Havana Overview

in 42nd International Festival of the New LatinAmerican Cinema, Havana

by Cédric Lépine

The 42nd edition of the Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema took place in December 2021, taking on the selection of the 2020 edition, which could not be held due to health restrictions prompted by the pandemic. This is a choice that allowed us to experience new films in the best possible conditions: real projections in the various magisterial cinemas that have hosted the festival over the decades.

The films in competition were divided into several sections with separate juries: feature fiction films, debut feature fiction films, short films, feature documentaries, animated films, and films in post-production. The FIPRESCI jury, composed of three international members, was responsible for selecting a winner from among 18 Latin American fiction features. The diversity of the Latin American continent was represented as follows: five films from Brazil, four from Mexico, four from Argentina, two from Chile, one from the Dominican Republic (with a Cuban director), one from Cuba, and one from Venezuela. This selection reflects the state of production in the region’s countries fairly well, despite the absence of countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Guatemala, which are nevertheless represented in the festival’s other sections.

The films presented to the FIPRESCI jury all had strong and original cinematographic proposals, with distinct subjects and experiments, questioning genre in a very personal way and, in some cases, flirting with the border between fiction and documentary. The only intruder in this otherwise provocative programme writing is El Mayor, from director Rigoberto López. This film is a succession of battles filmed at great expense and with many extras. The woodenness of the actors, who proclaim their text loudly and without any embodiment, and the strictly chronological editing, convey an unabashed ignorance of the wide range of cinematographic grammar. The only thing to recommend this film is the opportunity to discover Cuba’s 19th century hero of independence from the Spanish crown, General Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz.

In the register of historical costume films, Todos os mortos, from directors Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra, makes the perceptive choice to renounce spectacle and focus instead on the intimate daily life of three women from the Soares family ten years after the abolition of slavery. With a subtlety and insight that closely links Brazil’s past and present, the film allows anachronisms to enter the background of certain scenes while foregrounding fascinating reconstructions of interiors that double as psychological profiles of the characters. Each shot seems inspired by the painter’s concern to compose with colours, shadows, and depth of field. The film is also political, highlighting the end of slavery as a failed opportunity for advancing democracy in Brazil.

Another independent historical costume film that also eschews the hollow demonstration of re-enactment spectacle, Selva trágica, directed by Yulene Olaizola, is a tragic odyssey into the heart of a forest inhabited by Mayan spirits. Olaizola’s fifth feature once again conjures the shadow of Werner Herzog, spefically Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). The same might be said of La Fortaleza, directed by Jorge Thielen Armand, in which the filmmaker makes his own father the protagonist. Thielen Armand pushes his father to abandon society, plunging him into the heart of the wilderness in a dynamic that reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s canonical 1899 novel Heart of Darkness.

Furthering the independence of the gaze and means of production, Fauna, directed by Nicolás Pereda, develops his art of staging in praise of simplicity, which allows him to question the collective unconscious of the spectator in his desire for a narrative. In a different register, but with the same confidence in the interpretation of his actors, Isabella, directed by Matías Piñeiro, offers a cinema built on the pleasure of words, of reflection on art in the making, and of powerful portraits of female characters from the best of Shakespeare’s comedies.

As for Kokoloko, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, we also find this approach to independence, with a reduced crew and a deep desire for cinematographic experimentation. Naranjo uses 16mm film, with its grain, colour, and square format, as a revolt against the uniformity of digital that is as strong as the drama through which the characters must pass.

Violence is filtered through the codes of genre in a singularly minimalist approach carried by the formidable performances of Erica Rivas and the hypnotic Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in El Prófugo, directed by Natalia Meta, straddling the border between the fantastic and the psychological portrait.

The fantastic is also subtly invoked in an Argentine production entitled Nosotros nunca moriremos, directed by Eduardo Crespo. Its story is built on the principle that mourning is experienced through encounters with the relatives of a deceased person. In these encounters, the deceased appears in a ghostly atmosphere.

A critical examination of the state of contemporary society is at the heart of most of the films in this competition. Such critiques can be found in the dystopia of Nuevo orden, directed by Michel Franco; in the extremely creative constraint of the fixed shot and the omnipresent lead in La Verónica, directed by Leonardo Medel; in the road trip through Latin America and the question of the history of feminist struggle in the fake documentary Ana. Sem título, directed by Lucía Murat; in the immersive depiction of the daily life of a lonely taxi driver in Breve miragem de sol, directed by Eryk Rocha; in the portrait of a teenage girl in a neighbourhood on the fringes of society in Las mil y una, directed by Clarisa Navas; in the gender relations between a group of friends on the threshold of adulthood in Meu nome é Bagdá, directed by Caru Alves; in the power dynamics of a Brazilian favela in Pacificado, directed by Paxton Tyrone Winters; in the ideological oppositions between two clandestine characters living under the Pinochet dictatorship in Tengo miedo torero, directed by Rodrigo Sepúlveda; and in the journalistic exploration of the explosion of the number of adoptions in the Dominican Republic in Dossier de ausencias, directed by Rolando Díaz Rodríguez.

Cédric Lépine
Edited by José Teodoro