Olivier Assayas's film on the aftermath of May 1968 is infantile ultra-leftism
JOE GLENTON explains his need to respond to a world that is unsustainably divided
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
Cuba's best-loved film critic ENRIQUE COLINA tells us how film and revolution can co-exist.
In 1961, two years after Fidel Castro's triumphant accession to power in Cuba and shortly after the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, the modest short film PM, exploring the decadent side of Havana's nightlife, was released in Cuban cinemas.
The film was considered degenerate by the new regime, which was anxious to push the heroic, self-sacrificing side of the Cuban people, and was promptly banned.
"People were very worried," remembers Enrique Colina, the 60-year-old Cuban film critic and director who was shortly to start working for the Cuban Art and Film Institute, ICAIC.
"They said that the revolution would bring liberty and here they were censoring films."
There was much disgruntled discussion among the Cuban intelligentcia.
Then Castro intervened, setting up a meeting with his country's film-makers.
"He gave us a set of rules," remembers Colina, "which were very simple. 'Within the revolution, anything. Against the revolution, nothing'."
Colina, a fervent revolutionary, but also a man whose metier dictates that he analyses the conflicts within society, has been struggling to interpret these rules, at the same time liberating and restraining, ever since.
For many, Colina is the face of Cuban cinema.
For 32 years, he produced and presented 24 Por Segundo - "24 Frames a Second" - a weekly TV show analysing different themes in international cinema, while also making documentaries and, until 1990, travelling around the world to choose which films to buy to show in Cuban cinemas.
In 2003, he made his first feature film Entre Ciclones - "Between Hurricanes" - a dry social comedy which was screened at that year's Cannes Film Festival and was a big hit in Cuban cinemas.
He is proud of his country's achievements in the film industry, but worried about the way that it is currently going.
"For a while in Cuban cinema after the revolution, there was a honeymoon period," he reflects.
"To have a national film institute to fund the making of films is a wonderful thing and ICAIC was set up right at the beginning of the revolution.
"Ninety-five per cent of our directors were very engaged with the ideological foundation of the Cuban revolution so, therefore, there was a certain synchronicity between the artistic avant-garde and the political avant-garde.
"Even films which were critical supported the revolution, because we felt that this criticism was within the limits of what we thought was good for the people."
At the same time, ICAIC, through Colina's TV programme and a careful choice of films shown at Cuban cinema, was attempting to educate the Cuban people to appreciate cinema as a way of interpreting reality, especially the new reality of the revolution.
"In the 1960s, most of the world's best film-makers were left-leaning," he says.
"There were many militant films, there was a very political tendency in film-making.
"We imported films from everywhere. From France, from Italy, from Britain, even from the US.
"This influenced Cuban film-makers. There were no constraints against aesthetical formulas." The result was a highly film-literate public with a demanding appetite for meaningful films and a highly sophisticated and productive film-making industry.
"We used to make from six-12 films a year, about 50 documentaries, about 50 newsreels, about 10-12 animations.
"The commercial demands were really minor in our objectives.
"We wanted to communicate with the public, talking about the changing realities we were living through.
"So cinema didn't take very long to establish a good communication with the people. And we went through the spectrum of genres and subjects, always dealing dramatically with our reality.
"The point of this cinema is that it is an art. We tried to make artistic films."
One of Cuba's many contradictions is that a highly articulate cultural infrastructure and well-educated public demands a level of intellectual freedom.
This started creating problems when the honeymoon period finished and the realities of the difficulty of maintaining a revolution started becoming more apparent.
"The Cuban revolution is composed of very different currents," says Colina.
"Everybody wanted the revolution, but one person dreamt of a revolution the Soviet way, another the Chinese way, another in a very dogmatic way, while we the film-makers were very open to the need of changes and we were very open to facing the contradictions. Not justifying them, facing them.
"We thought that we should never play the role of the ostrich with its head in the sand.
"This current has always existed as a part of the revolution."
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the subsequent economic crisis in Cuba developed almost overnight, such problems came to a head, with the release of a satirical film called Alicia.
"It was a metaphor for all the absurdities of daily life in Cuba," says Colina.
"It was made before the crisis, when it was possible to talk about these problems and it was shown at the beginning of the crisis, when the revolution was suddenly very vulnerable.
"This was very bad timing. The film was banned four days after its release. The director was sacked and it almost made the Cuban Film Institute disappear."
The Cuban film-makers' reaction was to fight their corner.
