In November 2020, the Presidency of the Cuban Institute for Art and the Cinematographic Industry (ICAIC) summoned the Board of Directors of the Muestra Joven (Youth Film Festival), the most important event in independent cinema on the island, to inform them how the directors intended to rescue it after the 2020 edition was "postponed" due to censorship of the short film Sueños al pairo.
At the meeting ICAIC President Ramón Samada announced the "good news": the Festival would be resumed in 2021, but subject to certain conditions.
First of all, it would be a reduced Festival, without massive get-togethers, parties or a daily bulletin, due to the lack of money to finance it and the restrictions entailed by the pandemic in Havana.
Second, the festival's organizing committee would be reduced to four people, in addition to employees from the ICAIC itself, all under the oversight of the Institute's Office of Artistic Creation.
The latter would imply the de facto disappearance of the Festival Board of Directors, made up since the last decade by a handful of young filmmakers, democratically elected by the filmmakers, with whom relations had been thorny for officials since the censorship of Yimit Ramírez's I Want to Make a Movie (Quiero hacer una película) in 2018.
DIARIO DE CUBA learned these details from several Cuban filmmakers concerned about the future of what has been the most controversial forum for aspiring, young Cuban audio-visual professionals over the past 20 years.
"The idea is to maintain the Festival, avoid more episodes of censorship, and establish a kind of institutional policy that would strip from it the autonomy it had until now," summarized a creator who was informed of the ongoing negotiations, and who asked to remain anonymous.
The filmmaker himself described the situation as "a limbo from which I doubt we can emerge. There is no dialogue. They don't want it, they see us as quasi-declared enemies. They can't handle it."
According to the source, Ramón Samada himself broke his promise to organise an open assembly with the filmmakers, made after the censorship of Sueños al pairo unleashed a wave of solidarity by more than a dozen filmmakers with films at the 2020 Youth Festival, who withdrew their works to protest the institutional condemnation of the documentary on the censorship of Cuban singer-songwriter Mike Porcel and the acts of repudiation surrounding the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.
At the end of February of that year the Presidency of the ICAIC announced the postponement of the Festival until "a date to be announced in due time, with the aim of creating better conditions … and to analyze various work topics in an appropriate environment and with the necessary time", according to a note published on its official site.
However, a few days later, the Institute's leadership expelled filmmaker Carla Valdés León, who had been acting as the Festival’s director. The Board indicated in a statement that the ICAIC's decision was made public "without consulting the Board (...) and it has just appointed the vice-president of the ICAIC to head the event, in addition to denying us the possibility of directly administrating our Facebook page. Does the ICAIC still intend to exercise a monopoly over the truth?"
The young people in charge of the Festival then stated that they believe in the importance of the event, although they have concluded that "it has become untenable, as its essence is jeopardized: to be a common forum open to all young Cuban directors and their best films."
"We do not detect a genuine willingness to sort out the crisis. (...) After the 17th Festival, the Board had developed a fluid dialogue with the Presidency of the Institute, which was tense, but generally positive. (...) Over the last two weeks we constantly cautioned them about the consequences that their inflexible actions could have for the event and for the ICAIC itself. However, all our arguments were ignored," they explained.
The filmmakers' collective then indicated that they had invited the Presidency of the ICAIC to "hold a broad assembly featuring participation by the cultural guild and institutions that feel responsible for the future of Cuban cinema. An Assembly with a respectful atmosphere, accommodating a range of opinions, and from which a truly viable project can emerge."
But, almost a year after these events, and after a new edition of Havana’s International New Latin American Cinema Festival, in December, which will be held again in March, the Youth Festival is still up in the air, with no official announcement or preparations underway.
Some young moviemakers who spoke with DIARIO DE CUBA also pointed out that the venue for the Festival, in a house on the block next to the ICAIC headquarters, is a place "full of termites, and mosquitoes, as water accumulates in the hall. They went there several times to take note of what needed to be done, but it never was. There was a video library that was moved to a new location, which was supposed to be better, but the promised air conditioning there never materialized, nor did the shelves, and half of the films are in boxes lying on the floor."
Another filmmaker close to the Festival took a more pragmatic stance. "The Youth Festival will return, but muzzled. And if that’s the way it’s going to be, it’s better off disappearing. Besides, the ICAIC would be showing a real lack of respect and sending a very strong message if it dissolved it from above, like it did with the Board of Directors, which they did not create, but then had to accept, and respect."
"But we’ll have to see what the filmmakers do, how they react, what they say. After San Isidro and 27N, another scandal is the last thing we need. But the ICAIC and the Ministry of Culture think that with the creation of the Fund for the Promotion of Cuban Cinema, which was done to make many people happy, everything has been resolved. It’s not that simple," he said.