During the 1985 Havana International Film Festival, Fidel Castro made a speech that thrilled Cuban and Latin American documentary and feature filmmakers. In it, he gave his blessing to their idea (spearheaded by the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garc’a M‡rquez) to create an international film and TV school based in Cuba.
Castro announced that work on the school would begin immediately near San Antonio de los Baños, a town 40 kilometers outside of Havana. A story – perhaps apocryphal – has it that when Castro came to look at the empty high school that would be transformed into Latin America’s first international film school, he stood in a field and with a sweeping gesture of his arm said, ‘Here we will build a swimming pool.’ On December 15, 1986, one year to the day after his Havana speech, the school opened – with an enormous swimming pool. Students are grateful he didn’t just point at the ground, for, they say, a much smaller pool might have been the result.
Since that time the school has made a splash. In 1993 it won the prestigious Rossellini Award at the Cannes Film Festival – a first for any film school – for its work in the development of the audiovisual industry. (Past winners include the U.K.’s Channel 4 and Martin Scorsese.)
In 1987, the first 50 students enrolled (all from developing countries) at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisi—n (EICTV) on full scholarships. The goal was to quintuple their number within a few years and expand the school’s facilities to make it a Latin American film and TV production center, like the Italian Cinecitt‡.
But four years later the Soviet Union disintegrated and so did its support for Cuba. While the school is inter-national and has always had some outside support, the Cuban government provides its land and buildings, food, transportation and staff wages. Food became scarce throughout Cuba, as did fuel for transport and electricity. Even though the school grows much of its own food and has its own generator, it still had to tighten its belt. School administrators were forced to cut the number of students they could accept to between 20 and 25 a year. By 1996, as tourist dollars began to filter into the Cuban economy, the decision was made to charge tuition – in U.S. dollars. Students now pay $5,000 for the first year and $7,000 for the second, a fee that covers 45% of what it actually costs to teach, equip, feed and house them.
The annual budget, according to EICTV director Alberto Garc’a Ferrer, is above US$1 million a year – not much for a school that was responsible for 76 undergraduates, more than 600 workshop participants, dozens of visiting teachers, and 130 staff members in 2000.
Despite its tight budget, the school’s purpose hasn’t changed: To train young (20 to 26-year-old) film and video professionals from the developing countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa. So far, 83% of the school’s 308 graduates have come from Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2000, 79% of its undergraduates came from 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries, one each from Austria, Canada, Finland, France and Sweden, two each from Norway and Japan, and seven from Spain.
By the end of their first year, students must choose one of six fields to specialize in: production, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, editing or sound. Each specialty has a staff coordinator to oversee the curriculum. Their teachers are film and video professionals from all over the world who are invited to Cuba, generally for two weeks, to share their expertise. While coordinators can select visiting teachers from their own networks, the annual Havana International Film Festival has been a rich source, supplying some outstanding guest lecturers, including Costa Gavras, Robert Redford, Ettore Scola, Danny Glover, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Tom‡s Gutiérrez Alea, Helen Mirren, Wole Soyinka, Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers. Francis Ford Coppola has not only lectured twice, he’s cooked for everyone both times.
At the December 1998 Havana film festival, one student saw American documentary filmmaker Robert Richter’s Father Roy: Inside the School of Assassins and asked him to show it at the school. Afterwards, Richter was asked if he’d be willing to return to teach. Later, in New York, a Cuban-based filmmaker met Richter’s editor Ruth Schell and was so impressed she urged the school to invite the petite French woman as well. Both were invited to teach for two weeks this past May, to help first-year students with their first docs. Richter was assigned directors and screenwriters while Schell was to give student editors their first taste of the school’s new AVIDs. Rounding out the team were Spanish producer Paz Bilbao and French cinematographer Bruno Flament.
The students had already formed themselves into seven film crews and completed three-minute demos of their proposed 13-minute documentaries. Their subjects could not have been more diverse: Ten ‘lessons’ from a tourist hustler; the 87-year-old keeper of the El Morro lighthouse in Havana harbor; a journey through an apartment building as a metaphor for recent Cuban history; the treatment of aids patients; and why cows have accidents. (You can milk them, but in Cuba you can’t kill them since they belong to the state.)
Real-life problems soon emerged. Since the fuel budget was overdrawn and wouldn’t be replenished until summer workshops brought dollars, location scouting was a problem. Two groups of students had trouble formulating approved projects and were unable to take advantage of the visiting professors. The apartment documentary was abruptly cancelled by state security: Castro was expected for the daily Eli‡n Gonzalez roundtable televised from a studio in the building, and until he had come and gone, it was off limits.
Fortunately for students, all film and video stock is supplied by Fujifilm. Another sponsor, Canal+ España, bought two-time broadcast rights to everything produced at the school, which helped pay for new AVIDSs. The Foundation of New Latin American Cinema, headed by Gabriel Garc’a M‡rquez – the school’s original academic sponsor – also provided funding. Collaborative arrangements with the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), British Council, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Valencia Public Radio and Television (Spain), among others, provide visiting teachers’ expenses. In addition, EICTV has study and work agreements with the Australian Film, Television and Radio School; the University of Bergen in Norway; the Academy of Arts and Media in Cologne; the School of Visual Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland; the Sundance Film Institute; and, in Spain, the Audiovisual School of Cataluña, Canal+ and Canal 9 de Valencia.
Another essential source of funding is the school’s on-going series of workshops on subjects such as directing actors, casting, telenovela writing, making documentaries, special effects, community video, makeup, art direction and underwater photography. Over the years, the workshops have attracted more than 2,000 film and TV professionals. This year, 33 workshops are scheduled, each limited to 12 to 20 students, ranging from two to 12 weeks, and costing US$1,000 to $2,400.
Living and working in Cuba has made a virtue out of necessity. ‘Sometimes the conditions are difficult, but this is also a present,’ said French cinematographer Bruno Flament. ‘We are not so dependent on technology here as in our home countries. Finding other ways to solve problems stimulates the imagination. The originality and the strength of this school is that its teachers come from many places and give their all, so the students get much more than if they had the same teacher year round. It is very important.’