US film industry says 'hola' to Havanawood

Los Angeles (AFP) - Hollywood has been clamoring to capture Cuba's colorful charm since a thaw in frosty Cold War relations, but the islanders say the boom comes with their own underfunded film industry in crisis.

Several big American productions have created jobs and put Havana's art deco elegance in the shop window since US filmmakers were given the right to shoot on the Communist-led island in January.

Showtime comedy series "House of Lies," starring Don Cheadle, was the first to profit from the lifting of US Treasury Department conditions imposed as part of the 1962 embargo of the island.

The latest movie in Universal's "Fast and Furious" series followed, along with Paramount's "Transformers: The Last Knight."

"We're at a place that nobody ever thought would be possible. We are in Havana, Cuba. And you can see how beautiful it is with all these beautiful people," "Fast 8" star Vin Diesel says in a YouTube message from the city.

The action sequel hired 250 local crew members and numerous extras at $30 a day, according to independent online magazine OnCuba, in a country where the average salary is $17 a month.

Such is the rush to the Caribbean island's sun-kissed shores that the US entertainment media, perhaps inevitably, have coined the phrase "Havanawood."

The detente also signals the end of an anachronistic but necessary trick in filmmaking of representing Cuba through other Latin and Caribbean locations.

"The Godfather, Part II" and Sydney Pollack's "Havana" used the Dominican Republic, while James Bond films "Golden Eye" and "Die Another Day" turned Puerto Rico and Cadiz, Spain, into the streets of Havana.

- 'What do we get? -

It's not just film and television dramas taking advantage of the newly accessible Cuba.

Talkshow host Conan O'Brien, a Chanel fashion show and even reality TV family the Kardashians have been seen recently in Havana, while Netflix was an early entrant, launching streaming service for the nation of 11 million people in February of last year.

But Cuba's own independent film industry, which began to take off in the 1990s as digital technology made filmmaking more accessible, says it is struggling to survive as Hollywood producers line their pockets.

Independent production companies get little or no funding from the state and have struggled to get their movies past the notoriously censorious Cuban Film Institute (CFI).

"Everyone knows that Chanel and Hollywood gain by choosing Havana, a city frozen in time with its dilapidated beauty, the forbidden city where art deco and the Cold War collide," said journalist Sergio Alejandro Gomez in a recent post on his personal blog.

"The question is, what do we get out of it?"

Claudia Calvino, 33, executive producer at the private Fifth Avenue Productions, which made the zombie comedy "Juan of the Dead," welcomes Hollywood's growing interest in Cuba.

"But the truth is that I feel upset and sad that these mega-productions have access to services and opportunities that have so often been denied to domestic productions, especially independent productions," she added.

Calvino says she has often asked for permits, import licenses, vehicle rental and other help from the CFI and been turned down because her project "did not represent Cuba in the best way."

- 'Not the enemy' -

Director Carlos Lechuga's debut film "Molasses," about a destitute former sugar-producing town, was shown at the Latin American Film Festival of Havana in 2012 and won an independent critics' prize.

But it had to wait almost a year for its theatrical release, and was screened only in one cinema.

Once the jewel in the crown of Latin American cinema, years of neglect have led the domestic industry to a crisis, says Lechuga.

"It's simple -- Cuban cinema and its filmmakers need to be strengthened. Now, more than ever, we need to feel loved, respected," he said.

"We are not the enemy. We're trying to make a better country. What is there to fear?"

American support for Cuban filmmaking is being offered, but it is coming from the independent sector rather than the big Hollywood studios.

During Havana's film festival in December, a Sundance Institute delegation of directors, writers and actors including Ethan Hawke put on workshops on screenwriting, production, editing and scoring.

The institute, which has history of engagement with Cuba going back to the 1980s, is returning in July with a program of screenings to introduce Cuban audiences to US and international films, and the people making them.

The focus, said the international director of the organization's feature film program Paul Federbush, has always been to support emerging Cuban artists.

"The recent opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US presented a unique opportunity for Sundance Institute to return to Cuba at a culturally and politically crucial moment," he told AFP.