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The Havana Film Festival in New York Celebrates 15 Years

Since 2000, the Havana Film Festival in New York has been bringing Latin American cinema to New Yorkers—and after 15 years, it is still going strong.

Despite its name, the festival doesn’t limit itself to showing Cuban films. Its goal, said creative director Diana Vargas, is to place Cuba within a larger Latin American context and generate a better understanding of the region. This year’s festival includes 45 Latin American films—of which 26 are Cuban productions from the past 55 years. While the festival hasn’t always featured a majority of Cuban films, this year’s selection centered on films from the island as part of the festival’s 15th anniversary celebration.

Cuban and migrant-themed films dominated the closing night awards presentation at the NYC Directors Guild Theater on Friday. They competed for the Havana Star Prize in the categories of "Best Feature," “Best Director,” “Best Documentary,” “Best Screenplay,” “Best Actor,” “Best Actress,” and “Special Jury Mention.”  No one seemed surprised when Conducta (Behavior), the newly released Cuban box office hit about a young boy and his sixth grade teacher, won the “Best Feature” award. Conducta filled the NYC Directors Guild Theater during the opening of the festival on April 3, as well as the Quad Cinema in its second showing the following Saturday evening.

Cuban director Jorge Perugorría's latest film, Se Vende (For Sale), also packed the Quad Cinema on Tuesday night. The audience laughed at the dark comedy’s morbid humor and social commentary.  Se Vende tells the story of a young Cuban woman who is forced to sell her deceased parents’ bones for some extra cash. “It is a metaphor for Cuba’s recent economic changes taken to the extreme,” said Perugorría.  “As Cubans, we have developed a great capacity for survival. Since we were born, we were in crisis [...] but that hasn’t taken away our will to live.”

While Se Vende provides commentary on the frenzy caused by Cubans’ recent ability to buy and sell property, the themes of survival and willpower span many of the festival’s films. “It’s very Latin American [...] that mentality that you have to survive,” said Vargas, who believes that the festival’s audience has learned to see Latin America in a different context.

“There are so many stereotypes about Latinos in general, and about Cuba and countries that are in particular political or social situations,” said Vargas. “The types of films we bring here try to make people see those countries in a different light. And I think we have succeeded with that,” she added.

To create dialogue and challenge stereotypes about Latin America, Vargas and staff carefully selected films from across the hemisphere ranging from classics, shorts by emerging directors, and releases from the past two years.

Many of the films featured in the festival use personal narratives to explore social and political issues in the region.  Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro—already a multi-award-winning film prior to the Havana Film Festival and winner of the Havana Star Prize for “Best Director”—tells the stunning and tragic story of four teenagers’ journey from the slums of Guatemala to the United States. While the film is not overtly political, the heart-wrenching trials of each character leave the audience wondering if there is hope for those on the fringes of the economy.

But in spite of harsh realities portrayed in many of the films, the region is changing. For example, Perugorría believes that the recent policy changes in Cuba—such as allowing local entrepreneurship and migration—are practical things that have a big impact on Cubans. “The country is going through a transformation process; mainly economical [...] and there is a lot of enthusiasm.”

With new openings for independent artistic production—Perugorría’s film was independently produced in collaboration with the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry—ICAIC)—and new technologies that allow artists to work independently, Cuban youth have much more freedom to produce films and choose their themes.

Likewise, for emerging Chilean director of Las analfabetas (Illiterate), Moises Sepulveda, his home country is also going through transformations, many of them depicted in his film. Ximena, the main character in the film, “is someone who is illiterate but is learning to read, and is starting to understand her past to be able to write her future.”

For Sepulveda, Chile is going though a similar process—“students have taken the streets to question issues in the state’s educational system, but that has led to Chileans questioning a constitution created during the Pinochet dictatorship,” he said. “Twenty years later, we are discovering that we have an illegitimate constitution. [...] As a country, we are starting to read and say ‘maybe we didn’t understand the meaning of this.’”

The festival closed on Friday with a screening of The German Doctor by Lucía Puenzo, a story based on the World War II concentration camp officer and physician Josef Mengele’s exile in South America during the 1960s. Puenzo, the daughter of Luis Puenzo, director of the Academy Award-winning La Historia Oficial (The Official Story), brings to light an Argentina where Mengele and other wanted Nazis sought refuge after Hitler’s fall. The film is a work of fiction based on historical accounts of Nazi support in Argentina.

Perhaps because it brings this kind of focused, informed discussion about Latin America to film enthusiasts in New York City, the Havana Film Festival has always had an audience. Even with only five full staff members and a limited budget, the festival’s success, loyal volunteers and audience means it will continue to bring award-winning Latin American films to a diverse audience in New York for years to come.

Full list of 2014 Havana Star Award Winners:

Best Feature: Conducta (Behavior) by Ernesto Daranas (Cuba)

Best Director: Diego Quemada-Diez with La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Dream) (Mexico-Guatemala)

Best Documentary Film: Kites and Borders (De Cometas y Fronteras) by Yolanda Pividal (U.S.-Mexico-Spain)

Best Screenplay: Melaza (Molasses) by Carlos Lechuga (Cuba)

Best Actor: Reynaldo Miravalles in Esther en Alguna Parte (Esther Somewhere) (Cuba)

Best Actress: Alina Rodriguez in Conducta (Behavior) (Cuba)

Special Jury Mention: No robarás…  A Menos que Sea Necesario (You Shall Not Steal) by Viviana Cordero (Ecuador)

*Carolina Ramírez is a contributing blogger to AQ online. She works in the policy department at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Follow her on Twitter @CaroRamir.

*Rebecca Bintrim is an editor for Americas Quarterly and policy associate at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Follow her on Twitter @BeckieBintrim.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Havana Film Festival, Diana Vargas, Cuba, Migration

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