The first time l went to a movie theatre in Cuba was a self-imposed homework assignment. l was studying Spanish at the University of Havana's excellent school for foreigners and working as a freelance reporter for the Canadian Press. My Spanish was getting better day by day, but every bit of practice helped, especially with the Cuban tendency to speak as quickly as their feet move on the dance-ﬂoor. No better Way to tune my ear, I told myself, than going to a Cuban film and having to ﬁgure out what was going on.
The Cine Yara was a familiar sight from my daily walk to the University through Vedado's neighbourhood streets. This movie theatre from the 1950s looms up from the comer of La Rampa and Calle L, just across the street from the hotel where Fidel Castro held court as a young revolutionary.
Lucky for me, a Cuban ﬁlm was playing the day l decided to visit the Yara for the ﬁrst time. It could easily have been a Hollywood blockbuster. Cubans love going to the movies and are up-to-date on all the latest American hits which play on the island more quickly than you would imagine. lt only costs a few pesos to get in and line-ups snake out in front of the Yara, day and night.
The theatre felt even bigger inside than I had imagined. There were a lot of people there, even though it was mid-afternoon on a weekday. It was too dark to see all the details of the decor but I felt like I had stepped back to an era when cineplexes hadn't been invented. The ﬂoor was sticky with spilled drinks and snack food, which is just how the ﬂoor in a movie theatre should feel.
The movie was called Mile Para Oshún (Honeyﬁn Oshún). Buying my ticket, I had no real idea what the title meant or what the ﬁlm was about. Humberto Solas's 2001 feature turned out to be the story of a Cuban who grew up in the U.S., where he was taken as a young boy. He returns to the island for the ﬁrst time as an adult to look for his roots and sets off on a cross-country adventure that is, by turns, tender and funny. His excitement with being in Cuba mirrored by own.
If you look up Miel Para Oshún on imdb.com, you might come across a couple of snarky reviews. Don't believe them. l liked it so much that I Went back a week later with a classmate to see it again. lt really helped my comprehension of the Cuban accent. And it was my ﬁrst experience of what I‘ve since realized is a Cuban tradition: the road movie.
Seeing Miel Para Oshún marked the beginning of my passion for Cuban cinema.
Since that work-study sabbatical in Havana -which ended all too quickly- I have tried to stay up-to-date with Cuban cinema from my home-base in Canada. Luckily, the Toronto International Film Festival often shows Cuban films, as do special retrospectives at places like the Royal Ontario Museum. And the independent video stores around town seem to have a pretty decent selection as well. I hope it's the same in other Canadian cities.
At the 2006 edition of the Toronto Film Festival, it felt like I had hit the jackpot after discovering two great Cuban movies playing that year: one a documentary, the second a feature. I was fortunate enough to meet up with the two young directors.
La Edad de la Peseta (The Silly Age) was Pavel Giroud's ﬁrst feature. He was born in Havana and studied at Cuba‘s International School of Film and Television (EICTV) where many of the country‘s top directors have gotten their start. The prestigious institute, located in the Havana suburb of San Antonio de los Baños, was founded in 1986 in collaboration with Gabriel García Márquez.
La Edad de la Peseta is set in 1958, just before the revolution, and tells the story of a 10 year-old boy struggling with an emotional coming-of-age that is juxtaposed against the political coming-of-age of the country. It is a tender ﬁlm, much like Miel Para Oshún.
That‘s one of the things I enjoy so much about Cuban cinema — how the ﬁlms never feel strident even though they have a strong sense of political consciousness.
Giroud described to me the fascinating challenges of filming a i958 story in contemporary Havana. Many visitors to the Cuban capital are swept away by architecture that so strongly evokes a sense of the past.
But for Giroud, it tums out, the hard part was not ﬁnding historical locations. The hard part was blocking out the modern buildings that had gone up beside the old ones. Giroud explained that much of the camera work for La Edad de la Peseta had to be shot up-close so that contemporary references wouldn't ruin the sense of continuity.
Camila Guzman Urzua's El Telón de Azúcar (The Sugar Curtain) was the second ﬁlm about Cuba I saw at the Festival. The ﬁlmmaker, now based in Paris, was born in Chile and moved to Havana when she was two years old. She lived there during her childhood and adolescence.
Like the two feature ﬁlms I have described, this documentary conveys a strong sense of tenderness towards Cuba and its socio-economic goals, even from those who had leﬁ the country. Guzman Urzua takes her camera into Cuban schools and succeeds in capturing a vivid portrait of the idealism that drives this country’s citizens, be they young or old.
I don't know if any of these three ﬁlms have been widely distributed in Canada but I'm quite sure your local video store will have at least some examples of Cuban cinema, such as the perennial favourites like Academy-Award nominee Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry or Chocolate) or Guantanamera.
Seeing the country portrayed on screen - whether you're in your Canadian living room, in Havana's Cine Yara, or in one of the island's other movie theatres- is an incredible way of getting yourself into the mindset of this magniﬁcent country. To say nothing of getting your Spanish up to scratch.