Why prostitution is a powerful metaphor in Cuban film | Film | DW | 08.11.2016
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Why prostitution is a powerful metaphor in Cuban film

Are films in Cuba censored? Why is prostitution a political symbol in Cuban films? DW spoke with the curator of Germany's FilmFestival Cottbus, which highlights Cuba this year, to find out more.

Film still Der König von Havanna (Filmax International)

Featured in Cottbus: "The King of Havana" about life in the capital in the 1990s

Founded in 1991 just after the fall of the Soviet Union, the FilmFestival Cottbus is regarded as the most important festival of Eastern European cinema worldwide. Held in Cottbus, southeast of Berlin, this year's festival looks beyond Eastern Europe to a country that was once a communist cousin: Cuba. The festival runs from November 8-13.

DW spoke with FilmFestival Cottbus' curator Wolfgang Martin Hamdorf to find out how recent political changes in the island country have impacted Cuba's tiny but fascinating film scene.

DW: Do the Cuban films that you're showing in Cottbus reflect recent political and social developments in the country?

Film still 12 Y Malecón, Habana (Academy of Media Arts Cologne)

A dorm building reflects social change in "12 Y Malecón, Habana"

Wolfgang Martin Hamdorf: Only partially. Cuban film has always dealt with social upheavals and grievances in some way. That's a tendency that Cuban film has shown since 1959. Recently, though, it's shown a sense of helplessness. Current changes are not concretely reflected.  

But the fundamental change that the island has been experiencing since the fall of the Soviet Union has always been a topic for Cuban filmmakers and for foreign filmmakers that come to Cuba to make movies. The year 1995 is important because that's when a new economic policy was implemented, which marked the country's worst economic period.

Looking at the program, I noticed that some films envision social change by using houses and buildings. Are they symbols of change in Cuba?

Yes. It's the first thing foreign filmmakers notice when they come to Cuba. Of course the old cars first, but then state of the buildings, which is very critical. The buildings reflect a certain immobility. An Argentine colleague told me last year at a film festival in Havana that in the past 10 years nothing had changed except that the old houses that were always in danger of crumbling had finally caved in.

Film still Havanna Mi Amor ( Achtung Panda! Media GmbH)

"Havanna Mi Amor" portrays Cubans' love for telenovelas

The famous Brazilian director Glauber Rocha once said that Latin America is a continent that is not so much in transition, but rather in trance-like motion that always leads back to the starting point. I think that's what makes the architecture so interesting for filmmakers.

Something else I noticed in the 2016 program is that "social outsiders" - like homosexuals, transsexuals, prostitutes and people with disabilities - appear in the films. Is there a reason for that?

That has been an issue since 1994 when the film "Strawberry and Chocolate" [Eds.: by filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea] was released in cinemas here. That was the first time that homosexuality was shown on screen. Since then, the issue has made its way through Cuban cinema. Homosexuality used to be officially repressed, but a lot has changed in the past few years. For example, Fidel Castro's niece has spoken out in support of transsexuals and against homophobia. That's also the focus of a documentary film called "Transit Havana." But these issues are also strongly represented in other films that aren't being shown in Cottbus.

Prostitution is also a very strong topic because it's a metaphor for the downfall of the system. Prostitution can of course not be reconciled with socialist ideas in any way. But it stands for the way the island is being sold out to foreign tourists and investors. It's an important topic.

Film still Habana (Autour De Minuit Productions)

Also on the program is a short sci-fi film from France called "Habana"

I found the issue of disabilities very interesting because it's not particularly common in Cuban film. We have two films on the program that touch on the topic - one feature film and one documentary. They ask how challenging it must be in such a difficult everyday life in Cuba to take care of a handicapped person in your own home.

What about censorship in Cuban film? How free are Cuban screenplay writers, directors and producers?

The censorship that used to be in place when the state produced films has essentially disappeared - because the state hardly produces anymore. The state film institute (ICAIC) has cut down a lot. Now censorship takes place regarding where films are played - whether they ever make it into cinemas or on television and whether they are shown at festivals in Havana.

Usually it works like this: Filmmakers develop their own material. The independent production companies, which have arisen during the economic crisis in recent years, can develop and make their films. There is no state censorship that prevents these films from being made. The question is just where they will be shown?

What is the situation like now that the state has pulled back? There are not a lot of private production companies. How many films are currently being made in Cuba annually?

Five to 10 films are made per year. There is a big short film production scene associated with the film school called San Antonio de los Baños. But there are very few longer feature films. And they can only be made with foreign co-production partners. There are some very dedicated production companies that make two to three films per year. There have also been completely new genres that have come about since 2007-2008 - vampire films and horror films, for example. But all of that is the result of merciless self-exploitation and a very small budget.

Film still Hotel Nueva Isla (El Viaje Films)

The Cuban-Spanish co-production "Hotel Nueva Isla" is about the resident of an old, former Grand Hotel

In Cottbus you are also showing films that were made in East Germany in the 1960s. The communist country maintained close ties to Cuba…

There are two films. "Preludio 11" by Kurt Maetzig from 1963 was made directly after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. It's a spy thriller featuring a very young Armin Müller-Stahl. It's about a commando of Cubans in exile, and Americans that are preparing an invasion of Cuba. It's about treason and love of revolution. In the end, things work out and the revolution is rescued.

We're also showing a short film from the film school in Babelsberg: "Carlos" by Humberto López y Guerra (1966). It's a film about a soldier, or rather a volunteer, that fought against the invasion and was brought, badly wounded, to a hospital in East Germany. There, the nurse Bärbel took an interest in the young Cuban Carlos. But they could hardly talk to each other because they didn't speak the same language. It's a film about cultural understanding.

This little East Germany section is rather the exception in the Cuba program, which otherwise looks at Cuban film.

Over the next five years, the "Focus" section of the FilmFestival Cottbus will look at countries that have been or still are impacted by the Soviet brand of communism. Cuba is the first country on the list. In total, this year's FilmFestival Cottbus features nearly 200 films from 45 countries. In competition for the 25,000-euro (nearly $28,000) "Lubina" prize are 12 films from 18 co-production countries.

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