Havana Film Festival New York

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The ninth annual edition of the Havana Film Festival New York (HFFNY), which runs this year from April 10th to the 18th , will show a selection of both  classics and emerging Latin American films at Quad Cinema. As always, the HFFNY presents a unique opportunity to see Cuban films that make its premiere in the US before – and could probably not even show if it wasn’t for this festival.  At the core of HHFNY’s mission, around 15 filmmakers each year from all Latin America to be present in panels, Q&A’s and other events. This year, the festival will honor Cuban director Juan Carlos Tabío,  Cuban actor Luis Alberto Garcia and American documentary filmmaker Estela Bravo.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with two key people that make the HFFNY happen: Founder and Executive Director Carole Rosenberg and Programming Director Diana Vargas. Carole, an art collector and longtime supporter of Cuban culture and affairs, is also the President of American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba (AFLFC), an organization that fosters exchange between Cuban and American artists and educators.   Diana Vargas, originally from Colombia and a filmmaker herself, is a tireless advocate of Latino cinema and Latino culture in New York. Besides spearheading HFFNY, Diana is also involved in Cinema Tropical, Queens Theatre in the Park, and Nueva York, a CUNY TV program in Spanish.

Over a tasty breakfast in Carole’s Upper Manhattan home that made me forget about the rainy and cold New York weather, Carole and Diana spoke to me about this festival, unique not only in its groundbreaking content but also for its inherent political tinge.

Remezcla: How did the idea of starting a New York version of the prestigious Havana Film Festival come about?

Carole Rosenberg: In 1999, the Cuban director of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema – which is also known as the Habana Film Festival and takes place every December – came to New York for the first time. I took him to the Anthology Film Archives for a new filmmakers’ screenings, and the idea to have a Cuban film festival in New York was dreamt up. Why Havana? As part of my cultural exchange activities with the Cuban and American artists and at the Festival de la Habana, the idea of creating a Cuban film festival in New York and inviting Cuban directors seemed enough of a reason. After the first HFFNY, which was only a Cuban film festival, we thought it made more sense to present Cuban films in the context with Latin American films as does the festival in Havana. This program is the biggest program of the AFLFC.

Diana Vargas: People tend to think here that Latin American cinema started with Amores Perros or Y tu Mamá También, but there is a long history of Latin American cinema – in fact it’s more than a hundred years old. We thought we should show the audience the trajectory of how Latin American cinema, that’s how we started to combine the classics with new releases.

RE: What are your criteria when choosing the films? How much do you depend on the repertoire of the Havana Film Festival in Cuba?

C.R.: Our aim is to premiere the latest award-winning films by the most recognized filmmakers in Latin America, as well as new directions by emerging filmmakers and great classics.

D.V.: We want to show a wide spectrum on the films being produced in Cuba – by ICAIC (Cuban Cinema Institute), the young filmmakers and co-productions with Spain, France and other countries. But because of the restrictions on how to get the films here, sometimes it gets very difficult. One of the things Carole has done with the Ludwig Foundation is also to provide ways in which filmmakers can subtitle their copies, something that many times keeps those films from being released in the U.S. Sometimes the films screened in “Festival de Nuevo Cine” (Habana Film Festival) come to the US first because distributors here keep an eye on those releases, especially on the hot filmmakers like [Argentineans] Carlos Sorín, Pablo Trapero and the ones in Brazil.
Now, there is a new phenomenon: Latin American films are hits in their local box offices – which didn’t use to happen, for example, in Bolivia or Guatemala. Those are films we want to share with our audience, because have a special value: they show a country and its culture.

RE: Why do you think that Cuban films are not that well-known around the world,  even with such a ground-breaking  film school and tradition?

D.V.: The Cuban cinema was very important opening a path for Latin American cinema in the sense of a political concept – not only about politics, but the use of cinema as a cultural tool, for any country. Julio García Espinosa, a leading Cuban filmmaker, said that a country without cinema it’s a country without history and without memory. There is another part: the industry. Cuban cinema (and the rest of Latin America) is a little behind in terms of knowing how to deal with the product. In Europe, especially in Spain and France, Cuban cinema is well-known. In fact, some Cuban actors have made a career there, like Mirta Ibarra, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García… But this cinema hasn’t been able to create a star system. They are famous actors in their countries, but there is no industry to create a buzz around them so that people maybe go see a movie just because of the celebrities. But the market is changing and theatrical releases are not so important anymore, with DVDs and TV.

C.R.: I do think Cuban cinema is getting recognition all over the world, winning prizes at film festivals. It’s just here in this country, because of the relationship and inability to bring the films here. That’s one of the reasons we try to bring as many of the Cuban films, classics and new releases.

RE: Why do you think that in the past 20 years Latin American cinema has captivated world wide audiences more than ever?

D.V.: Before, Latin American cinema was very political and socially-oriented, with Tomás Gutierrez Alea [Cuba], Miguel Litín [Chile], Fernando “Pino” Solanas [Argentina]. Those kinds of filmmakers had a commitment with society, they wanted to change those social issues like poverty or inequity through cinema. But then, the new filmmakers were influenced by MTV, the internet and a world where everything goes faster. They are producing stories that are more related to the world in general, and not only to their countries. They are stories that can touch anybody in the world.

RE: Why is it so difficult to distribute Latin American films in the U.S.?

