Meet the Film Programmer Spotlighting Cuba’s Young, Independent Directors

Photo: Andrew S. Vargas for Remezcla

We’ve already made it abundantly clear that Cuba boasts one of the world’s most historically significant film industries, but after the fervor of the revolution gave way to wonky, repressive Soviet-style politics in the 1970s, the country’s artistically daring cinematic output also took a bit of a downturn. Of course, the ’80s and ’90s are still full of noteworthy exceptions — like 1988’s Plaff, or 1991’s Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas, and of course 1993’s Oscar-nominated Fresa y Chocolate  but there’s no question that Cuba’s official cinema was in crisis.

By “official” of course, we’re referring to movies produced by the state film studio, the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC). Much like the rest of the country’s institutions, the ICAIC eventually became a heavily bureaucratized mouthpiece for official politics run by a cabal of revolutionary OGs, with little room for new voices or visions. Enter the Muestra Joven, also known as the Muestra de Jovenes Realizadores: Cuba’s unique space for screening, discussing, and generally contemplating the work of the island’s young generation of filmmakers.

Unlike Cuba’s marquee fest, the Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, the Muestra Joven seeks to shine a light exclusively on local filmmakers who are often still finding their voices. But what the Muestra lacks in production value or international projection, it makes up for in raw energy and enthusiasm. By having its finger on the pulse of the freshest tendencies cropping up both in Havana and the island’s often overlooked artistic outposts in the provinces, the Muestra takes an innovative approach to the sometimes stuffy institution of the film festival.

To get a sense of the importance of this space in the past, present, and future of Cuba’s ever-evolving cinematic identity, we sat down with Juan Carlos Calahorra, one of the Muestra’s guiding figures. A filmmaker himself, Calahorra started out collaborating with the Muestra as a member of an advisory board before joining the festival’s selection committee and taking over as director of the Bisiesto, a critical companion publication that is distributed during the festival.

Take a minute to check out some of Calahorra’s reflections on his own background, the important work being done by the Muestra, and what’s really going on with all these changes in Cuba.

On Making the Promise of “Young Cinema” a Reality

The National Showcase of New Filmmakers, at it was called in its early stages, began in 2002 as an effort by the ICAIC to identify and recognize young filmmakers, and recruit them into the ICAIC studio system. Of course, this was also in line with the desires of those same young filmmakers, who were clamoring for a place to create within the industry, which was at a low point but still maintained its historical prestige. While in the 1980s amateur filmmakers called “cineclubistas” (equivalent to the “young filmmakers” of the 2000s) received material support from the ICAIC in the form of film stock and other facilities, after the crisis of the 1990s the ICAIC couldn’t do much more than offer a space for exhibition and some important symbolic capital.

Over the course of these 15 years, the Muestra has tried to validate the idea of continuity between Cuba’s historical “adult” industry and the new works of young filmmakers. Or in other words, to give them pedigree. And I think the greatest change we’ve seen over these past years is that the promise of a “young cinema” has become a reality, and even offers an alternative to that older cinema that is identified primarily with historical directors, with notable exceptions like Fernando Pérez.

On Getting Involved with the Muestra

As a filmmaker nearly all my shorts have been presented at the Muestra, so I’ve grown up with it. Four years ago I was invited to be part of the selection committee, where each year we look to add someone from “outside” to make our work more transparent and democratic. And from there I’ve taken on other responsibilities until finally taking over the Bisiesto (daily festival guide), which is like making a film for me and satisfies my inclination toward the written word. For the last two years I’ve been one of five filmmakers who make up the board of directors, created to aid the organizing committee with with the design and organization of the Muestra, like a sort of active representation of the creators who breath life into the event and buffers against blowback.

On the Importance of the Muestra for Cuban Filmmakers

The Muestra is, together with the Havana Film Festival, the most important cinematic event in Cuba. It allows us to evaluate the evolution of new values, the emergence of new aesthetics, new themes and social or political concerns, and reflect upon all of this as a totality. I don’t know of any event that is more self-conscious, or that maintains a more open dialogue with the very creators it represents. Especially with younger directors, the hope of seeing your film in the Muestra continues to serve as an incentive to creation. And I think specifically about the works created outside of Havana; there’s a whole segment of Cuban cinema from outside of the capital that has in the Muestra perhaps it’s only window for exhibition and analysis. In the few other film events that exist on the island, they show the film, few or no people go to see it, and it ends there. In the Muestra we write about the film, we discuss it in “Moviendo Ideas” and we show it in the best theater in Cuba, with the most history, which is the Chaplin Cinema.

On Feeling (or Not) the Changes in Cuban Society

We’ve seen some barriers start to break down, if not in the legal sense, at least in practice. Even though the government has yet to pass a film law and our guild’s proposals continue to be ignored, local filmmakers are looking for any alternatives within this idea of “alegality”: the government lets you do certain things without sticking its nose in. But the changes have been coming little by little, and none of it is very visible yet. The best (or worst) is yet to come.

“The changes have been coming little by little, and none of it is very visible yet. The best (or worst) is yet to come.”

On the True Evolution of Cuban Cinema

Honestly overall I haven’t seen any evolution other than in numerical terms, because there is much more output. I think if we could speak timidly about an evolution within Cuban cinema, this is on account of films made by a handful of young filmmakers. We could mention Caballos, by Fabián Suárez; or La Obra del Siglo, by Carlos M. Quintela; or La profesora de Inglés, by Alán González; or La Trucha, by Luis Ernesto Doñas, to mention a few examples. They are works by young people, works that have passed through the Muestra even if they didn’t need the Muestra to be seen. Works like this do suggest an evolution in Cuban cinema, but the true evolution is yet to come.

On His Hopes for the Future

I hope to see more diversity in our cinema, without abandoning the precept that the ICAIC held up in the first article of its foundational law: “Film is an art.” I want to see real opportunities for young talent, wherever they may come from; and I want to see us transcend this limiting idea of “cuban cinema.” I want us to make cinema first; cinema made by cubans.

Rather than reading words about our cinema — too many have been written already — I hope for you all to see and hear our cinema, in all its diversity.