A Rough Guide for Beginners By Necati Sönmez
Every film festival has its own colors and its own function, despite the fact that many festivals nowadays are resembling each other. The Havana Film Festival is arguably one of the most colorful and most functional film events in the world. Taking place in Cuba, a country resisting a superpower, is one thing. Sheltering a particular region’s cinema and backing it against the dominant mainstream is another.
The festival has many aspects that will surprise even the frequent festival attendees who come to Havana for the first time, especially the ones from non-Latino countries. Here are some hints for the first time visitors to the Havana Film Festival, a.k.a. Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, from what I learned on my first trip.
First of all, if you don’t already know it, it’s better you learn some Spanish — at least at a basic level. Here, you will have lots of possibilities to practice it. Actually without it, you’ll have a hard time with almost no translation facilities except for one theatre where you can get simultaneous English translation.
Once you get there, be ready to get lost into a huge festival with hundreds of films shown in nearly 20 theaters spread all over the city. Don’t expect a perfect organization by western standards. On the other hand, don’t try to understand how this big organization is carried out by a respectively small crew and very, very low budget.
During ten days of the festival, you’ll get drowned in everything related to Latin cinema: not only a huge variety of films from experimental to documentary, animation to fantasy, fiction to shorts, but also plenty of activities such as script and poster competitions, various exhibitions, announcements of forthcoming projects, etc.
Don’t expect to have the full program of the festival in advance. The screening schedule is announced only the day before, because the arrival time of film prints is usually not predictable. However, almost all the screenings start on time.
You can easily get intimate with the screening room ushers from your second day on, and don’t hesitate to shake their hands or kiss cheek-to-cheek (one cheek only!). You can also discuss the festival films with your driver. And feel free to intervene when you hear two chambermaids in your room talking about a film you’ve seen the night before.
You’ll see huge crowds queuing at the front of the theaters for all kinds of movies. This is probably the only festival after Cannes where hundreds of spectators form long queues to see a film; the only difference is that in Cannes it’s part of the business, here it’s part of life.
Among festivalgoers, you can meet not only professionals but also regular cinephiles like students from all over the island. During the screenings you’ll join one of the most passionate audiences you’ve seen ever, reacting to every joke and trick they see in the movie.
You may see many Latin American films in the program dealing with past atrocities that took place in the ’70s, such as the Pinochet period in Chile or the Military Junta in Argentina. Even the films which are inspired stylistically by TV soap operas will have a touch of politics referring to historical traumas. So be ready to meet weird families in which a former torturer and rapist has married his victim, or a young prosecutor’s criminal inquiry leads her to her own father and brother!
Being at the Havana Film Festival is something that you cannot separate from the fact of being in Havana itself. As they go well together, between films you can walk through the wide avenues and streets of the city. You’ll get more of the local feel when you discover a small bar around the corner which serves only rum and beer 24 hours a day, because it doesn’t have a door, not even walls, to be closed. Or vice versa.