Havana on the Screen

HSV's picture
Submitted by HSV on
by: Zaira Zarza

Economics, geopolitics, architecture and human flows determine the civic and cultural behaviour of a city along with its visual and soundscapes. Its multiple spaces of human interaction contribute to the identity construction of individuals, groups and communities. Its material and discursive spatial dimensions can always bring up questions of individual and social belonging and engagement because of the diverse positionalities that the urban fabric allows. According to Doreen Massey the metropolitan framework is an appropriate space for non-fixed ongoing “relational identities”[1]. Cities have been regarded as organisms, stages, machines and studios for the experience of communality and intimacy of both dwellers and visitors. When its transformations are represented in literature, arts and media the city is then observed, detected, interpreted, compared, designed, dissolved and rationalized.[2]

Located between North and South America as a kind of key to the Antilles, Cuba’s capital has been a special place due to its locus as a historic port of economic and cultural trade, as an in-between place that both divides and connects a whole continent. The cartographic location of the island and its cultural richness has always recall visitor’s attention. Havana also became an important context for political and social utopias when in 1959 the promise of a new political system transformed the island and its inhabitants and the omnipotence of a new born liberated state became ubiquitous.

Many people describe Havana as a timeless space, as a “time capsule, [that still] feels cosmopolitan.”[3] There is an evident centralization of the cinematographic representation of urban life in Cuban films due to constant global movements from the countryside to big cities and mainly to capitals. Artists, musicians and cineastes have been profoundly inspired by the metropolis. Its public spaces such as plazas, streets, beaches and parks as well as its demographics, traditions, pulse and rhythm have been capture by innumerable cameras. For many years filmmakers have turned their gaze upon the city not only as a backdrop but as a central figure for cinematographic creation of meaning. Through their work, Cuban filmmakers have become practitioners and translators of the city life as well thinkers and re-creators of the urban text while exploiting the cinematic quality of the polis and it dynamics.

Created in March 1959, the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry) was the first cultural institution of the revolution in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood. The filmic imagery of Havana and its iconic spaces is composed by countless films produced with the support of ICAIC. The colonial Havana and specifically the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) have main protagonism in Cecilia (Humberto Solás, 1982), adaptation of the Cuban literary classic Cecilia Valdés or La loma del ángel written by Cirilo Villaverde in the 19th Century. Las doce sillas (The Twelve Chairs, 1962) -a smart comedy by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea- also depicts unforgettable scenes in the beautiful Cementerio de Colón. Vampiros en La Habana (Juan Padrón, 1985), an animated cultural portrait of vampires between political comedic and anthropological review also locates Havana as a symbolic, ideological spot where European and American powers clash. In La vida es silbar (Fernando Pérez, 1997), the civic plaza Revolution square and the Capitol were both sets and co-stars of characters who undertake urban and interior journeys to try to find themselves.

Later on, co-productions with international and/or independent film companies kept on portraying the city in diverse ways. Cosas que dejé en la Habana (Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, 1997), Habana blues (Benito Zambrano, 2005), Habanastation (Ian Padrón, 2010) and 7 días en la Habana (Benicio del Toro/Pablo Trapero/Elia Suleiman/Juan Carlos Tabío/ Laurent Cantet/Gaspar Noé/Julio Medem, 2011) are only a few examples of the multiplicity of approaches to this Caribbean urban space. A before and after this recent film historiography of Havana was set by Fernando Pérez’s Suite Habana in 2003 since no film has yet been able to narrate the deep life of a city and its inhabitants with such binding level of poetics and realistic naturalism.

Thereby, the Cuban capital has also been screened from the point of view of a new generation of young filmmakers who regularly participate in the local film festival Muestra Joven (Young Filmmaker’s Showcase), the main cultural space for the promotion and discussion of alternative filmmaking in Cuba. The Malecón, Havana’s “social living room” according to various authors[4] is a seaside walk that marks the physical and conceptual border of the insularity in El futuro es hoy (The future is now, Sandra Gómez, 2008). There is a sequence in which a moving landscape is represented upside down, maybe as a metaphor of the Cuban political and economic overturned project in Degeneración (Aram Vidal, 2006) where the illustrious edification of the fortress El Morro and the Havana bay and port are visually “head over feet”. Close up (Damián Saínz, 2009) records a myriad of eccentric personalities among urban youth tribes who gather and share the open space of Avenida de los Presidentes or Calle G and paint the milestone avenue with a brushstroke of surrealism and hybridity.

A place well known for its proclivity to music and dance, Cuba also has a strong movement of music video culture that connects songs and film in the same text. In every music-video there is a possible reading of the city and approach the singularities of its barrios as in Descemer Bueno’s “Tus luces sobre mí” and the young rapper Danay Suárez’s “Yo aprendí”.

Interested as it is in the artistic re-creations of La Habana and its filmic culture, the online platform Havanastreetview proposes a collective web space to introduce or revisit, research and discuss the cinematographic history of the city. This web section devoted to audiovisual productions will offer the opportunity to connect disperse cinematic information on the Internet through multiple curatorial concepts such as themes, locations, and cinematographic genres and practices. It will be an accessible media to find links to films, music videos and bibliographies on moving images generated in and about Havana by Cubans on and off the Island as well as visitors and non-Cuban residents. We are also interest in sharing personal audiovisual works and help our internet community to create their own. Short films, first-person documentaries, everyday life and experimental images may eventually be part of this initiative that encourages an environment of knowledge, collaboration, exchange and collective creation.

In the 21st Century online references to the city are largely based on touristic interests and misleading stereotypes. Joining this virtual network will allow members not only to get to know the city from a non-touristic perspective but also contribute to alternative new narratives of Havana’s very complex identity politics.



[1] Doreen Massey. “Geographies of responsibility” Geografiska Annaler: Series B (Human Geography) 86:1, 2004, 5-18.

[2] David Frisby. Cityscapes of Modernity. Blackwell publishers, Massachusetts, 2001.

[3] Andrew B. Turner. “Propaganda in Havana: The Politics of Public Space and Collective Memory in the Socialist City.” Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2007, 3.

Available at http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=senior_seminar

[4] Joseph L. Scarpaci, Roberto Segre and Mario Coyula. Havana: two faces of the Antillean metropolis. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002, 305.




Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.