In its 40th year, Havana film fest a far cry from its heyday

Havana (AFP) –


In the good old days, Havana came to a near-standstill for 10 days for its annual film festival, with 500 movies screening in dozens of theaters.

On Thursday, the 40th edition of the event will open with a vastly reduced budget -- a shadow of what it was in the heady days before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro, Serbian director Emir Kusturica and American provocateur Michael Moore are headlining the showcase of Latin American cinema, which runs through December 16.

Kusturica will open the festival with "El Pepe: A Supreme Life," his documentary about former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September.

"The festival had expanded a lot, especially at the end of the 1980s," explains its president, Ivan Giroud, who has taken pains to make the event more manageable.

"The schedule was out of proportion with an infrastructure that could not handle it."

Back then, about 500,000 moviegoers packed into 88 theaters in the Cuban capital each year to see hundreds of films. Many Cubans used vacation days so they could attend the screenings.

Actors and directors from around the world wandered the colorful streets of Havana, talking with locals.

The festival succeeded thanks to its founder Alfredo Guevara, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was president of the new Latin American film foundation.

- Filmgoers still flock to festival -

But then the economic crisis of the 1990s, sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, took its toll.

Small neighborhood movie theaters simply vanished. Now, there are only 21 left, and most of them are outdated, lacking air conditioning and digital technology. There is no money to modernize.

In 2017, only 2.3 million people bought movie tickets, down from 4.4 million in 2012.

But audiences still show up for the film festival, enticed by the bargain admission price -- 10 pesos, or about 30 US cents, for seven films, even if this year, screenings will only be held in about 10 theaters.

Giroud said he has worked to "readjust the program to make it more in line with our means."

For Fernando Perez, who at 74 is considered to be the most important Cuban director working today, this rethinking of the festival's scope is not a dealbreaker.

"If there is anything that makes me feel like the Havana film festival is alive and kicking, it's exactly the fact that it's not the same," Perez told AFP.

"Some may feel a certain sense of nostalgia for what used to be, but what's important is to adapt to the times."

This year, Perez -- the three-time winner of festival honors with "Hello, Hemingway" (1990), "Life is to Whistle" (1998) and "Havana Suite" (2003) -- will show "Defiant Souls," about the life of Latin America's first female surgeon.

- 20 films in competition -

Over the 10-day festival, about 300 films will be screened -- 20 of them in competition for the Grand Coral, or top prize. Most of those films are from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay.

The frontrunners are "Birds of Passage," a tale of an indigenous family set against Colombia's nascent drug war from directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, and "The Angel" from Argentina's Luis Ortega, which is based on the true story of a teenage serial killer and thief.

After a few glitches last year in screening films in digital format, a team of Spanish technicians will be on hand this year to ensure the festival runs smoothly.

Alfonso Cuaron's critically acclaimed "Roma," which was distributed by Netflix and is earning Oscar buzz, will be shown out of competition, as will "Yuli" from Spanish actress-director Iciar Bollain, which tells the story of Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.