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  • On Cuban Film: A Brief History in Four Easy Lessons
  • Narciso J. Hidalgo (bio)
    Translated by Edward Santos Townsend (bio)

Lesson 1: The Beginnings

In a chronicle published in the Sunday edition of El Diario de la Marina on 24 January 1897, Jacobo Domínguez Santí commented how, on the outskirts of Havana’s Parque Central, Gabriel Veyre had introduced to the public the Lumière brothers, universally acclaimed champions of the kinescope. Veyre had arrived at the Cuban capital from Mexico City and for a few weeks had enthralled his audiences with such short films as El tren, El regador y el muchacho, El sombrero cómico, and Partida de cartas. A few weeks later, on 13 February, on the ancient esplanade in front of the Louvre, facing the Parque Central, Edison’s Vitascope—featuring a machine that, according to the chronicles of the time, projected living pictures and everyday scenes onto a canvas screen—opened its doors to the public.

These rudimentary presentations from the Lumières, Edison, and others constitute the prehistory of Cuban cinema. The adventure of motion pictures soon became a business, one whose proprietors incurred unexpected losses from the frequent fires caused by the volatile chemicals. Nevertheless, the fascination with moving images turned the “movies” into an extraordinary spectacle that quickly became a challenge to Cubans, who have shared with the world their passion for music and their gusto for the Seventh Art.

Lesson 2: The Republic

In spite of the technological and financial limitations of the times, Enrique Díaz Quesada, who pioneered Cuban cinematography with the first full-length feature film, Manuel García, o el Rey de los campos de Cuba (1913), Ramón Peón, and Ernesto Caparrós all made notable contributions to filmmaking. With little more than raw talent and a desire to make motion pictures, these filmmakers improvised exterior sets on rooftop terraces and interior scenes inside apartments and were able to produce films such as Peón’s La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (1930), a classic of silent cinema. Without the backing of a financial structure designed for such enterprises, however, their productions remained isolated efforts. [End Page 108]

From the beginning, many films shown on the island were of European origin. By 1950 Cuba had acquired an important film culture in comparison with other countries of this hemisphere. Production companies like Pathé and Gaumont sold films to Cuban impresarios, and the owners of the exhibition salons in Havana got them directly from France.

It is important to recall that since the eighteenth century Havana had been one of the busiest and most visited port cities in the Americas. Italian, Spanish, and French performing artists, as well as theatrical and zarzuela companies, booked the theaters of Havana on their world tours. Havana, in the words of Fernando Ortiz, was the finibus terrae and Babylon of the high life. Furthermore, the Cinemateca de Cuba created the Cine Club in 1948 and, in collaboration with La Dirección de Cultura, under the auspices of the French Cinémathèque, showed the [End Page 110] most representative movies from around the world. That variety and the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere helped the audiences of Havana develop a broad appreciation for film culture.

Even as late as 1959 there were economic impediments to the appearance of a film industry in Cuba. Santos, Artigas, and José Ramón Medina, among others, dismissed the idea of producing motion pictures there, chiefly because the island’s few million inhabitants did not constitute a sufficient market for Spanish-language films. Yet Argentina had been producing, on average, thirty films a year since the 1920s; in 1942 alone Argentina Sono Film and Lumiton, the country’s two largest film producers, made fifty-six feature-length releases, which represented the largest film production in the Spanish-language market. From 1943 on the Mexican film industry produced an average of seventy films a year. For their part, Cuban producers managed only ten pictures during 1943.

By the 1940s the Latin American market had started to give way to the U.S. film monopoly. “Talkies,” in spite of initial difficulties, represented an area in which national...