"We took a stand because we didn't believe the film was counter-revolutionary," says Colina.
"We are always fighting because we are not counter-revolutionaries. Yet we have always risked being considered as standing against the values of the revolution which we support."
"We face all sorts of censorship in Cuban film-making," continues Colina. "First of all, there is self-censorship. You know that there are certain boundaries and that you will contradict your own point of view if you cross them.
"We must be very rational because, sometimes, when you have to endure conflicts and contradictions for a long time which are not being resolved, you can become very emotional and your interpretation of revolution can begin to waver. Of course, there is a very thin line. And who says what is revolutionary and what is counter-revolutionary?"
ICAIC survived the crisis, but the Cuban film industry was damaged by the lack of funds after the Soviet aid dried up and has been much less productive since the Special Period began, further weakened by the US trade embargo.
"Another type of censorship facing us now is financial censorship," says Colina. "This means that we do not have enough money any more to make many films, so we have to rely on foreign co-productions.
"Often, the foreign producers want us to make films which are critical of the reality in Cuba.
"I presented a project to a European foundation which gives money - I won't say which one - and I knew somebody who was a member of staff there and he told me later that 'they liked your film and they did not like the others, but they felt that it was not critical enough against the revolution to accept'."
Colina is clear that ICAIC must continue as a body to protect Cuban cinema.
"In all countries, if the state doesn't support the culture of production, it is very hard. You have the same experience in Europe. Hollywood films invade the market and invade the screens. If you don't have the protection, your film industry is swept away.
"This isn't just a problem for the Third World or a problem for Latin America or a problem for 'little Cuba,' it's a problem of everywhere, no? It is a problem in Britain."
The answer to the problem, Colina feels, is to give Cuban film directors a freer rein.
"Politicians must learn that it is important for Cuban film-makers to continue making the sort of films that they want to, even if they sometimes tread over the thin line.
"I often wonder what the government should do in order to make the revolution less vulnerable.
"And I conclude that they should present Cuban films that are not very orthodox, maybe, but that enhance our identity.
"These films may also be cathartic, because, when you are living with a problem and nobody talks about this problem, this makes the oven explode.
"There are things that can be said that won't be harmful to protecting what we are afraid to lose when Fidel Castro dies."
Colina is worried by the fact that many young Cuban film-makers are sidestepping ICAIC by making their own films on DVD recorders.
"These are often made by young people who are not as engaged as my generation is with the revolution and they don't understand why some level of self-censorship is important.
"They don't want to push boundaries, like we have, for the good of the revolution. They want to step over them, despite it.
"You don't want to nourish the prejudice of the richer countries against a system which has tried to better the lot of its people."
The film-maker ends on a positive note. "US imperialism has been putting all its weight against this process and making it much harder.
"But time will tell. Although I am frustrated, I also realise that history is, of course, longer than my life.
"And I realise that a very important seed has been planted and that there will be wheat."
A season of Cuban films with talks is showing at London's NFT until January 30 and will be touring from February.
Tonight Nada is a postmodern fantasy feature debut about a young post-office employee by Juan Carlos Cremata. It is followed by two satirical documentaries - Estetica and Vecinos - the first on the vagaries of popular taste, the second on noisy neighbours by Enrique Colina. Showing at 6pm.
Fresa y Chocolate by Tomas Alea is about a young communist university student who is picked up in an ice-cream parlour for a bet by a gay photographer. What follows is not a gay film but a drama pleading for tolerance and dialogue. Showing at 8.10pm tonight, January 29 at 8.10, January 31 at 5.20pm.
Thursday La Bella del Alhambra is a tribute to the Havana theatre world of the 1920s which Alejo Carpentier called "the conservatory of Cuban music." This is a story of a chorus girl dreaming of stardom, with tragic consequences. Showing Thursday at 8.40pm and Sunday at 6.10pm.
Friday Suite Havana by Fernando Perez is a city film in the great tradition of Ruttman and Vertov. It is a wordless visual tapestry which captures the ambiguous mood of present-day Havana through portraits of a cross-section of characters facing the daily grind of existence and finding time for their dreams. Also showing is Omara, Perez's portrait of the legendary star vocalist Omara Portuondo. Showing Friday at 6.30pm and Saturday at 8.40pm.
All showing at National Film Theatre, Belvedere Road, London SE1. For more films in the programme and details of the tour, please visit the website. Box office: (020) 7928-3232.
WEB LINK: www.bfi.org.uk/nft