Ernesto Daranas, Director of Smash Hit 'Conducta' on Making Films in Cuba

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This interview is part of our ongoing coverage of the Havana Film Festival in New York (HFFNY). Last night the festival opened with a screening of Conducta and continues through April 11.

Since its premiere last month in Cuba, HFFNY’s opening night film Conducta has turned into a virtually unprecedented social phenomenon. Hordes of devotees have packed theaters night after night and turned director Ernesto Daranas’ second feature into the hot topic at bus stops, bodega lines, and ocean-side drinking sessions. Critics have echoed public opinion, anointing Conducta as “the one;” the film the Cuban people have been waiting for since Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Oscar-nominated Fresa y Chocolate sent shock-waves through the island in the early 90s.

To give a little context, Cuban cinematic culture is like perhaps no other in Latin America. Cubans are fiercely proud of their national cinema and consistently flock to Havana’s crumbling theaters to see their peculiar reality reflected on the big screen in the latest work by directors such as Jorge Perugorría or the recently deceased Daniel Díaz Torres. But, underlying this rabid devotion has been the messianic promise that one day the film would come – the film that would capture Cuban social reality in all its complexity, that would give voice to their frustrations and anxieties while still offering some hope for the future. For the moment, it seems that film is Conducta.

Needless to say, this fanatical reception hasn’t been without its detractors. Any outpouring of sentiment on the level that’s been seen over the last few months in Havana is going to generate strong feelings on the contrary but luckily the Havana Film Festival New York has brought Conducta in all it’s glory to New York for local audiences to draw their own conclusions and get a privileged window into life on-the-ground in Old Havana.

Although he was not able to attend the New York premiere, I had the chance to catch up with Daranas in advance of Conducta’s opening night screening and ask him a little about his career, filmmaking in Cuba and, of course, Conducta.

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What is your professional background? How did you end up making films?

I studied Geography but never practiced the profession. Before graduating I had already begun to write and direct for radio, theater and television. I came to film in 2008 thanks to a fund for low budget projects. That’s how I made my first film Los Dioses Rotos (Broken Gods).

Cuba is a country with a strong cinematic tradition. How do you think you fit within that?

The truth is, I’m not entirely sure. The two films I’ve made take place in the impoverished areas of Old Havana, which is the neighborhood where I’ve always lived. They are very personal themes for me and that determines how I approach the subject matter. But in general, I think Cuban cinema has shown a marked concern for social issues which has given us some of our most important works.

What do you think is the importance of film in a country like Cuba?

It’s almost impossible to conceive of a country without images that express it. Cuba is not an exception.

What specific challenges do you confront when producing a feature in Cuba?

Every possible challenge, but perhaps the most serious of them has to do with the absence of a film statute that structures, foments and defends our cinema in all of its aspects.

Could you talk about the process of fundraising for your first film, Los Dioses Rotos?

Los Dioses Rotos was a selected by the Ministry of Culture for a low budget film fund. In the actual execution of the project, the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) and Altavista Films became involved. The biggest difficulty we confronted had to do precisely with the lack of resources we had available.

After Los Dioses Rotos, what brought you to Conducta?

The same social concerns regarding the area where I live, this time having more to do with childhood and the role of the educator in impoverished areas. It started as a film workshop that I was able to share with a group of students from the film department at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA), and the creative exchange with them turned out to be very productive, as well as the exchange I had with the children who act in the film, neither of whom had previous acting experience.

Do you feel that there are new tendencies or a new generation of filmmakers that are coming of age in Cuba?

I think so. The important thing now is that they be given more opportunities to work and develop themselves professionally.

Conducta has turned into quite a social phenomenon in Cuba. Did you expect this type of reaction? How does it make you feel?

I didn’t expect it, at least not to this degree, and of course it makes us all very happy.

Now that Conducta is traveling – first to Guadalajara and now to New York – what hopes do you have for the future of the film?

It was really well received in Guadalajara and in Málaga we just won several prizes. These have been two really nice first steps that, beyond the prizes, tell us that the film can be shared with a broader audience. As for New York, we’re very happy that our principal actors and our casting director can be part of this festival.

Finally, what are your plans for the future?

Fight to make the stories that I’m interested in filming. Right now I’m prepping Pink Smoke, which is a somewhat zany comedy that flirts with the western and magical realism.