Last week saw Glasgow host the second Havana Glasgow Film Festival. Not a lot of people know this, but the cities are twin towns, and while they may not seem to have much in common at first, the cities do share a common interest in Bohemianism and socialism.
Both of these traits were in evidence during the festival, which showcased films from both Cuba and Scotland, as well as further afield.
While Cuban cinema came to prominence during the late 60s, as part of an international wave of high modernist cinema, it’s been relatively obscure of late, a situation the festival is at pains to redress.
The first film I saw was Solas, a biography of the late Humberto Solas, one of the pioneering directors of Cuban cinema. With extensive archive footage of the man, and generous contributions from his collaborators, this proved to be a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man. In some ways, his story paralleled Cuban cinematic history; after making a low-budget film about the revolution, he came to international prominence with Lucia, an epic film about three women at crucial junctures of Cuban history. Solas would concentrate on women in his films, as he believed their situation more accurately reflected what was going on in society, going on to make more lavish period films which have been compared to Visconti, as he couldn’t articulate his views on contemporary Cuban society because of censorship of his one film to do so, Un Dia de Novembre.
While these may have culminated in a spectacular international coproduction of Explosion in the Cathedral, a novel by the Cuban novelist who triggered magic realism, Alejo Carpentier, the collapse of the Soviet Union would see the island’s economy nearly collapse in the ‘special period’.
After some years of not making films, Solas would be one of the first filmmakers to embrace the possibilities afforded by digital video cameras, and would set up the Cine Pobre Film Festival - a Cinema of Poverty - for low budget films which continues to this day.
This year’s winner was Sean Baker’s Tangerine, an American independent which has attracted much attention for having been shot on a modified iPhone 5. The slightly synthetic, hyperreal look this grants the film fits perfectly with its subject, the lives of two transgender hookers in LA over Christmas. What makes this truly remarkable though, isn’t how it was shot, but the brutally honest and funny way it treats its subject, aided by two brilliant performances from actors who’ve pretty much lived these lives, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. They sashay through the film with a verve which the camera has to keep up with, taking us on a tour of LA rarely seen before on film, colliding with marginal subcultures far from Hollywood. This might be my new favourite Christmas film, though it definitely won’t be Donald Trump’s.
The relationship between Cuba and the USSR was humorously portrayed in Los Bolos en Cuba, a documentary which traced the special relationship between the cultures, with Cubans providing anecdotes of their personal experiences. If there’s a wave of ostalgie running through former East Germans, Cubans seem to have a similar nostalgia for the food and gadgets imported from the USSR. At the conclusion though, one ageing rocker eloquently speaks about the irony of his having found rock n’ roll through an indestructible Soviet radio tuned into American radio, and of Cuba’s struggle to define itself as a nation against such powers as Spain or the USSR.
A more productive working relationship with another country was traced in a fascinating lecture by Tatiana Signorelli, The Brazil-Cuban Connection, which showed how the Cuban Revolution inspired filmmakers in Brazil as well as Cuba. Brazil would be at the forefront of the explosion in Latin American political cinema, and indeed their most prominent filmmaker Glauber Rocha would be invited to work in Cuba, until the outspoken filmmaker offended Castro’s regime.
Where You're Meant To Be
There may be little cinematic connection between Cuba and Scotland (yet), but who needs an excuse to show Paul Fegan’s Where You’re Meant To Be? Seeing this film again, the first time I’ve seen it with an audience, and Fegan in attendance, only confirmed that it’s the most significant recent Scottish documentary. The film follows Aidan Moffatt as he tries to reinterpret traditional Scottish folk songs, which brings him into conflict with Sheila Stewart, the last living doyenne of the Romany tradition of folk singing. Beneath the bawdy humour is a powerful portrait of the search for authenticity in modern culture, and the dying out of tradition.
The festival concluded with a double bill of films by Juan Padron, Cuba’s most celebrated animator. Elpidio Valdes is a film every Cuban knows and loves from childhood, telling the story of the War of Independence against Spain. Although made in the 70s, it’s style of animation looks pretty primitive, like a TV show from the period; it’s hard not to warm to the film’s anarchic humour and rousing anticolonial theme though.
Vampires in Havana
Vampires in Havana is a much more sophisticated film, allowing Padron’s distinctive graphic style to come to the fore. A wacky tall tale of groups of vampires warring over a formula to protect them from the sun, it’s got almost too much going on, including some spectacularly politically incorrect humour, but it's a lot of fun.
While I got all the low humour, I suspect that some of the cultural allusions went over my head; it’s set in another troubled period of Cuban history in the 1930s, and there are specific allusions to this. In Cuba it seems, everything comes back to politics.
In any case, I hope to find out more about this fascinating culture and its cinema at next year’s edition of the festival.