Cuban cinema's new indie wave

How film-makers are breaking the mould in Cuba. On the eve of the annual Havana Film Festival, a camera crew wrap up a long day's shoot on the backstreets of the capital.

No Hollywood blockbuster, it's a low-budget music video for a band. Yet there is still something unique, almost revolutionary, about how it's being produced.

It's part of a new wave of independent film-making in Cuba.

Video clips, short films, documentaries and even successful feature-length movies have been made not through the state-run cinema industry, but by independents financed from abroad.

More and more, it seems, Cuba's film-makers are striking out on their own.

Leading the way is director Pavel Giroud. His latest movie, El Acompanante, examines the Cuban government's handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Set for its Cuban premiere during the Havana Film Festival, it is an independent co-production with support from France, Venezuela and Colombia.

"This is an indie film," Giroud tells me during pre-production. "It doesn't pertain to any of the major studios around the world or in the United States."

It is also not tied to Cuba's state-run cinema agency, the ICAIC. "They are collaborating with us, facilitating and making life easier for us, for which we're grateful," Giroud says. "But they have no link to the production itself."

The film has been well received on the festival circuit, though given the subject matter - about how the authorities kept infection rates down by detaining HIV patients in a sanatorium - its director thinks it's not one the state would have made itself.

But he says it's encouraging that he was able to make the movie with no interference from above and he's urging the government to change the law to allow more productions to adopt his model.

"It's a blueprint which a group of film-makers and I are putting all our support behind. This is our best bet for the future," he explains.

But Giroud admits there isn't complete unity over the idea.

"Others disagree with me, including within the cinema community in Cuba. But I'm going to push for the ICAIC to become a film institute like anywhere else in the world - with links and relationships to the smaller production houses.

"I think that would be the most effective structure for Cuban cinema."

It's not just younger filmmakers who are calling for change.

One of the most established names in Cuban cinema is Fernando Perez. His small apartment, which has incredible views across Havana, is adorned with almost no mementos from his long and distinguished career in film.

In one corner, though, he's kept a festival prize for his 2003 film Suite Havana - a love letter and a lament to Cuba's beautiful, decaying capital city. It was made entirely via the ICAIC but Perez says there are now other options for making films on the island.

"You can now make independent cinema in Cuba," he says. "You don't need to wait for the industry to give you the opportunity to film.

"There's a whole batch of young people involved with this. And some not-so-young ones too!" he adds with a smile. "It's a phenomenon, which hasn't grown into a full movement yet."

'So many stories to tell'
Two years ago, a group of film-makers partly led by Giroud and Perez engaged the authorities in discussions over the creation of a new cinema law to redefine the way in which films are produced on the island.

The initial reception from the culture ministry was positive, and the President of the ICAIC, Roberto Smith, was keen to stress that the dialogue should not be characterised as a confrontation between Cuba's independent film-makers and the state.

Fernando Perez agrees that the debate doesn't have to be a clash of ideas. "Independent film isn't cinema that runs against the principles of the ICIAC," he says.

"On the contrary, many of these young film-makers and independent directors still dream of making a film through the ICAIC. That's not what this is about. It's about diversifying."

As well as diversification, though, it's about access. Perez joined the ICAIC when he was 17 but says he didn't direct his first film until his early 40s.

The veteran director is quick to acknowledge the importance of those formative years in building up his training and experience before he tackled his first feature.

But Pavel Giroud says today's generation of Cuban directors aren't prepared to wait so long for the state's approval and will pick up their cameras to make 'indie' films instead.

"We've spent decades training film-makers," he says. "You can't then expect those film-makers to wait until their 40s to make their films when they have so much to say in their 20s - especially when we live in a country with so many stories to tell, where there's a story on every street corner."

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