5 Questions with Cuban Documentary Director Javier Labrador

Javier Labrador Delofeu is Cuban cinematographer and director whose recent documentary Hotel Nueva Isla, co-directed with Spanish filmmaker Irene Gutiérrez, premiered in the Bright Future section of the Rotterdam film festival back in 2014. The film has since traveled the world and recently played in New York as part of MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight back in February.

A patient, observational portrait of a sickly man living in a squatter’s community in a rundown Havana hotel, Hotel Nueva Isla has garnered nearly universal praise from critics the world over. Here, Labrador Delofeu takes some time to talk to Remezcla about a life-changing gift from his father, the glory days of Cuban film and blurring cinematic boundaries.

When did you decide to pursue filmmaking?
When I graduated high school I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to study. Nothing motivated me and I figured I’d spent too much time sitting in a classroom listening to teachers. I needed something else. To motivate me to keep studying, my father gave me a videocamera. He doesn’t know it, but that changed my life forever.

‘Hotel Nueva Isla’
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I learned of the existence of the state Film Institute here in Cuba (ICAIC), which at the time was looking to train youths in the art of making films. And since I had already started filming little projects they included me in their productions as an apprentice. It was a beautiful time in my life when I still wasn’t clear about which role I wanted to take on, so I did a little bit of everything: assistant director, boom, prop man, extra, assistant camera and lighting. That was the best school.

Why have you tended toward documentary rather than fiction?
Little by little I passed through all the possible roles in the industry until settling on cinematography. That is my true passion and it’s what I eventually studied at the International Film and Television School (EICTV).

I don’t prefer one language to another (Doc vs. Fiction), but the freedom inherent within documentary and the possibilities it gives for experimentation make it much more free and innovative. Although, I have shot some very interesting narrative pieces and some terribly boring documentaries, full of clichés. In my school there is a phrase written on one of the walls: There are no documentaries or fictions, just movies. I think what’s most important is who you work with and the people you film, that’s what makes the difference.

‘Hotel Nueva Isla’
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What is the situation like for filmmakers in your country?
Compared to other countries in Latin America, Cuba was very privileged to have an industry and a film institute of considerable global importance, created in the 1960s. They were years of innovation where they made films of the stature of Memories of Underdevelopment, La Primera Carga al Machete or I am Cuba. But economic crises and political confinement brought that moment to a stylistic, economic and ideological halt.

Today the struggle for control [of the industry] no longer makes sense. New technologies opened up access to information and our films – produced on the margins of the film institute – make their way into the best distribution circuits in the world. It’s complex because this country can’t be compared to any other place in the world, and it’s precisely because of that isolation that the real work has yet to be done. Right now they are reviewing the laws and institutional policies in hopes of creating a Film Statute that would protect independent producers outside of the ICAIC. I assume there will be many years of trial and error, but at least things are starting to happen.

‘In Vanda’s Room’
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Which film has most inspired you and why?
One of the films that has most affected my way of both seeing and making cinema is In Vanda’s Room, an incredibly beautiful film by Portuguese director Pedro Costa. It was a film that without a doubt impacted my whole graduating class from the EICTV, precisely for its combination of the documentary gaze with a fictionalized treatment. It’s a film that blurred the boundaries between cinematic languages and created an extremely human document of a neighborhood and its inhabitants on the verge of disappearing.

What’s one film you’ve always wanted to make but haven’t been able to?
All of the films that I have dreamed of are still possible. But I have one in particular that is very dear to me that I pick back up every once in a while. The title is Estática Milagrosa and I’ve spent at least 10 years accumulating archival material.

A friend of mine once gave me a wise piece of advice that I hope to comply with soon: films are finished, not abandoned. That phantom-fantasy has haunted me every since.