D.V.: Right now, we are in a transition because the new technologies. The classical system of “theater release first” is unclear now, and the distributors don’t know what to do. To distribute a film right now takes a lot of that cash and they are not willing to do it. It is changing and getting better: you can find DVDs and TV stations dedicated to Latino cinema, and people refer now to Latin American cinema in a different and more interested way. Another problem is the clearance. In Latin America you probably use a Beatles’ song, and then your film comes to the U.S. and it turns out you have to pay for that song what you spent for the entire crew of the film, so it’s a learning process.

C.R.: It’s more probable probably you’ll find a Latin American film in art houses. It’s not a great distribution like in 25 Multiplex screens, except once in a while for an unusual film, maybe by a very well known director.

D.V.: When the European Union was formed they decided that art is culture and can’t be treated as a product. So you need special laws to avoid people treating a film like any other product. Those things don’t exist here. To be screened in an art house would be fine if they were more, like in Europe, or if you get subsidize at least you could use money for promotions and compete a little more with bigger films. The theater owners don’t want to lose money.

RE: The New Children / New York Youth Program is one of the best initiatives in any U.S. film festival.  When did you start it, and what is the plan to follow up with the young filmmakers?

D.V.: Our program has filmmakers ages 13 to 23 years old. We are trying to show that cinema and art in general can change your life. A few kids from Bushwick (Brooklyn, NY) are presenting their second films. At last year’s screenings, when they saw they were able to answer questions from the audience and people were so enthusiastic, they worked for the whole year to produce the second part, so it’s going to be very nice. I hope these kinds of initiatives are repeated in other festivals.

C.R.: A few years ago, we were working with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and a Cuban project through the AFLFC. We were featuring Puerto Rican cinema and they asked us if we would be willing to give the awards to the seventeen kids that won the Learning Leaders prize. To see those children dressed up, coming to get their awards – and they actually got their awards that can treasure forever, it was a very heartwarming experience for me, to sign those awards, to be there and see them get them… The New Children New York Youth program just seemed natural, because it will make a difference in the future of these children’s lives.

RE: What will happen in the next edition of the Havana Film Festival in Cuba this coming December ’08 in this new era after Fidel?How will it affect the HFFNY?

D.V.: The festival itself (in Cuba) always brings films that are controversial, so I don’t think about a change in that sense. But one thing that affects the film right now is that filmmakers from the U.S. can’t go there. Beyond that is like any other festival in the world, with its own criteria. People tend to criticize but I’ve been to other Latin American film festivals, and what they do there with the little resources they have is amazing. Now that I know how to suffer a film festival from the organizational point of view, I can say their work is incredible.

C.R.: It’s a very important international cultural event, and in this new era there will continue to support it because of the magnitude and the quality. In terms of affecting the HFFNY, there will be a change only if the cultural exchange is opened up allow Cuban and American artists to freely travel between the two countries to promote the exchange of cultural and artistic ideas. Not only the Americans can’t go there, but also we can’t get visas for the Cuban filmmakers to come and participate in our festival because the American government is not issuing those visas. When we were able to get these visas it was incredible to attend a panel and have this discussion between the filmmakers and the audience. I can remember one panel we did “Meet the filmmakers”, where many of these important filmmakers hadn’t met each other in person before. And it was interesting to see their reactions discussing their problems with distribution or various issues in the industry. When a group of people get together it makes the problem a little bit easier to resolve. That’s what I think some of our panels directed toward the industry and the filmmakers have accomplished.

RE: What is that special ingredient you need in your festival so when its over, you can say “mission accomplished”?

D.V.: Carole is an educator by heart, so she is always pushing us to have the educational component. We’re increasing the free events each year. It’s beautiful to see people asking questions, raising hands so the director can explain directly a particular scene. Even for me, and I’ve s
C.R.: In January, people were already making reservations for the Met program. For me, the cultural exchange between the Latin American countries and the U.S. is important. To feature emerging talents in the U.S. film industry is important. We are always very proud when we see that a film we showed gets picked up. We are also very happy when we hear from the public that they’re seeing films that they would have never had an opportunity to see. That’s how we feel the mission is accomplished.

RE: How do you envision Latin American cinema in the next twenty years?

D.V.: In those countries where they had no cinema, they have filmmakers now and also schools – one of the keys to have more films coming. Those films are getting recognition by their own people. One of the problems before was that they were acclaimed in international festivals, but they weren’t successful in their own countries. So, what is the point in making a film if your own people don’t go to the theater? Rodrigo Bellot’s Quién Mató a la Llamita Blanca is a Bolivian film is now a huge success in Bolivia, with two indigenous actors in the line of Bonnie & Clyde. It’s the first time in Bolivian history that around ten thousand people approached the theaters. People are expecting their own films, which is very important. In Latin American we are learning also how to present the movie from the marketing point of view.

C.R.: Latin American countries are focusing more on supporting the art and culture, in a way that they can present themselves to the rest of the world. As long as the countries help new filmmakers develop by putting money into film schools, they will start to be seen more and more around the world.

RE: Please define the Latin American cinema in three words.

D.V.: Witty, repentant and risky.

C.R.: Innovative, cutting-edge and sexy. Now you have the Latin and the American points of view (laughs).

Diana Vargas and Carole Rosenberg
Victor Gaviria, Diana Vargas, Chicho Duran
Carole Rosenberg, Diana Vargas, and filmmakers during HFFNY 2007
Walter Salles and Carole Rosenberg