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Cuban Cinema

The ICAIC does not exist

'The ICAIC is 65 years old, and gives its filmmakers no space, does not answer their emails or letters, and then talks about a celebration of Cuban cinema,' says Rosa María Rodriguez Pupo.

The ICAIC building.
The ICAIC building. Cubacine

There is an empty building on Avenida 23, very close to the intersection of the Calle 12, a giant white elephant eaten away by bad decisions. It is a place where ideology has been embraced as the foundation of art, and mediocrity has replaced talent - immense talent, which once circulated through the now-dark corridors of the Cuban Cinematographic Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC), which this Sunday celebrates 65 years since its founding.

In 1996, in an interview with the English critic Michael Chanan, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea said that "journalism, for example, does not perform its function of criticizing society. People, however, talk in the hallways, in the cafes, on the streets, on sidewalks, in lines; but those problems are not aired publicly, and that is very frustrating, so one feels a need to talk."

That should be the essence of Cuban cinema, in being a problematizing (and problematic, according to the power structure) forum capturing the Cuban reality. But it is just this role that the new leaders of the institute, with cultural commissioner Alexis Triana at its head, intends to revoke, like one who conquers enemy territory and begins to reconstruct history by covering up the discomfiting moments.

"It's not that there were no contradictions or problems, but debate used to be above all that, debating ideas was above all that," assistant director Gloria María Cossío, who has worked for more than 50 years at the ICAIC, told DIARIO DE CUBA.

Thus, imbued with a commitment to take risks, and seeking heresy beyond the screen, Cuban cinema has accommodated manifestly controversial names and works, which contributed, through critical and cogent perspectives, to the shaping of a society that was critical and open to controversy, with that having been portrayed on the screen, even if the officials now on duty try to cover this up.  

Standard-bearers in the process of depicting problems affecting Cuba through cinema include the likes of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, with Memories of Underdevelopment, Death of a Bureaucrat and Strawberry and Chocolate being his most controversial films; as well as the work of Daniel Díaz Torres, whose most scathing work was Alice in Wonderland, a caustic critique of the Revolution’s bureaucracy and stagnancy. There were also the comedies of Juan Carlos Tabío, the astute films of Humberto Solás, numerous episodes of the ICAIC Latin American News, and the cinema of Fernando Pérez, which reflected, with mastery and without any sugarcoating, the contradictions of Cuban society, especially in films such as Life Is To White, Suite Habana and Madagascar.    

But there are more figures worthy of mention in Cuban cinema, names like Rolando Díaz, Rebeca Chávez, Eliseo Altunaga, Luis Alberto García, Isabel Santos, Julio García Espinosa, Ernesto Daranas, Alfredo Guevara, Belkis Vega, Arturo Sotto, Enrique Colina, Alan González, Alejandro Alonso, Armando Capó, Arturo Infante, Carlos Lechuga, Carlos Quintela, Daniela Muñoz Barroso, Eduardo del Llano, Enrique Álvarez, Rosa María Rodríguez, Fernando Fraguela, Ian Padrón, Carla Valdés, Jorge Molina, José Luis Aparicio, Heidi Hassan, Juan Carlos Cremata, Juan Pin Vilar, Luis Alejandro Yero, Ricardo Figueredo, Miguel Coyula, Pavel Giroud, Yimit Ramírez and many more.

"I believe that enthusiasm, the desire to document what is happening, is inevitable among all of us who continue to try to create Cuban cinema, wherever people are. The filmmakers who are still in Cuba, and those who are scattered all over the world, still trying to make Cuban cinema, to express the Cuban reality in some way, trying to make cinema with what is happening in Cuba...I think we consider making our films without thinking about whether they will be officially shown or recognized in Cuba," filmmaker Rolando Díaz recently told DIARIO DE CUBA.

What it is, what it could be, and what it does not want to be

On Thursday, March 21, at the Cine Yara, Triana said that she intends to restore the ICAIC to what it once was. No, Mr. Triana, if the ICAIC does not accept different points of view about an issue, if it does not admit and promote controversy, if it does not dare to touch the nation's wounds, if it does not understand that just talking about the past, without questioning the present, is to be afraid of today's Cuba and contemporary Cuban filmmakers, the ICAIC will not return to what it once was.

And, although it is difficult to understand for its anachronistic romanticism, the ICAIC does not need to return to what it was. Rather, it needs to be a better institute than it was, a place where filmmakers like Nicolás Guillén Landrián are not abandoned, an institute that is not afraid to show the films of Cuban directors living outside Cuba, that does not censor those who have a different opinion, that does not ignore the Assembly of Cuban Filmmakers, that does not spurn the industry's calls for a Film Law, that does not seek to centralize all the film production in the country, one that does require every film to depend exclusively on the approval of one or two men, that does not judge and revile those who make films against that nebulous entity they insist on calling the Revolution.

Obviously, the previous paragraph is a series of castles in the sky, as each of the actions of the ICAIC's new management are aimed at burying the Assembly of Cuban Filmmakers, eliminating "conflictive" elements, and filling the building with "reliable" figures, to the point that a floor of the institute has been destined for the new production company Patria. Led by Roly Peña, this "will wage new battles for the history of the island," Triana said on his Facebook profile, which should be viewed as a propagandistic shift in Cuban state cinema, perhaps more intense than the existing one, but without the artistic quality of what was done during the golden age of the institution.

"It's a good thing that art pervades the building," documentary filmmaker Lourdes de los Santos stated in Triana's post, as if everything were a clean slate, as if the community of filmmakers were not up in arms. "It's very sad that the Cuban Film Institute does not respond to the appeals of filmmakers to be part of the Assembly of Cuban Filmmakers' processes. After 65 years, the ICAIC and does not give its filmmakers a space, does not answer emails or letters, and then talks about a celebration of Cuban cinema. But here there's a bigger and more active assembly than ever," director and producer Rosa María Rodríguez Pupo wrote in another Facebook post, after the ICAIC, in its purported renewal, refused to talk to independent filmmakers.

"We're not the ones rejecting or denying debate. The contempt of the ICAIC leadership is evidence of a pattern that does little to bolster our institutions' credibility and raison d'être," the assembly members complained.
"We now have a new president to whom, undoubtedly, they're giving all the resources they didn't give to the previous one, and whose purpose is to attract, with great fireworks, all those involved in these strata of culture.

The aim is cinema that is not free, but rather aimed at whitewashing all the situations that the country is going through, approaching them from the government's point of view, which is exactly what the country does not need at this time," Cossío told this newspaper.

Along the same lines, another filmmaker linked for many years to the institution, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated: "At the ICAIC, Triana is trying to whip up a fervor for a reality that has lost its appeal. It's not the 60s anymore. 65 years have passed, and they've had time to forge a country. Everything he says sounds very nice, all his plans seem great, and I even wish they were true, but filmmakers are inquisitors, seekers of truth, and that's where his rhetoric goes astray, as it is out of touch with Cubans' lives."

"That ICAIC that was born with a spirit of debate and rebellion, to some extent, has now reached a very difficult juncture, and what happens with the rest of the country will define or guide what can happen at this film association." 

In a recent interview with DIARIO DE CUBA  Fernando Pérez said: "That vision of a free cinema without censorship, without exclusions, without fractures or banishments, with a Film Law that protects freedom of expression, that Madagascar that is now a dream, because official policy does not want to recognize it, will become a reality over time, because thought is free, and nothing can silence it."

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