Havana, December, 26th, 2017 (Douglas Fahleson). The Lumiere brothers first brought cinema to Havana in 1897 and it has been deeply ingrained in the Cuban culture ever since. The Golden Age of Cuban cinema occurred during the first decade following the 1959 revolution, as a result of the creation of the Instituo Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC).   The government actively supported filmmaking and numerous high quality productions were made during this period with many still considered to be classics.

International co-productions became more prevalent during the subsequent decades, especially with other Latin American countries.  However, the Cuban cinema industry suffered heavily during the Special Period after the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990’s.

But this didn’t have much impact on the Havana International Film Festival, which first took place in 1979 and has continued uninterrupted every year since.  The latest installment marked the 39th anniversary of the festival. 

Havana is a city that is somewhat trapped in time.  Immaculately maintained pre-1959 trade embargo cars populate the streets.  These are predominately 1950’s U.S. classic cars – Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Chryslers, Studebakers, Pontiacs, and others that now serve primarily as taxis to support the livelihood for their owners and drivers.

The architecture is also trapped in a timeless beauty.   Though the buidings are still strong and appealing, the exteriors are peeling and decrepit.  If the country is truly ready for a post-embargo makeover then it shouldn't take too long as the foundation is there, ready for its facelift and tummy tuck.

The Havana Film Festival, which ran from December 8th to the 17th, celebrates "New Latin America Cinema,” and showcased approximately 400 films.  Cubans have a vast love of cinema and they literally lined up by the hundreds around the block as they waited for screenings.  Now that the political climate allows for a more openness to foreign cinema there is a great hunger to consume this form of art.

The festival screenings were, for the most part, very crowded and represented by Cubans of all age groups, which was fantastic to see.  It also helps that the ticket prices are very affordable for the average Cuban.  In fact, the crowds were so vast at one of the screenings of a Cuban film (Sergio & Sergei) that the police were called to control the surging crowd.  Nobody was hurt but this gives you an idea of the popularity of the festival, especially for those films from Cuba.

SIGNIS is one of the independent juries that has had a longstanding tradition of participating in the festival.  I am extremely fortunate to have been a part of this year's jury.  SIGNIS brings together professionals from cinema, television, radio, media education and new technology in order to serve the objective of creating a culture of peace through the media.

The task of the SIGNIS jury was to view and critique the 19 films from the Official Selection and select the film that best represented our SIGNIS criteria -- a film of high artistic quality with inventive expression that has a universal impact, represents human progress and Christian responsibility, and projects the transcendent dimensions of life.

The Official Selection films came from seven Latin American countries and 8 of these 19 films were directed by female directors.

The mix of films in this year’s festival seemed to be concerned either with a societal recognition of its past or a particular critique of itself in the modern day.

There were several films that that were historical in nature; a sign of looking back and reflecting on a nation's past and putting it in context with the reality of who we are now.  Zama, an Argentinian co-production with seven other countries, set in the 18th century and based on Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel.  Joaquim, a Brazilian film that follows the 18th century independence fighter Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier.  Another Brazilian entry, Vazante, set in luscious black and white in the 1820’s, focuses on race, class, and gender.  And the more recent past is represented by the Cuban film, Sergio & Sergei, which was a crowd favorite in Havana and inspired by real 1991 events between a Russian cosmonaut and a Cuban teacher.

The bulk of the films concerned families either with, trying to have, or protecting their children.   Tesoros, a film from Mexico, highlights the importance of childrens’ imagination.  Set in 1970’s Mexico, Restos De Viento focuses on a single mother protecting her children while fighting her circumstances with alcohol.  The Chilean film Los Perros follows the trivial pursuits of an overindulged adult daughter of a wealthy industrialist.  Aos Teus Olhos, a savvy commentary on social media’s harmful effects on youth.  Filmed in Buenos Aires, Alanis, a prostitute struggles to make a living while caring for her baby.  Another Argentinian film, Invisible, follows a girl who is confronted with having an abortion that the baby’s married father arranges and pays for.  Una Especie De Familia addresses the moral dilemma facing families when a planned adoption goes awry.  And the Mexican effort Las Hijas de Abril tells the story of a 17-year old pregnant girl who reaches out to reconnect with her estranged mother.

And finally, films about connections, whether it be for comfort or love or family.  The Chilean film Una Mujer Fantastica follows the pain of a transgender who loses her lover.  Carpinteros from the Dominican Republic, is a unique love story that occurs between a female prisoner and a male prisoner who navigate distance and separation to be together.  And the Brazilian O Filme Da Minha Vida which highlights an adult son reconnecting with his distant father.

Our jury met on several occasions during the festival to discuss the merits of each film.  The debates were constructive and paid particular attention to how the films conformed to our SIGNIS criteria.  In the end there was unanimous agreement.

The SIGNIS jury awarded its Prize to Aos teus olhos (Liquid Truth) directed by Carolina Jabor.  This film highlights the human complications and dangerous consequences that can occur from the malicious misuse of social media.  Ms. Jabor delicately walks the thin line of truth taking the audience on a journey of perspective – did the protagonist do what he is accused of or didn’t he?

The truth is neither black nor white but a shade of grey instead.  A young man’s life and reputation is turned to shambles by a simple accusation made by a person with their own selfish motivations.

The jury also has awarded a Commendation to Plaza Paris, directed by Lucia Murat.  This film is a psychoanalytical study of countertransference between a foreign student in Brazil and a university employee from one of the favelas.

The festival was well-organized and spread out among a number of central Havana cinemas.  This gave visitors an opportunity to see much more of the city than a typical tourist.  Havana is a unique and special city somewhat trapped in time with a wonderful population of citizens.  If you ever have an opportunity to visit, try to do so in early December so you can attend some of the festival screenings.