[Marxism] Attacks and Resistance in the Cuban Film Industry

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Nov 7 04:46:23 MST 2007

The Long History of Attacks and Resistance in the Cuban Film Industry

The cruel and irrational blockade of Cuba by the US government has
impeded the island’s motion picture industry and made it impossible
to buy needed equipment.

By: José Luis Estrada Betancourt

Email: joselestrada at jrebelde.cip.cu 
2007-11-02 | 11:07:57 EST


Since Steven Soderbergh’s debut film Sex, Lies and Video Tapes was
acclaimed by the public and critics, its director has been given
sufficient proof that he is a top-notch professional filmmaker. The
same happened with famous actor Benicio del Toro, with whom
Soderbergh decided to undertake two projects on Ernesto “Che”
Guevara: The Argentinean and Guerrilla, right after the two
individuals swept the box office with Traffic.

The Argentinian summarizes the life of the prominent guerrilla
fighter from where Motorcycle Diaries ended. The plot begins with the
arrival of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries on the
coasts of Cuba in 1956, and is centered on the offensive led by
Castro against the regime of Fulgencio Batista, a dictator supported
by the United States.

Like any self-respecting director, Soderbergh was not only interested
in collecting information about the fruitful life of Ernesto “Che”
Guevara, for which the cinematographer inevitably had to travel to
the island, but he also envisioned filming the movie in Cuba.
However, the absurd and irrational blockade of Cuba by the US
government required the film crew to be content with filming in
Spain, Mexico and other places in Latin America.

Although this event is unprecedented —though another important
antecedent was Sydney Pollack’s Havana— this ludicrous act has
occurred over and over again during the 47 years of flagrant
subversion by White House heads, who have each aimed at suffocating
the Cuban Revolution.

One of the most prominent cases last year involved Michael Moore, who
has had a lawsuit filed against him for shooting SiCKO in Cuba, not
to mention the pressure applied on producers who are interested in
shooting a film on the island about Earnest Hemingway.

“Of course, there are still producers and directors who want to shoot
in our country, but they are obstructed by the prohibitions imposed
by the blockade, said Luis A. González Nieto, deputy president of the
Cuban Institute of the Film Arts and Cinemagrapher (ICAIC). The
estimated profits that could be generated for the country by the
shooting of an average budget American movie fluctuates between two
and five million dollars, although the most important thing is the
cultural impact.”

The same happens when Cubans are the ones who need to enter the US to
shoot their works. This occurred to Arturo Sotto and his movie Peter
Pan Kid, a film whose cost will increase because of scheduling delays
and for having to be shot in other sites. “Something similar happened
with the documentary El Proceso, by Rolando Almirante, which looks
inside the rigged trial of the Cuban Five.”

Before 1959, Cuba was a lab of the United States, where they tried
out their latest technology —sometimes even before using it in other
developed countries—, and the film industry was no different. They
introduced pseudo cultural models, the so-called “American dream,”
through Hollywood and television productions.

Gonzalez Nieto recalls that a year after the triumph of the
Revolution, the impotence of the US government at that moment led to
the imposition of an unprecedented blockade. They prevented the
shipping materials and equipments from the United States. For that
reason, Soy Cuba, the first co-production between Cuba and the former
Soviet Union, opened other doors to an alternative market.

“The collapse of the socialist bloc forced us to restructure the
cinema once again. Of course it was extremely hard to think about the
possibility of buying spare parts to keep equipment working, or to
repair all the equipment we had in movie theatres. Adding to this was
the general decrease of movie audiences around the world.

“It is a long story, with plenty of acts of aggression, but it’s also
a story about resistance because, although they have tried to
suffocate us, they haven’t been able keep us from having national
cinema, internationally renowned, which deserves a place of
distinction on the Latin American scene, and which has even gained
limited opportunities in the United States. Likewise, they have not
been able to taint the prestige and reputation of some Cuban
filmmakers, who have not made any concessions to the market with
their works. Those are some of our victories over the blockade,” said
González Nieto.

“The list of resources denied us for this reason is long: spare
parts, inputs and equipment, such as film, chemical products for the
lab, accessory equipment...”

“Being the United States, the country with the most developed
audiovisual industry, we have either had to find alternatives in
other nations or find inventive solutions.”

“Look, I’m going to give you several examples. In 2006, the ICAIC was
able to purchase six video cameras and accessories; two of them were
high definition cameras, but this number well below our needs. The
total cost exceeded $85,000 dollars, a price which would have been
lower if we had been able to buy from the United States. Nor can we
buy Kodak film directly, because this is a brand commercialized by US

“As you know, the Dolby License, which is American, is indispensable
for our productions to be internationally distributed and marketed.
However, even when Cuba has sound laboratories with the required
conditions to be granted the license, this hasn’t happened; so we
have to obtain it through the participation of third-parties in our
productions. Just for this impediment, we had to pay thousands of
additional dollars so that our films met this requirement last year.”

