One Way or Another: The Havana Film Festival and Contemporary Cuban Film

Article excerpt

In December of 1993, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate, 1993) swept the awards at the Havana Film Festival (officially Festival del Nuevo Cine Latino-Americana 15, or the 15th New Latin American Film Festival). The film won the top overall prize (the Coral), the Popular Choice prize, best director, best actor, and the international critics' award, among others. That this film, directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and the highly respected young director Juan Carlos Tabio was completed and screened at all is astonishing, considering that discrimination against homosexuals is the central narrative theme of the film. It is all the more remarkable for a state that only as recently as the mid-1980s officially decriminalized homosexuality.(1) Fresa y Chocolate is not a film by an exile seeking to undermine the Revolution. Rather, it is the premiere film of a national Festival designed to show off the Cuban film achievement to the world. Alea is arguably the most accomplished and esteemed film director in Cuba, and the film was produced under the stewardship of the founding director of Cuba's National Film Institute, Alfredo Guevara, who is also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Also significant, this taboo-breaking film appears at the time of greatest economic crisis in Cuban history since the 1959 Revolution, one of only two films Cuba had the resources to produce in 1993. This "special period," the term leader Fidel Castro has given for the current economic and political crisis in Cuba, is the result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and subsequent loss of financial support from that area and Eastern Europe; the intensification of the United States blockade; and internal conflicts regarding the economic and political direction of the country. Resources in Cuba for film production are so scarce that Fresa y Chocolate was made possible only as a co-production of Cuba, Mexico and Spain. Moreover, as a result of this new period of economic scarcity, for the first time, monies for feature production must be generated by the commercial revenues of the films themselves rather than from state subsidy. In this sense, Cuba has already accepted the inevitability of an increasingly market-oriented economy, in which the film industry as well as other sectors of Cuban society must learn to compete.

The convergence of these new, and in some ways seemingly contradictory, factors in Cuba is particularly striking because of the special role Cuban film has played in the society. Film has been, since its inception, the preeminent cultural project of the Cuban Revolution, and Fresa y Chocolate represents a freeze-frame portrait, posing questions about the historic and evolving relationship of film and the film industry to the goals of the Cuban Revolution and acts as an expression of the current period of crisis.

The Film: Fresa y Chocolate

Fresa y Chocolate concerns the growing friendship of a gay artist and a young student in the late 1970s. They are introduced through a fairly transparent plot device: Diego, the artist, approaches David, the student and young communist, telling him he has pictures of David and the girlfriend who has just rejected him to marry an older, more financially secure man. In this scene, which takes place in the famous Copellia ice cream restaurant in Havana, Diego exaggerates stereotypically gay mannerisms, at one point lasciviously rolling a strawberry in his mouth to David's disgust and amusement. Diego gradually captivates David despite the latter's discomfort, partly because of Diego's charm, more because of his complete immersion in and passion for Cuban art and culture. Diego introduces and sensitizes David to literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. One critic, Frank Padron, called Diego "an authentic animator of culture."(2) The images and soundtrack of the film are filled with cultural references, from the baroque to graffiti. …


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