Eight hours in the air and I landed at Havana International Airport.
The Cuban government official whisked me past the passport-holding line and into the VIP Lounge.
An hour’s drive later I arrived at the “Vatican of film making,” Cuba’s International Film and Television School, south of Havana and close to the town of San Antonio de Los Banos. When I awoke, the view was a tropical green carpet of farmland stretching into the distance, embroidered with tobacco fields and orange groves; in the far distance the haze of Havana.
The first impression is of a tropical colonial compound, serviced by 200 full-time cooks, gardeners, maids, drivers, builders, translators and security teams, who look after the students’ needs - including a 24-hour bar for when that early-morning need for a mojito strikes.
The Cuban Film School was set up 21 years ago. Its director Tanya Valette tells a story of an evening then when Fidel Castro, Cuba’s then revolutionary President, and the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez met and planned the birth of the school as a “factory of creative energy,” where talented individuals from the world over would collaborate, feeding ideas off each other. Castro and Marquez are frustrated filmmakers!
I was here as a visiting International Professor of Film on the eight-week International Producing Workshop for a talented crop of emerging Latin American film producers and my week’s course was to cover “how to sell your film internationally at festivals and markets.”
My 20 students were in their mid- to late twenties and from all over Latin America – Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru. And from Cuba itself. They had begun to achieve already with their short films, first feature films, television dramas and documentaries a reputation in their own countries for talent and creativity. Their participation on this specialist workshop was designed to immerse them in a more global film environment.
The course is overseen by film legend Sandy Lieberson who headed up film studios at MGM and 20th Century Fox and produced such classics as Performance, That’ll Be The Day and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. He is chair of Film London, the capital’s equivalent of Screen WM.
The students arrive with their own ideas to develop, and after group discussions five ideas are selected to be developed in groups of four students of different nationalities (e.g., Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian, Argentinian) which facilitates co-productions. The fact that Spanish is spoken, albeit with various national dialects, across Latin America makes the process easier.
By the end each idea will have been “road tested” and professionally mentored by the visiting professors bringing to bear their own expertise, be that in script analysis, budgeting, international sales and festivals, film and television law, development and pitching or the Spanish film and television markets.
The students’ projects had creative scale and ambition and were eminently producable within film industry budgets in their countries. The course has spawned successful productions, made once students have returned home.
The International Producing Workshop is closely in keeping with the school’s general philosophy: educating students in the ways of film-making as well as encouraging them to change the landscape of international film.
This second aim has attracted visits from the likes of directors Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh and Francis Ford Coppola who, in 1998, hung out with the students in the 24/7 cafe for two days and cooked his favourite pasta for those in the school’s canteen. Everyone at the school remembers him fondly. His radical reworking of the three-act structure is graffitied in large hand-written red letters on the cafe’s wall. Fidel Castro’s support for the school enabled American film directors to bypass the US travel ban to Cuba. Castro designated the school a non-government institution, “Vatican for film makers”.
Jaime Rosales, a recent graduate, premiered his Cannes Festival award-winning movie La Soledad in the splendour of Havana’s Chaplin Cinema, a wonderful old-style venue.
Later my students took me around Old Havana, its colonial chicness restored, and the bars where the Ernest Hemingways of this world sank their pre-dinner daiquiris beneath signs of swirling neon at El Floridita or the Bodeguita.
For five years Latin American cinema has enjoyed a creative and commercial renaissance, heralded in 2001 by Amores Perros (director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) followed by City of God (director, Fernando Meirelles), The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles, Y Tu Mama Tambien (director, Alfonso Cuaron) and Babel, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Brad Pitt, and Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro.
The students will take their stories into the heart of the global film market and keep this cinematic renaissance on the world’s screens.