New Cuban Film Seeks to Revive Sector

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Since Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the country’s film sector has largely survived on the largesse of the state. The switch to Communism as the guiding economic model of the country after the revolution led, at first, to generous support to filmmakers. The government ranked cinema ahead of television seeing both cinema and television as the two most important forms of artistic expression in the country. But as state funding has dwindled in recent years, adventurous independent filmmakers have tried to keep the Cuban film tradition going using other sources.

Prior to the revolution, Cuban cinema had been dominated by American and Mexican companies that used Cuba as an exotic backdrop for their productions and dominated the distribution of film in the country.

In the 17 years after the 1959 revolution, generous funding for filmmaking in Cuba produced 74 full-length films and 600 documentary shorts (Julianne Burton: Revolutionary Cuban Cinema). Soon Cuba had established a reputation for making its own, interesting, high-quality films. These range from “Memories of Underdevelopment” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memories_of_Underdevelopment) released in 1968, with its innovative narrative technique, to Academy Award-nominated “Strawberry and Chocolate” in 1993 and 2006’s “Tomorrow” (http://www.cubaabsolutely.com/articles/art/article_art.php?landa=23).

But funding for Cuban film has been dropping since the ending of generous state supports with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Cuba had received extensive subsidies from the Soviet Union and enjoyed preferential trading privileges.

But a new Cuban film is grabbing fistfuls of international accolades and shows it is possible to make films with a combination of foreign investment and state support.

The zombie horror-comedy “Juan of the Dead” (juanofthedeadmovie.com/lang/en/) has raised more than a few eyebrows but it is also showing a more commercial instinct among Cuban filmmakers and points the way to greater diversity in Cuba’s film sector.

The film’s poster declares: “50 years after the Cuban revolution a new one is about to start.” The film’s website is a colourful feast of images from the film and uses slick graphic design. It has previews, background resources and online clips for viewers to sample.

Calling itself a “zombie comedy”, the film was written and directed by Alejandro Brugués and produced by Gervasio Iglesias, Inti Herrera and Claudia Calviño.

The plot revolves around Juan, a 40-year-old man who has spent most of his life doing nothing. He and his lazy pal Lazaro witness people starting to attack each other. Mistaking this for another stage in Cuba’s revolution, the pair at first believe the government media when it says the incidents are provoked by dissidents paid by the U.S. government. But it begins to dawn on the two men they are surrounded by zombies. Taking a Cuban approach to the problem, Juan decides to get rid of the zombies while making some money at it.

“Cubans have basically three ways of dealing with problems: they try to make a business out of it, they get used to it and keep going with their lives; or they throw themselves to the sea to run away from the island,” Brugués says on the movie’s website. “‘Juan’ gave me the opportunity to make things really difficult for Cubans, filling the country with zombies, which is in a way what we have become after all these years, but also gave me a leading character that could take a different option, that could stand and say ‘I’m not going to allow this, this is my country, I love it and will stay to defend it’ … after trying to make a business out of it and keep going with his life, of course.”

The film has received enthusiastic praise from international film festivals and audiences, and its producers are hoping it will give a boost to Cuban cinema.

Released in 2011 as a joint Spanish/Cuban co-production, “Juan of the Dead” was filmed on location in Cuba’s capital, Havana. The country’s first feature length horror film in half a century, its title is a play on George Romero’s 1978 zombie classic “Dawn of the Dead”, which also inspired the successful 2004 British comedy “Shaun of the Dead”.

It cost US $2.7 million, and the funds were raised from Spanish investors and the Cuban Institute on Cinematographic Industry and Arts (ICAIC) (http://www.cubarte.cult.cu/paginas/servicios/directorio/directorio.php?id_institucion=77&selected=&offset=36&windowstart=1&letra=&canal).

Brugués was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1976 and graduated from the International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.

He built up his expertise in the Cuban film industry as a scriptwriter for several Cuban films and is one of the partners at the Cuban indie film production company Producciones La 5ta Avenida (http://eses.facebook.com/pages/Producciones-de-la-5ta-Avenida/110339122340016).

His first feature film was “Personal Belongings”, which received worldwide distribution.

“I have been a follower of the zombie movies since I was a little kid (zombie movies have followers, not fans),” Brugués said. “The idea of ‘Juan’ simply came from watching the reality around me. That reality is Cuba, so one day inevitably, I was asking myself if we were so different from film zombies. Besides that, Cuba is a country that has been preparing itself for a confrontation with the United States during the last 50 years. So, what if instead of that, have to confront zombies?”

Brugués sees a coming together of independent filmmakers and state-funded filmmakers in the future: “At the moment there are two trends, films produced by Cuba’s state production company and films made outside of that,” he told the BBC.

“There needs to be a balance but I think the two will eventually merge. When this happens I think this will produce the best Cuban cinema.”

Resources 

1) UNCTAD Global Database on the Creative Economy. Website: http://unctadstat.unctad.org/ReportFolders/reportFolders.aspx?sCS_referer=&

sCS_ChosenLang=en

2) Creative Economy Report 2010: Creative Economy: A Feasible Development Option. Website: www.unctad.org/Templates/WebFlyer.asp?intItemID=5763&lang=1

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