(photos courtesy of Tracey Owens)

By Christine Scott
The Havana Film Festival is a ten-day event that brings together filmmakers from all over Latin America (and for the first time, the United States) and showcases works from every genre—theatricals, documentaries, shorts, and animation—and plays in theaters throughout the city. Staying at the Hotel Nacional—the headquarters of the festival—gave me the opportunity to mingle with this Latino film community, with the outdoor patio lounge facing the Malecon as the perfect perch to sip mojitos, enjoy live music, and meet new friends. I brought a group of eleven people with me to the festival and since it was my fourth time in Cuba, I was eager to share my experience and knowledge of the city with these first-time visitors. After five days in Havana it was clear that they too had all been bitten by the Cuban bug.

El Cocinero3

Fabrica blue

The first night kicked off with dinner at El Cocincero, an old peanut factory converted into a terrace bar and restaurant. After climbing a narrow spiral staircase, we were lead to the outdoor terrace, which was dwarfed by the factory’s silo. It was artfully illuminated and lit up the dark Havana skyline. El Cocinero represents a new trend in Cuban dining, a privately owned “paladar” that offers gourmet cuisine in an artful setting.
From there we went next door to Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Art Factory), an oil factory converted into a performance space, art gallery and club, where we attended a “Game of Thrones” party. This was my first brush with reality… the Americans are coming! We rubbed elbows with Duncan Muggoch, one of the show’s producers, Ethan Hawke, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the newly appointed Chargéla d’affaires to Cuba, and many others in the film and television business. Fábrica de Arte represents another significant change in Cuban culture, an art space that is not government run and a place where Cubans and tourists can mingle, something that was unheard of in the past because entrance fees were prohibitive for Cubans. The 2 CUCS cover charge included a live dance performance, an art exhibit, a film screening and the club. Fábrica de Arte is my new favorite place in Havana. When we left around midnight, the line to get in snaked around the corner. Since it was still early by Cuban standards, we headed over to Don Congrejo, an outdoor club along the seawall of the Malecón, where we saw a Cuban rock band while the waves of the harbor crashed against the rocks behind us. It was our first night in Cuba and I couldn’t imagine how the week could have gotten better…. But it did!

I attended several film screenings, including “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGTB Revolution” which will be shown on HBO this year. Ironically, the night before the screening, we met two transgenders, Elizabeth and Havana, who were eager to introduce us to their LGBT community. They took us to a cabaret show at Club Las Vegas, where the two grand dames held court and introduced us to their friends. We were so warmly embraced and we felt privileged to be included in their small circle. This open expression of sexual identity is another notable change taking place in Cuba. Hearing Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro, at her film screening the following night confirm the government’s support of the LGBT community was affirmation of what we had experienced the night before.

It’s impossible to be in Havana and not be captivated by music and dance. There is music everywhere and it’s not unusual to break out in dance whenever the spirit moves you. I arranged for a salsa dance class with two of the most talented and sensual dancers I have ever seen. Even those in my group who had never danced salsa before were captivated. Later that night the dancers and their friends met us at Casa de la Musica, a fixture in the nightclub scene, where they put on a jaw dropping display of dance moves ranging from rumba, salsa, guaguanco, and son. When the famous timba group NG La Banda hit the stage, we felt like we had hit the jackpot. We danced into the night and left with the beat of the of the music pulsating in our body and soul.

With each visit to Cuba I experience something new and unique; one novelty this time was the direct flight from JFK to Havana. The Cuba that I first fell in love with 20 years ago has not changed—the people, the music, the spirituality, the charm of its antiquity—but in this last trip I noticed a more prominent American presence and I fear that the Starbucks and construction cranes are not far behind. So now is the time to go! A license from the State Department is still required to go legally and arranging flights and hotels can be complicated, but it’s certainly easier than it was a year ago. With that said, I will be leading another group to the Havana Film Festival in December 2016, so anyone interested in joining, inbox me at Christine@Cultsha.com. Vamos a Cuba!!

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