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New Cuban Film Seeks to Revive Sector

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


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” ( released in 1968, with its innovative narrative technique, to Academy Award-nominated “Strawberry and Chocolate” in 1993 and 2006’s “Tomorrow” (

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” ( 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) (

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 (

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.”


1) UNCTAD Global Database on the Creative Economy. Website:


2) Creative Economy Report 2010: Creative Economy: A Feasible Development Option. Website:

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Archive Blogroll

Nollywood: Booming Nigerian Film Industry

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


The digital revolution in filmmaking over the last decade has given birth to an African success story: Nollywood – Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood, uses low-cost digital filmmaking and editing to tell local stories — in the process making money and creating thousands of jobs.

This do-it-yourself (DIY), straight-to-DVD and video market has in just 13 years ballooned into a US $250 million-a-year industry employing thousands of people. In terms of the number of films produced each year, Nollywood is now in third place behind India’s Bollywood and America’s Hollywood. Despite rampant pirating of DVDs and poor copyright controls, directors, producers, actors, stars, vendors and technicians are all making a living in this fast-growing industry.

The power of creative industries to create jobs and wealth has been a focus of UNESCO, through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity. UNESCO has been in the forefront in helping African countries re-shape their policies to take cultural industries into consideration. The promotion of cultural industries also has been incorporated into the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

What is particularly attractive about Nollywood to the poor in the South is its rough-and-ready approach to filmmaking: combining low-cost digital cameras and film editing software on personal computers, with small budgets and fast turn-around times. Films are made on location using local people. These factors make getting into filmmaking accessible and within reach of more people.

Nollywood grew out of frustration, necessity and crisis: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nigerian cities became crime hotbeds. People were terrified to go out on the streets, and this led to the closing down of many movie theatres. Desperate for entertainment at home – and unsatisfied with foreign imports from India and the West – Nigerians turned to telling their own stories to stave off the boredom of staying in.

The film credited with sparking off the industry is 1992’s Living in Bondage – a huge financial hit credited with raising the level of professionalism and production values in Nigerian cinema.

Now, between 500 and 1,000 feature-length movies are made each year, selling well across the continent of Africa. Average productions take 10 days and cost around US $15,000 ( Nollywood stars are famous throughout Africa – and Nigeria culturally dominates West Africa just as the US does the world. It is estimated there are 300 producers and that 30 titles go to shops and market stalls every week. On average, a film sells 50,000 copies: a hit will sell several hundred thousand. With each DVD costing around US $2, it is affordable to most Nigerians and very profitable for the producers.

“These are stories about Africa, not someone else’s,” well-known actor Joke Silva told the Christian Science Monitor.

Focused on Africa, the films’ themes revolve around AIDS, corruption, women’s rights, the occult, crooked cops and prostitution. They do so well because they speak directly to the lives of slum-dwellers and rural villagers.

“We are telling our own stories in our way, our Nigerian way, African way,” said director Bond Emeruwa. “I cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what his story is all about. He tells his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too.”

The big brands – Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Canon – all produce cameras capable of high-definition digital filmmaking and these have become the staple tools of this filmmaking revolution.

More and more, the films are capitalising on the large African diaspora around the world, on top of Africa’s large internal market. And this is offering a step-up into the global marketplace for Nigerian directors and producers.

The Nollywood phenomemon has been documented in the documentary This is Nollywood, directed by Franco Sacchi, a teacher from the Center of Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University.

The prospects for the industry are only looking up: the Nigeria in the Movies project has been launched to help grow the industry, establish standards, improve distribution and broaden its international appeal and awareness. It also offers filmmaking grants for neophyte filmmakers.

Of course, filmmaking can be a tricky business: authorities in largely Muslim northern Nigeria have imposed 32 restrictions on the local film industry — nicknamed “Kannywood” after the city of Kano. A six-month ban lost the industry US $29 million and put thousands out of work: a sign of the economic importance of this DIY filmmaking business. The message is clear: filmmakers need to be sensitive to the cultural norms of the communities in which they work.

Kannywood, started in 1992, has 268 production companies and 40 editing studios, employing over 14,000 people.

Adim Williams is one Nigerian director who is getting an international audience. He spends about US $40,000 on films that take two weeks to shoot. He has already secured an American release of a comedy, Joshua. Another director, Tunde Kelani, is regularly featured at international film festivals, where Nollywood screenings are more common.

And some, like young director Jeta Amata, believe Nollywood’s cheap, fast-production, DIY approach has a lot to teach Hollywood, with its expensive filmmaking and ponderous production cycles.


  • This is Nollywood: A documentary about Nigeria’s booming movie industry.
    There is also an inspiring trailer to the film here.
  • The global charity Camfed (dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls and empowerment of women) has projects to teach women filmmaking skills.
  • Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadoogou 2009: Africa’s biggest film festival.
  • Naijarules: Billing itself as the “largest online community of lovers and critics of Nollywood”, an excellent way to connect with all the players in the business.
  • Nollywood Foundation: Based in the US, aims to bring Nigerian films and culture to an international audience and to promote new films and new media.

Published: March 2008

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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This work is licensed under a
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One of the many stories we covered on Africa’s fast-growing cities from 2007. It was witnessing first-hand Africa’s innovators and their adaptive use of mobile and information technologies that inspired us to give birth to Southern Innovator’s first issue.

Cited in Innovation Africa: Emerging Hubs of Excellence edited by Olugbenga Adesida, Geci Karuri-Sebina, Joao Resende-Santos (Emerald Group Publishing, 2016).

Cited in Innovation Africa: Emerging Hubs of Excellence edited by Olugbenga Adesida, Geci Karuri-Sebina, Joao Resende-Santos (Emerald Group Publishing, 2016)


© David South Consulting 2021