29th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

Cuba, December 4 - December 14 2007

Awarded films

In spite of its ever-present economic and social problems, Havana lifts the spirits of any tourist — the Cubans are friendly and exceptionally generous, the city seductive if unmaintained — but especially the spirits of the serious film critic. During the Havana Film Festival (December 4-14), known officially as the “Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano”, 270,000 spectators attend a wide variety of screenings in 18 cinemas spread out across the capital. Cinephilia is endemic, not to mention the fact that people are eager for access to culture and information not so easily obtained during the rest of the year. Audiences tend to be young, and mostly they remain in the theaters during even the most difficult films.

The event, now in its 29th edition, is put together by a skeleton crew working on a low budget — an extraordinary feat in a country where hard currency is no longer in circulation. Director Ivan Giroud, programmer Alberto Ramos, and a group of other selectors and support staff labor under conditions unknown to most festival organizers. The core of the fest is Latin American cinema, but many of the 274 features shown are from other nations. One requirement is that the foreign films have Spanish subtitles, so the festival is at the mercy of Latin American and Spanish distributors, as well as some foreign cultural agencies. It is therefore audience friendly, something refreshing in a land where Cubans often get the short end of the straw compared to foreigners.

Our jury judged the official competition. The winner: A Stray Girlfriend (Una Novia Errante), the second feature by the young Argentinean director Ana Katz, who also plays the leading role. Her character, abandoned by her boyfriend while on vacation, is a pest, an obsessive neurotic so self-absorbed that she is nearly unaware of the beautiful shots of nature that the cinematographer constantly keeps in the depths of the frame — the antithesis of her unbalanced psyche. Neither she nor the supporting characters she meets at the seaside resort are particularly glamorous; flesh-and-blood people, they are refreshingly at odds with the conventions of the star system.

The main jury, presided over by Argentinean director Carlos Sorin, awarded its top prize to Mexican maestro Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (Stellet Licht), which, having already won the FIPRESCI prize for Best Latin American Film in Rio, was not really a candidate for our award (nor were previous winners Encarnación, by Argentinean filmmaker Anahí Berneri and Drained / O Chero do Ralo, by the Brazilian Heitor Dhalia). Strangely enough, of its 15 prizes, the main jury gave not a one to A Stray Girlfriend — and none of its other top prizes (second, third, special jury mention, and jury mention) was even considered by our five members. Only the SIGNIS selection Kill Them All (Matar a Todos), a fine political thriller by the Uruguayan Esteban Schroeder, was even discussed by us, although it did garner best actress (Roxana Blanco) and best script from the Sorin jury.

The festival began with a faux doc about Iraq (Redacted, by Brian de Palma, who was denied a license to visit Cuba by the U.S. State Department) and closed with a real doc about nature (Earth, by UK directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield). Not your usual choices, but then, the usual capitalist sponsor types don’t have to be catered to (politicians, yes). In between were several competitions, including best opera prima (Brazilian Chico Teixeira’s Alice’s House / A Casa de Alice), documentary (Camila Guzman Urzua’s The Sugar Curtain / El Telon de Azucar), animation, script, and poster; three retrospectives (Eric Rohmer, the Spaniard Jose Luis Borau, and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade of Brazil); seven exhibitions of assorted national cinemas from Europe; experimental films; a section of movies by Latinos in the USA; a strand called “Made in Cuba”; book presentations; and a host of seminars, mostly about the state of Latino cinema but also including the annual “Day of the Critic”, in which FIPRESCI jurors addressed the topic of new cinematographic language in the cinema of Europe and Latin America.

The Havana Film Festival is an ideal place to catch up on the latest in Latin American movies, while absorbing the unique energy of this island that, under difficult circumstances both internal and external, remains a paradise — a surreal one, but a paradise nonetheless. (Howard Feinstein)