Digital Technology Is Making Its Mark in Cuba

January 5th, 2013

Jose Goitia for The New York Times

The director Carlos Lechuga at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana.

HAVANA — Sebasti?n Mil? barely had enough money to put gasoline in the aged bus that ferried his crew to the set each day, let alone to pay actors a salary.

But Mr. Mil?, a 33-year-old Cuban filmmaker, had a Canon 5D digital camera and a story to tell. So, during one frenetic week in May 2011, he shot “Truckdriver,” a tense 25-minute film about bullying at one of the vaunted rural boarding schools where millions of Cubans used to spend part of their high school education.

“It was something I went through myself, and so did many people I know,” said Mr. Mil?, referring to incidents of bullying that dogged him at school and, later, during military service. “The subject struck a chord.”

Mr. Mil? is one of hundreds of Cuban filmmakers who, armed with digital technology, are laying the foundations of an independent movie industry outside the state apparatus that has defined Cuban cinema for much of the Castro era — and still, much to the frustration of some filmmakers, controls access to the island’s movie theaters.

Around the country, Cubans are making features, shorts, documentaries and animated works, often with little more than a couple of friends and some inexpensive equipment — and little input from the state-supported Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry.

Mr. Mil?, who received about $ 10,000 in financing from a Spanish production company, Idunnu Music and Visual Arts, said that the crew and actors worked for next to nothing. “They said they felt strongly about what the film was saying,” he said.

The global boom in digital filmmaking has rippled across Cuba over the past decade, letting filmmakers create their work beyond the oversight of state-financed institutions. Independent movies have become a new means of expression in a country where, despite freedoms and economic reforms introduced by President Raul Castro since 2006, the state still carefully controls national press, television and radio, and access to the Internet is very limited.

While there is no official tally of independent movies, they have gained prominence on the national scene. They dominate the Cuban offerings at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana and scored a new level of commercial visibility last year with “Juan of the Dead,” a zombie movie that was released in several countries, including the United States.

“They’re bringing fresh ideas; they’re experimenting,” said Javier Ernesto Alej?ndrez, 21, a humanities student waiting in line last month to see the independent feature “Pablo,” shown as part of the film festival.

“There’s a lot of creativity, and they are really thinking about stuff,” said Alexandra Halkin, the director of the Americas Media Initiative, a nonprofit group that distributes and promotes Cuban film overseas. “They just need more tools and more space.”

For decades, the film institute was an important tool of the government’s program to educate Cubans and build a national narrative under the Communist system, annually producing dozens of documentaries and features and nurturing acclaimed directors, including Tom?s Guti?rrez Alea (known as Titon), Humberto Sol?s and Fernando P?rez. The institute’s financing plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed, and it now relies on foreign sources to produce a handful of features each year.

The explosion of independent film has yielded an uneven jumble of movies that draw on genres eschewed by the establishment — like thrillers and horror — and that offer raw depictions or biting satire about the darker side of life on the island.

Miguel Coyula, whose surreal, fragmentary feature “Memories of Overdevelopment” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, said that while no specific trend had emerged, there was a greater willingness to tackle riskier and risqu? subjects — even Fidel Castro — and document issues not covered by the official press.

Some movies offer a glimmer of a promising new generation, experts and filmmakers say, citing the experimental documentaries of Marcel Beltr?n and Armando Cap?, which will be included in a program at the Museum of Modern Art in February; Victor Alfonso’s humorous animated shorts about a high school nerd; Carlos Machado Quintela’s feature-length movie “The Swimming Pool,” about a group of physically disabled children and their swimming instructor; and the work of more established practitioners like Mr. Coyula and Esteban Insausti, whose work has been screened at many foreign festivals, including Cannes.

Carlos Lechuga, 29, whose debut feature film, “Melaza” (“Molasses”), tells a story of social degradation in a sugar town whose mill has been shuttered, said that independent movies were nourishing a conversation among Cubans keen to see the hard realities of their lives dealt with on screen.

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