre"? A marketing angle? Even the cheapest piece of equipment showcased in the Swiss Effects seminar costs more than a Cuban earns in a year. A call to arms? Despite Solas' Cine Pobre manifesto urging a move towards a more inclusive and accessible cinema, overt political discussion and commentary were curiously absent (aside from the young Ecuadorian who praised "the greatest director of them all, Fidel Castro!" when he picked up the grand prize for his screenplay). A state of mind? Everything is relative. A showcase for technical innovation? Sometimes. Stylistic innovation? Not necessarily. A venue for films seen nowhere else? Most of the films are on the festival circuit, many of them previous prize-winners at Havana's Festival of the New Latin American Cinema. A financial parameter? Films screened ranged in budget from less than $1,000 to over $500,000.

At the Primer Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre, I saw the documentary tradition in all of its forms on display, and what struck me most was the continuing power of the medium to connect and resonate with the audience, inspire and provoke, challenge, educate, sooth and amuse, and  compel us to see ourselves as part of this human race in all its glorious and infuriating complexity.

And what about the beleaguered Funtown? On the very last night, after everyone returned from the closing festivities, we had a guerrilla screening, poolside at the Pernik on a borrowed iBook at three o'clock in the morning. There was rum, and there were cigars, a million stars in the sky and filmmakers from all over the Americas in their bathing suits crowded around a tiny glowing screen. It was about as perfectly low-budget as low-budget could be.


Lisa Marr is a Canadian musician, writer, photographer, curator and activist who resides in Los Angeles. Her current obsession is Super-8 filmmaking.