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Havana Trump Card

Cuba–and Castro–go Hollywood at the island’s 22nd annual film festival.

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You know it’s not just another day at the movies when eight uniformed national guards stand watch over a theater’s front door. Or when the concession stand offers water from a barrel instead of soft drinks. Or when a screening is abruptly canceled because the projector fails.

Film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto are glamorous affairs with blinding star wattage and a giddy party schedule. But this is the Havana Festival of New Latin Film, held for the last 22 years in a Third World country 90 miles, and a world away, from America.

To borrow a line from Chris Rock, this festival is, like cash-strapped Cuba, livin’ la ”vida broke-a.” There are few official parties or receptions, and the city’s newest movie theater is almost as old as Fidel Castro’s 1959 Communist revolution — and in severe need of a paint job. ”We’ve had years when we can barely afford to do anything,” admits festival director Ivan Giroud. ”And even now, though things are a little better, we count every penny, and barely break even.”

Still, the 10-day exhibit of some 300 movies, held most recently Dec. 5-15, attracts more than 1,500 foreigners, and a smattering of Hollywoodites (in years past, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jack Nicholson; this time, Harry Belafonte and Robert Townsend). Among the winners, Sony Pictures Classics’ Brazilian-made Yo, Tu, Ellos took the festival’s top prize, the prestigious Grand Premio Coral. And a few American films, including Celebrity, The Virgin Suicides, and Being John Malkovich, made their Cuban debuts. ”For us, it’s more about the cultural exchange,” says Girlfight producer Martha Griffin, who traveled to Havana with director Karyn Kusama and actress Michelle Rodriguez. ”We just want more people to see our movies — wherever they are.”

In Cuba, of course, that is often easier said than done. Mix-ups are as common as sightings of ’56 Fords. Take filmmaker Rory Kennedy, who brought her Appalachian documentary American Hollow to 1999’s festival but didn’t get a chance to show it because the reel disappeared. ”I’d show up every day and [they’d] tell me, ‘Yes, yes, we received it, and we’re going to show it today.’ Then I’d go to the screening, and there would be some other movie that wasn’t mine,” she recalls. The print eventually surfaced at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, and Kennedy returned in December to finally see the film unspool. ”I really wanted to come back,” she says. ”Not only for the festival, but also for the experience of coming here.”

At this film festival full of ironies and contrasts, few things surprise. Not even its having the niece of the U.S. president who allegedly plotted Castro’s assassination bring her film to the very city where the failed scheme unfolded. Or that the intended victim is the festival’s most sought-after celebrity — like Redford at Sundance. With a penchant for showing up unannounced at festival events, Castro appeared on opening night, and Buena Vista Social Club crooner Omara Portuondo dedicated a song to him.