Now in its 18th year, the Havana Film Festival New York continues to prove why it’s one of the most exciting Latin American movie programs around. With projects hailing from all over the Americas—from Canada to Argentina—this annual fest provides an eclectic mix of flicks that show the wildly talented work of directors from the region. Kicking off with the story of a young boy who dreams of being a pianist, closing with a documentary about Cuba’s music scene, and even featuring a screening of a film on the great Ernesto Lecuona followed by a musical performance honoring his work, this year’s lineup looks specifically tailored for lovers of Cuban music.
In addition to its juried program, HFFNY is paying homage to Cuban animation director Juan Padrón with three of his films, including the classic Vampiros en la Habana!, as well as hosting an In Memoriam segment dedicated to Eliseo Subiela, the Argentine director who passed away just this last December. Add to that a special program on Cuban music, an exhibition of classic Cuban film posters, and even a panel discussion on Cuban Cinema today, and it’s undeniable that there’s an embarrassment of riches at this year’s fest.
We’ve combed through the full lineup and while we’d recommend catching as many films as you can make time for, we know that choosing what to watch can be overwhelming. So let us help with our top picks below.
The 2017 Havana Film Festival New York runs March 30 – April 7, 2017.
A pizzeria may seem a modest venture, but for the three enterprising habaneros at the center of Cuban filmmaker Patricia Ramos’ winsome feature debut, success in the pizza business holds the promise of prosperity, purpose and, just maybe, love and happiness. A deliciously off-beat romantic comedy, On the Roof offers an impeccable balance of colloquial charm and universal appeal. Ramos and her excellent cast have crafted highly relatable characters with varying degrees of ambition, ingenuity and quirk. Some current Cuban films seek to correct sweeping social ailments; by contrast, Ramos and her collaborators understand that sometimes the world is changed one dream at a time
According to official reports, an armed scuffle between the Venezuelan military and guerrilla fighters on the border between Colombia and its western neighbor left 14 men dead. Seeing as The amparo is set in the 1980s, the story is shocking to those watching news reports but something seems off. For starters, two of the men who survived the crossfire and who are quickly taken to a jail in their hometown, claim they had all been fishing in the Arauca river and have nothing to do with Colombia’s armed conflict. As tensions begin, the two men will have to choose whether to fight for what they know is true and risk staying in jail or corroborate the official story, sully their friends’ names but walk away free. Based on true events and beautifully capturing the beauty of the Colombian/Venezuelan border, Calzadilla’s moral thriller illuminates the complexity of finding truth in a time of conflict.
Tall, dark, and handsome, Julián steps off a bus, hands over his clothes, gets his long curly locks chopped off, and becomes fresh meat walking inside the Najayo Prison in the Dominican Republic. He locates his cellblock underneath the moist corner where the Woodpeckers perch. Woodpeckers—prisoners who romance ladies incarcerated at the women’s prison 150 meters across the way—spend their days in affectionate conversation with their lovers through sign language. When Julián encounters Yanelly, a gorgeous spitfire of a woman, he finds love in the last place he imagined. Now he must find a way, through cement, barbed wire, dozens of guards, and murderous exes to win Yanelly’s love, all the while keeping it secret.
When his father, a famed boxer, is sentenced to jail, Andres’s family decide that it’s best to ship off the young boy to Washington where he’ll have a chance to have a better life. But ten years later, when he returns to Panama to mourn his grandfather, Andres’s life (and his relationship with his father, family, and childhood sweetheart) will upend everything he had established for himself abroad. Named after a fictional run-down neighborhood in Panama City that all but tells you to get out while you can, Salsipuedes is at once a celebration of the resilience of Panamanians and an indictment of the status quo which keeps people in lower class barrios from the presumed economic boon the country so exults.
Jeffrey has all the makings of a heartwarming tale: its protagonist is a twelve year old boy trying to get by in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He works as a windshield washer and, in his spare time, recruits his older brother to help him record the reguetón songs he composes about his own life. To get to know Jeffrey as we do (following him in the heat-filled traffic on the streets, in the modest living quarters he shares with his family, and in the quiet spot up a tree where he decompresses) is to see the beauty of documentary filmmaking at its best. At times, Yanillys Perez’s feature project almost feels like a narrative film: that’s how carefully constructed it is and how engaging her rapport is with the young powerhouse of a performer.
Esteban, who lives with his mother in Havana, dreams of only one thing: becoming a pianist. The imposing instrument calls out to him even though he cannot even afford a single piano class. But through sheer determination, this young wide-eyed boy will fight to achieve this dream. Looking to show what director Jonal Cosculluela Sanchez calls the harsh side of the current situation in Cuba, this uplifting drama features music by Grammy Award-winning musician Chucho Valdés.
The Forbidden Shore
Ron Chapman’s The Forbidden Shore feels like a natural outgrowth of his 2015 documentary The Poet of Havana, which focused on world-renowned Cuban musician Carlos Varela. With access to over 40 artists and showcasing plenty of live performances, this ambitious and vibrant film chronicles the rhythm of the islanders, providing an exhaustive look at the varied musical scenes in Cuba. Pulsing to the beat of everything from classic son and salsa, to trova, nueva trova, reggaetón, rock, jazz, metal, rap, electronic, classical, choral, pop, changu, danzón, rumba, yoruba, bolero, conga, timba, mambo and everything in between, this dazzling music doc works to flesh out its guiding message: “Cuba es música.”
Tennessee Williams’s famed 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire continues to inspire artists around the world. In Kiki Alvarez’s docufiction hybrid film, Sharing Stella, the Cuban director takes us back to 2014 when a director is hoping to stage Williams’s play. But where others would be focused on its two titanic characters Blanche and Stanley (played by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the silver screen adaptation), we follow instead someone obsessed with Stanley’s wife, Stella. As he begins the casting and audition process word of thawing U.S.-Cuba relations (including Barack Obama’s speeches on the issue) begin to seep into the production, changing the very dynamic of this group of artists.
Pavel Giroud and Juan Manuel Villar Betancort’s music-filled documentary is a well-deserved tribute to the late Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona. The film is guided by Chucho Valdes, Michel Camilo, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, three of the most gifted Latin Jazz pianists in the world. In between loving renditions of Lecuona’s music (including performances alongside Ana Belén and Esperanza Fernández), they all share memories of the talented artist, making Playing Lecuona a soulful musical memoir.
Fátima o el parque de la fraternidad
Based on the short story by Cuban writer Miguel Barnet of the same name, Fátima o el parque de la fraternidad tells the tale of Manolito, a young man who moves from the countryside to Havana. The move, as he tells us in voiceover is because “en pueblo chiquito, infierno grande”—that small town felt like a suffocating hell to him. When he arrives at the Cuban capital he begins cross-dress and to turn tricks on the street, giving viewers a look into the seedier but no less fabulous life that lies behind the life of the woman he becomes, Fátima, Queen of the Night.