The revolution is being televised

Cuba’s film school now accepts students from the English-speaking Caribbean. Ian Craig takes a workshop there

A Havana taxi or almendrón in the afternoon sun of Old Havana. Photograph by Ian CraigCameraman Justo Fuentes sets up a panoramic shot of Old Havana rooftops. Photograph by Ian Craig

“Socialist mosquitoes. Bred to suck your blood through American denim. And forget your repellent, they’re immune to that s—.” Assistant tutor Roberto offers this sage counsel as we swat ourselves in desperation on our first day at the International School of Film and Television at San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba (EICTV in Spanish).

Fifteen of us, from St Kitts, Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, are here to take a workshop in documentary filmmaking, the first course at the school specifically designed for students from the English-speaking Caribbean.

For a month, we will battle the mosquitoes, the embargo, the food—one of our number weeps on first contact with the canteen—whilst receiving world-class instruction from seasoned Cuban filmmaker Jorge Fuentes, a sparrow-thin black-tobacco smoker with venerable grey locks pulled back into a ponytail.

In less than a week, Fuentes whisks us through the theory of film structure and the history of documentary, from Vertov and Flaherty all the way to Michael Moore. On the last day before we are to be loosed on Old Havana to begin our filmmaking endeavours, he reiterates: “Remember, don’t look for a subject or a topic. Look for someone with a problem. You shouldn’t find it too hard round here…”

Primed and ready, we board the bus for Old Havana in search of the Truth of the Revolution.

Nobody argues that US$15 a month is the salary of a rich man. Some say being able to afford a heart transplant and a doctorate degree programme on such a salary, on the other hand, makes you richer than many.

Outsiders find much about Cuba that defies categorisation; the school, in its turn, is both Cuba and not Cuba. Of the 126 students currently taking the full three-year programme that trains fully-fledged film specialists, only around one fifth are Cuban, and over 20 countries are represented. Whilst many of the tutors are Cuban, many are not, and any fears of indoctrination harboured by the group are quickly dissipated by our tutor’s encyclopaedic frame of cinematic reference. Our main viewing exercise on structural analysis focuses on The Shawshank Redemption.

Established in 1986 by the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema, chaired by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, the school has become a byword for audiovisual creativity throughout Latin America and beyond (there are sizeable cohorts of Africans, Asians and Europeans, together with Puerto Ricans and Chicanos from the US).

The school’s list of teachers, too, includes staff from 13 countries, by no means all Latin American (Belgium, Angola and the US are represented, for example), whilst the visitors’ roster reads like an international Who’s Who of cinema, including such disparate directors as Steven Spielberg and Cheick Oumar Sissoko (Mali), and actors ranging from first-world celebrities Ralph Fiennes and Danny Glover to Latin American stars such as Argentines Ulises Dumont and Hector Alterio. The new director of the school, Tanya Valette, is a graduate of the school, but she too is not Cuban, hailing from the Dominican Republic.

As well as the three-year programme, the school offers numerous, very competitively priced short workshops, from documentary to directing actors, narrative structure to script-writing.

Hard to locate in terms of nationality, the school is also somewhat oddly located within the province of Havana. The only other lure that might attract visitors to the town of San Antonio de los Baños, some 15 miles outside the capital, is the Museum of Humour, founded here in honour of local political cartoonists under the Machado and Batista dictatorships, which preceded the triumph of the Revolution in 1959. In fact, the Finca San Tranquilino that houses the school is even some way outside the town itself. As the farmer bellows at his oxen in the early morning mist behind our sleeping quarters, the Cuba of myth and legend that ignites the imagination of most visitors—Tropicana, la Bodeguita del Medio, Plaza de la Revolución, Varadero—seems long distant.

A Cuban first-year student specialising in editing, Ilka Valdés Carrillo, says this relative isolation generates a very strong sense of collegial identity amongst those working and studying at the school, who regard each other in perpetuity as “Eictv-ans,” regardless of their original nationality. Aware of the drawbacks of living too long outside the flux of “normal life”—“Here, we miss out on a lot going on in the outside world, in Cuba and beyond”—Valdés is also acutely conscious of the rare luxury of not living cheek-by-jowl in a crowded block, like most other Havana dwellers: “The best thing about my life here is that I live on my own and nobody sticks their nose in my business, so I feel like I’m spending every available minute doing what I like best: editing movies.”
Free contact with foreigners is another obvious boon for local students: “Meeting young professionals from all over the world helps us to have a more honest conception of who we are, what we really want and how we can help. It allows us to see more clearly the messages we want to convey to the rest of the world through our daily work.

“It also opens up our notion of how the world really is, a notion that’s obviously restricted because of the whole embargo business and the problems we have with travelling abroad, which mean we often don’t really understand how things work, especially the film and audiovisual industries outside Cuba.”

The school’s in-between status manifests again while we are shooting our ten-minute piece on a young woman whose “problem” was that she was officially assigned to a communal bathroom that collapsed a couple of years back in her Old Havana tenement yard, never to be repaired. On Day Two, just as it begins to look like our star’s neighbours are loosening up and ready to talk openly, one of them shows up escorted by a policeman.

The tenant is the head of the building’s Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, the neighbourhood organisation to which everyone technically belongs and which polices “counter-revolutionary” behaviour. Our producer pulls out the authorisation letter signed by the Heritage Office for Old Havana, headed by the seemingly omnipotent City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler. The okay from Eusebio, as he is known, makes us pretty much untouchable. The policeman looks at it, nods and departs with the whistleblower, who shrugs resignedly. Our Cuban crew members snigger and bitch loudly about a—kissers whilst setting up the next shot.

The presence of significant numbers of nosey foreign film students around Havana, many hell-bent on uncovering “the Truth,” has not always been comfortable for the stalwarts of the Revolution who feel that some topics should remain taboo, at least in public. The early generations of students coincided with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, which kicked out the props from underneath the rickety centralised Cuban economy and precipitated the “Special Period” that still officially persists. One early San Antonio piece was on the black market and grifting for survival—“Anyone who tells you they’re not turning a trick to get by is lying through their teeth,” says one interviewee; another was a satire on official excuses for the constant power outages; yet another asked passers-by to speculate on what would happen when Fidel died. These are not subjects most Cuban filmmakers would want to pitch to the authorities. As we discovered, however, our dwindling fund for “fees” payable to the citizens “facilitating” our project on the ground proved more of a limitation than any official disapproval.

Cuba is changing; the school is changing. The Dominican Tanya Valette officially replaced founding member and film legend Julio García Espinosa as director last September. She diplomatically casts aside any notion that her status as a woman and a non-Cuban will somehow revolutionise the school, eschewing positive discrimination to bump up the current one-third proportion of female students, and preferring to stress her status as a former graduate: “I think the main component of my vision is the fact that the school is very deeply rooted in my life from over 20 years back.”

There is one point on which the new director is very clear, though: the school will continue García Espinosa’s mission to include the non-Hispanic Caribbean in its ambit of collaboration to a much greater degree than before.

“We want to overcome the language barriers, because above and beyond these barriers the Caribbean has a common cultural antecedent in Africa and a very moving history that is yet to be fully recounted on film. We will do everything possible to achieve more collaboration with the Caribbean region as a whole. It’s a challenge I want to take up as a means of paying homage to our indigenous forebears, who moved among our islands as if they were all one territory, before so many languages came to colonise us.”

For further information on programmes offered by the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión, contact: eictv@eictv.org.cu or Ian Craig: ian.craig@cavehill.uwi.edu.