Along the broad boulevard in Havana that all Cubans know as Calle 23, near the Colón Cemetery and where the avenue crosses Tenth Street, there’s a large concrete building, painted white. The facade has been rendered dingy by exhaust from the old Buicks and Fords plying the avenue as taxis, and there’s little about it to suggest its identity from outside. But in a country whose love for cinema has both transcended and been fed by six decades of communism, this is a hallowed site: it has housed, since just after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos.
ICAIC was launched on March 24, 1959, a mere eighty-two days after Castro ran the dictator Fulgencio Batista from Havana. During the revolution, Castro and his comrades had absorbed the potent help that moving images—of the bearded men smoking pipes in the mountains, or waving to adoring crowds from their jeeps—could provide in building support for their cause. In the early weeks of 1959, Che Guevara and the rebel army’s “cultural division” commissioned a pair of documentaries to capture the revolution’s immediate land-reform efforts.
That spring, as ragged revolutionaries took their places behind desks and sought to channel their energy for battle into institution building, ICAIC was born as part of the new Ministry of Culture. Havana already boasted over 350 movie theaters—more than Paris or New York—where Cubans flocked to see Hollywood westerns and musicals and Mexican melodramas and gangster flicks. What ICAIC aimed to do was make Cuba a country that didn’t merely watch movies but produced them. In this, the institute’s filmmakers would prove hugely successful: over the institute’s first twenty-five years, they churned out some nine hundred documentary shorts and over a hundred narrative and nonfiction features. More complex was the inherent tension within the institute’s stated view that cinema was both “the most powerful and provocative form of artistic expression, and the most direct and widespread vehicle for education and bringing ideas to the public.”
In 1961, Castro made his famous proclamation about what would be allowed when it came to creative expression: “Inside the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing.” This dictum had the advantage, for Communist Party censors, of leaving it up to them what qualified as “outside.” Beginning in the sixties, several prominent writers and artists ceased receiving state backing because of “ideological deviation” and left the island. But arguably more striking was the revolution’s foremost filmmakers’ success, from the start, at parlaying their leaders’ respect for cinema into an opportunity to tell stories that didn’t shy from examining the tensions of Cuban life. By ICAIC’s tenth birthday, films like Humberto Solás’s Lucía had become touchstones on an island where even rural people, thanks to mobile projectors, could also absorb the layered documentaries of Julio García Espinosa. But perhaps no one was more responsible for cinema’s unique place in Cuba’s new society than Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a cofounder of ICAIC who went on to become not merely Cuba’s most important filmmaker but also a signal figure in world cinema of the twentieth century.
“Gutiérrez Alea became Cuba’s leading defender of cinema as a medium able to at once ‘criticize and deepen the reality in which we’re immersed.’ ”
“In 1968 and after, many saw the film as a burning indictment of the passive intellectual refusing to engage in revolution.”
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