Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.11, February 1998

The Havana Connection

by Cesar Coelho

The Festival Internacional Del Nuevo
Cine Latinoamericano catalog.
The Festival Internacional Del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano catalog.One of the reasons one should visit Cuba during the month of December is the "Festival Internacional Del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano" (The International Festival of New Latin-American Cinema) which is held in Havana. In it's 19th year, the Havana film festival is the biggest cinematographic event dedicated entirely to Latin cinema. Spain and Latin-American countries participate with features, medium and short fiction films, documentaries, a poster and script contest, and last but not least, animated films. Besides the festival, Cuba itself is a marvelous attraction; not only for its natural beauty and breathtaking architecture, but for its people and their lifestyle which is based on values that are very different from ours.

A Festival With an Audience
During the two weeks of the festival, Havana is host to a multitude of film stars, producers, directors, intellectuals and critics. However, the festival's most respected participant is the Cuban audience. Cinema in Cuba is still a strong force, as it was in Brazil in the Sixties, when ticket prices were lower, theaters were bigger, and competition with television and the VCR wasn't a part of the scene. In Cuba, ticket prices are subsidized by the government, and their cost is the equivalent of US $0.35. As if that isn't enough, Cubans can buy a pass for the entire festival at US $0.94.

Most theaters in Havana are quite old. However, when one arrives to this enchanting island, the first impression is to feel that you're thirty years back in time. The buildings are those from the Fifties and Sixties. On the streets, there is a constant display of vehicles that are 30, 40 and even 50 years old. These include well-maintained `57 Chevys! The same holds true for the cinemas. Most of them still have the big screening rooms which hold up to 1,000 and 1,500 seats and display a gigantic screen with a curtain that opens prior to the screening. I thought I would never see this again. The sound is okay, although the picture quality could be improved.

Cuban television, which is state-controlled, has very limited programming. Air time only runs for certain hours. The major attraction is the Brazilian soap operas which spread a fever among the population and lead the country into stasis.

The old world charm of Havana is seen in this
photo of the Cine Prayet theater.
Photo courtesy of and © Cesar Coelho.
The old world charm of Havana is seen in this photo of the Cine Prayet theater.

Cinema is a major attraction for Cubans who flock to the festival screenings, creating long lines and packing all of the sessions. They are highly educated, and it's proven by this festival that they can be considered sharp and sophisticated film critics. They also become absorbed in the plot so easily, that they applaud and argue during the projections. The entire city mobilizes around the majestic and charming Hotel Nacional. It is the headquarters for the festival, and many people take time off during this event to be able to attend all of the screenings.

The Animated Films
The animation category had very few film entries, but was still a current Latin American production showcase. Participating in competition from Argentina was the short Tanto Te Gusta Ese Hombre (So Much Do You Like That Man), directed by Vicky Biagiola and Liliana Romero, a color pencil animation, and Dibu - La Película (Dibu - The Movie), directed by Carlos Olivieri and Alejandro Stoessel, which was the festival's only feature length animation. The film is technically well done, a combination of animation and live-action characters. It tells the story of a couple with four children, three of which are made of flesh and bone, the fourth is animated.

Noche (Night) directed by Tomás Welss represented Chile in the festival. Using color pencil on paper, it's a very loose and expressive animation, although a little too long. It depicts a night of party, dance and sensuality.

Recital by Daniel Schorr. © Daniel Schorr
Recital de Daniel Schorr.  Daniel SchorrWith six films each in competition, Brazil and Cuba had the highest number of animation entries. From Brazil, Hello Dolly! and Kaos, both directed by Daniel Schorr, are each one minute long. Their themes are about the changes that have taken place during this millennium. In Recital, also from Schorr, he uses an interesting original technique. The drawings are done in pencil, shot in black and white, and then color is applied directly to the film.

Technique is also a main concern in Telmo Carvalho's film, Campo Branco (White Field). The actors are mimes, filmed in live-action, printed on photographic paper, cut-out and later applied onto cels over colorful painted backgrounds. They interact with traditionally animated characters, narrating Northeastern Brazil's struggle with drought. In Una Casa Muito Engraçada (A Very Funny House), Toshie Nishio, uses a simple technique to illustrate a very well known Brazilian children's song. Finally, Nino, directed by Flavia Alfinito, was the only clay animation work in the festival.

From the six Cuban films participating, five are part of the series Filminutos, directed by Jorge Valdés and Mario Rivas. This series, now up to 40 episodes, is composed of films that are five minutes long, with various gags from 30 seconds to a minute long, and is a big success in Cuba. On a technical level, the series is done with traditional cel animation. In En La Tierra De Changó (In The Land Of Changó), director Mario Rivas uses a sophisticated narrative about the Yoruba gods and myths originally from Africa, that are common to Cubans and Brazilians.

Cuba's Animation Industry
The Cuban films are produced by the government agency responsible for all film production on the island, the ICAIC. For more than 20 years the ICAIC has kept it's animation studio active in a cozy three story building, with facilities for animating, lay-out, filming and production. Whatever they lack in resources and technology, Cubans compensate for with improvisation and creativity. In the entire animation studio, I only saw one computer which was used for pencil tests. However, after using an Oxberry camera for the first time, technicians from the ICAIC constructed a second one utilizing parts designed from the first.

Films are produced by an enormous crew with a very rigid hierarchy. The amateur starts as an inbetweener. After some time the artist becomes an assistant, then an animator, and finally, after many years, a director or an animation supervisor. This factor shows the excellent training done by the studio. Each artist is also a teacher of three or four students under his/her responsibility.

Despite the harsh economic crisis that has been hurting the country, the animation studio has never stopped producing films. In an attempt to move forward with new productions, the ICAIC has been trying to step into the world animation market, offering it's broad experience in traditional ink and paint. So far, part of a Spanish animated series is being developed in the Cuban Animation Studios.

The winner of the Coral Negro prize, Desde Adentro
(From Inside) by Dominique Jonard.
© Dominique Jonard.
The winner of the Coral Negro prize, Desde Adentro (From Inside) by Dominique Jonard.

The Grand Winner
Finally, with a certain amount of suspense, the first prize in the animation category, the grand winner of the Coral Negro (Black Coral) prize, was awarded to Desde Adentro (From Inside), directed by Dominique Jonard, who represented Mexico in the competition. The Award demonstrates the social concerns of the festival jury, who valued content over form. Under Jonard's guidance, delinquent children from a Mexican government correctional institution made this film using paper cut-outs to relate their life experiences in the streets, their involvement with drugs, street gang wars, and their abandonment and exclusion from society. The children's ingenuity using the cut-out technique, and the humor originated by their interpretations, created a deep contrast with the violence implicit in the theme. This unexpected paradox gave the film a strong impact, making it unquestionably the winner.

I found the festival in Havana to be not just an attraction, but a reminder that there's another world, made of film, alive, and well on the island of Cuba.

Translated from Portugese by Alejandro Gedeon.

Cesar Coehlo is an animator and co-director of the Anima Mundi animation festival in Brazil.

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