Reasons and Vicissitudes

Tens of thousands of rolls of film and thousands of documentaries,
newsreels, cartoons, shorts and fiction feature films documenting the
history of Cuban cinema remain guarded in the vaults of ICAIC. This
is cinematographic patrimony of unquestionable value, not only for
Cubans but also for the world. We are talking about one of the
largest collections linked to the world left, to liberation
movements, Latin American cinema, the period of the pre-revolutionary
cinema in Cuba, etc. However, the corrosive effect of the US blockade
is more and more evident in the condition of this treasure. The
reason? The impossibility of acquiring the essential equipment,
technology and materials to carry out restoration and conservation

“Some of these resources,” González Nieto points out, “are almost
impossible to obtain; and those we get by means of complicated
commercial operations, rise in price notably, duplicating the
original price most of the time.”

“The lingering ‘special period’ affecting the Cuban economy after the
collapse of the socialist bloc, and the effect of the double
blockade, terribly deteriorated the conditions of the vaults and the
equipment used to preserve the cinematographic patrimony of the
nation. A recent estimate of costs to re-equip the industry and to
begin the gradual recovery and digitalization process, already
underway, came to a figure of about $3 million. The contribution of
the Cuban government and different forms of international cooperation
will allow this process to continue.”

“Nowadays, $139,900 dollars is needed to purchase film and chemical
products necessary for rescuing these patrimonial works. If there
wasn’t a blockade the cost would be $56,000, which is 40 percent

- Luis Alberto, one of the big problems that ICAIC faces at the
moment is related to air-conditioning in the main theaters in the
country and, of course, the storage vaults...

- Indeed. The purchases that we have to make to restore obsolete
equipment and repair others in service (in just the 23 main theaters
in the country) require an investment of $445,000 USD. Since it’s not
possible to have access to supplier-makers directly in such a large
market as that of the United States, the necessary investment is
duplicated. If one has to work in the entire network, which as we
know is vast, that figure would multiply even more.

- So what happens with the acquisition of video-projection equipment,
DVD players, etc.?

- Currently, the greatest impact is there, and in being able to have
sound systems and projection equipment, as well as ancillary hardware
like DVD players. The blockade forces us to look to other regions,
where the distance from the markets, the effects of middlemen and the
exchange rates affect us sharply. The cost for non-professional grade
video-projection equipment in Florida, for example, would come $3,000
dollars, while in Europe or Asia it’s almost twice that amount, about

We run into a similar situation with sound systems, video cassette
players, etc. We have to look for middlemen in Latin America, though
on average they charge premiums of more than 25 percent.

- Is there any way that we can assist Cuban cinema in breaking into
the US market?

- It’s impossible, which causes a serious hit to our sales. We are
unable to penetrate this market through the American Film Market or
NAPTE, where our work could benefit from the presence of buyers from
all over the world, and where there is the possibility of making
Cuban cinematography better known.

The revenue that could otherwise be brought in through these means is
conservatively estimated at $500,000 dollars above the current level.

“Likewise, the sale of Cuban cinema for via digital or satellite
means has not been possible up to now. Among other reasons, there is
an almost absolute predominance of American technologies and
companies. This means another loss of potential revenue in the order
of five million dollars annually.”

- It seems that ICAIC actors, producers and specialists are also
helpless in organizing exchanges with their American counterparts...

That’s true. The US government is also blockading its own film
directors and the American public, limiting their access to Cuban
cinematography. In 2006 alone there were 15 denials of visas to Cuban
film directors who should have been able to participate in important
promotional events in the US and Puerto Rico – events like the Havana
Film Festival (in New York), the Miami Festival of Cinema, and the
Silver Lake Festival. Among other actions, there stand out the visa
denial to filmamaker Jorge Luis Sánchez, the director of the
successful film El Benny, as well as our permanent representative to
the Conference of Ibero-American Film Authorities and to the
Ibermedia Program. The latter is related to the Summit of
Ibero-American Presidents, which normally take place in Puerto Rico.

Such a decision triggered indignation and protest from the
authorities who, acting in solidarity with Cuba, agreed to suspend
the meeting and to postpone it for another time and in another
country. In the same way —using justifications that are frankly
absurd— the Bush administration has denied visas to more than 60
Cuban directors and specialists of unquestionable international
recognition, and I am being conservative. The blockade is something
that not only rebounds in Cuba, but in that country.

“To our pleasure, there are increasing signs of support samples and
respect, not only by intellectuals, writers and artists, but by the
American people, who —like the Cubans— want to see our cultures
interact and be mutually enriched.”

Walter Lippmann
Havana, Cuba
"Un paraíso bajo el bloqueo"

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