Havana — Past and Present By Wolfgang Hamdorf

in 30th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Wolfgang Hamdorf

The 30th annual Latin American Film Festival looked back into an important section of cinematic history: The dream of a “Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano”, a New Latin American Cinema positioned against the expensive and special-effects-laden Hollywood movies. The idea was to combat the “colonization” of images while defending the concept of an imperfect and poetic cinema, as Cuban director Julio Garcia Espinosa had put it. In the words of Brazilian director Glauber Rocha, who died at a very young age, this kind of film would be made “just with an idea in your head and a camera in your hand”. At the beginning of the festival, the “Corales de Honor” were awarded to four pioneers of this movement: Brazilian filmmaker Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, his Chilean colleague Miguel Littin, Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés and Mexico’s Paul Leduc. At the festival’s conclusion, producer Walter Anchuras — another dedicated veteran of new Latin American cinema — was awarded his own coral of honor.

Havana is closely linked to the history of this movement. Even now, 83-year-old Alfredo Guevara, former director of the national film institute ICAIC, opens and closes the festival with an acknowledgement of the new paths blazed by recent Latin American film while also adding the cryptic warning that the achievements of the Revolution may still be dissolved by the excrescence of bureaucracy. Another tribute to the past was found in Titon, From Havana to Guantanamera 1928-1996 (Titón, de la Habana a Guantanamera 1928-1996), Mirta Ibarra’s film about her husband, the charismatic Cuban filmmaker Tómas Gutierrez Alea, who died in 1996. This film was embraced enthusiastically by the Cuban audience.

As always, Havana was positioned as the most important stage for Latin American auteurs, and the festival’s perspectives were a topic at a FIPRESCI jury panel held on December 7, the “day of critique” organized by Cuban colleagues for an audience of press and professionals. Havana is, however, no longer the sole representative of Latin American cinema. Lima, Guadalajara, and Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) have also become places for promoting and discussing the cinema of the subcontinent. In a time, when coproduction has become an existential necessity for Latin American cinema, Havana has been left without a market. In many ways, it resembles a crumbling monument of another time — an era when Latin American cinema successfully defined itself as a counter-movement by focusing on its own original qualities. Havana continues to embody this spirit, even if, as Alfredo Guevara has put it, “new generations tread new paths and the works of earlier generations have lost their relevance”.

It is, however, exactly this merging of the old and the new that sets Havana apart from the bustling activity of the usual meeting-places of the film industry. Not only the particular atmosphere that one can find in the great old theatres like the Yara, the Riviera, the Chaplin or the Acapulco — some of which accommodate more than a thousand viewers — but also, and especially, the lively enthusiasm expressed by the Cuban audience help to make Havana a very special festival. Until today there has been no better place to survey a whole year’s production of Latin American cinema, and this in a country that has recently experienced two devastating hurricanes and has always struggled with economic difficulties. For the Cuban audience, this festival is also an opportunity to watch films from quite a lot of different countries — from Germany, France, or Scandinavia. As a special event, and with a view to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution on January 1st, 2009, Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour Ché was screened in the presence of its star, Benicio del Toro, and other cast members.

As Havana is a festival that celebrates different generations of Latin American cinema, a special section has been dedicated to first films. The diversity in style and subject matter within this section was quite surprising, as was the fact that, just like the first generation of pioneers, young Latin American filmmakers have developed their own ways of expression despite the limitations imposed by their very small budgets.

The award for Best First Film was given to Mexico’s Parque Vía, a very slow and reflective yet overwhelming film about an old janitor who inhabits a large villa until it has been sold.

The prize-winner of the main section came as surprise to most: The jury, headed by Peruvian director Francisco Lombardi, awarded the second film of Chilean director Pablo Larrain. Filmed in a depressing grayscale, the drama Tony Manero gives the audience an aging serial killer trying to enter a TV contest with an imitation of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character, all of this taking place in Pinochet’s 1970s.

Our FIPRESCI jury had also discussed Tony Manero as a possible prize-winner amongst the twenty contributions in the official competition: Five from Argentina, three from Brazil, two from Chile, three from Cuba, four from Mexico, one from Peru, and two from Venezuela. In the end, two favorites remained: Lucrezia Martel’s The Woman Without a Head (La mujer sin cabeza) and Anger (La rabia), both from Argentina. Anger, the fourth feature from young Argentine director Albertina Carri, is the powerful story of a conflict between two families set against the lonely Argentine hinterland, employing powerful images and a peculiar rhythm to build up an aggressive and emotional atmosphere that can explode into personal catastrophe at any given moment. In addition to the FIPRESCI prize, Albertina Carri was also awarded the Best Director prize.