Cheerio 2012 …..and why Hello 2013 ;-)

Another year flies by, the end of an era for the Mayas and approaching my 10 year anniversary of living outside my country.  I will be 44 quite soon, wooh!  I’m not scared of getting old, I just can’t quite believe that I am supposed to be so mature.  Nico will be 7 this month.  Saskia will start school in September.  I will get fit, honestly ……

I realise now that the end of the year for us in Cuba will always be defined by the end of the Havana film festival and the end of the first term of the film school.  And me scrabbling around trying to find Christmas presents in this town.  Not easy.

I have invented a whole ridiculous story that although Santa is truly international, his helpers, the elves, are locally based and do all the shopping.  Hence the reason why their Santa stockings are undeniably Cuban in style and content.  And crikey, I just don’t know what the elves will be getting next year as I have just about exhausted supplies of little things to go in stockings in Cuba.  Boys still grumbling about a white Christmas and wanting to go to England, where I assured them that they were more likely to get a grey cold wet Christmas than anything else, and to get a white Christmas we would have to go and visit friends in Norway or Switzerland, and we don’t have clothes for snow, being scantily clad tropical types these days.

I always enjoy the film festival, a whirlwind of familiar faces and gossip and intrigue and the film school did particularly well when it came to the awards – students, teachers and graduates.  There were rumours that Sharon Stone was coming, and then even Jennifer Aniston, the most American of girl next door heroines, and this was causing a little excitement in certain Havana circles.  Not for me, I was still spinning from meeting Irina Bokova who is certainly not a household name but a superstar in my eyes.

Yes it was fun to meet Benicio del Toro last year, partly because a couple of my friends back home fancy the pants off him, but also to compare the big screen image with the real man, and he is a big man, I can vouch for that.  But generally I am not a star gazer or have ever been as impressed by celebrity as others, not even in the days when I was doing anything to get a job in a record company.  I do remember a very cool A&R guy at Sony was pursuing me momentarily and rocked up at my house in Hammersmith at 10pm to whisk me off in his red vintage convertible to meet Cypress Hill.  I’ve just been to the cinema and I’m drinking a cup of tea and I’m quite tired, I said (very rock n’ roll!) and on top of that I’m more of a house girl than a gangster rapper, I added with a shrug.  He looked at me with utter disbelief.  You don’t know how many girls would beg me for this kind of opportunity and with that comment he scorched off down Fulham Palace Road and his flirtation with me was officially over.  I wasn’t sure if the opportunity he was referring to was a night out with him, or a night out with famous gangster rappers.  Anyway I digress …….

I was quite intrigued however when Rafa told me that Hawk Koch (Yes that really is his name) the President of the Academy (that’s the Oscars to the likes of you and me) was in town with Annette Bening and Lisa Cholodenko, the director of The Kids are All Right, which was screening at the festival.  They wanted to come to visit the film school and all the protocol had been set up accordingly for us to pick them up at the National Hotel and they would follow us there.  I was quite intrigued to meet Annette Bening as not only is she one of the better, more heavy-weight Hollywood actresses, she managed to tame Warren Beatty, which was no mean feat I imagine, he, the famous womaniser of Carly Simon You’re so vain fame.

So we met the group in the lobby of the National, all easy going chatty Hollywood people.  I met Annette when I opened the mini bus door outside but was told in no uncertain terms by the Cuban protocol lady that there was no way that I could travel in the bus with them to the school.  Fine with me I thought, but don’t get your knickers in a twist.  I felt like sticking my tongue out but opted for a slightly more mature fake smile with half moon eyes.  Maybe I’m already a marked lady in certain Cuban circles, this straight talking British wife can’t be allowed too close to these Hollywood people you know, they speak the same language …. or that’s what they think!

Anyway the visit all went well and they even delayed their next appointment to stay longer.  Grafitti was scrawled by Hawk, Annette and Lisa on the walls, that incidently, are getting rather full these days.  We had a question and answer session with the students and a quick tour of the facilities.  We ended up at the Ranchon Paladar eating a late lunch with the whole group.

The food took a while to come and in the meantime we were chatting politely, when I noticed with horror that Annette and Lisa were penning a letter to Fidel at the table and dictating comments to each other.  What on earth was someone as cool and elegant as Annette doing acting like some kind of slightly precocious teenager. And why on earth should Fidel Castro be interested in them, as nice as they are?  And if they had to do it, why do it publically in front of us?  Did they think that we would think it was cool?  Now, as far as I was concerned, they suddenly lived on another planet ……… LA LA  Land, where everybody is blown up by their own importance, even if they are nice democrats.

A few days later Rafa and Santiago met with the nice lady who was representing the Academy.  They were offering to send teachers from Hollywood, but alas we couldn’t help them out as the film school has an impressive rostra of visiting teachers and a queue of others offering their services.

When it comes to human capital the film school is rich, and we respect and thank all those people that come to teach at the school year after year for very little money but with a lot of love, and they come from everywhere, including the US.  The Academy had not done its homework!  They wanted to know how they could help the school and in the end the answer was that we didn’t need the help they were offering, but an institutional Oscar would be accepted graciously, if offered!  😉

Miscellaneous musings … Union Jacks, Traffic, the Havana film festival.

I know that the Union Jack has a kind of iconic fashion status like the stars and stripes of the US, and the well merchandised Cuban flag along with Che, however the recent appearance of fashion items boasting the Union Jack seems to be a craze here in Cuba.  I count at least 10 or 12 a day and if I head up town I see more.  When I saw a man wearing a huge Union Jack T shirt and matching espadrilles, I had to go and ask him, what is this obsession in Cuba with the British flag?  He said that he just liked it … the colours and the style.  His wife was laughing, saying he wants to be English but without any great conviction.  I am not sure what is going on but I am sure it is not a sudden and bizarre affection for my country, maybe random knock-off Olympic and Jubilee merchandise is pouring in and the Cubans with their love for bright bold colours and labels are snapping them up.  The following day I bumped into a whole family decked out in Union Jack attire, all with matching espadrilles and T-shirts, father, mother and son in pushchair.  I wish I’d had my camera with me!

One of the first things you notice about Cuba is the lack of traffic, but it seems that for various reasons to do with importation and good old-fashioned supply and demand, cars are now pouring into Cuba.  I am not sure who is importing them and re-selling them but things are changing fast.  These last few weeks I have actually been a little irritated by the traffic, which has never happened to me here.  Even when people are driving as though they are the only person on the road, you always have plenty of space to get round them, as they usually are the only other car on the road.  Now, they are still driving as though they are the only cars on the road, but they are NOT.

Like all transitions, I fear that there will be a rise in accidents, as people are now buying new cars, that can go faster, but they have not learnt the etiquette and safety measures of how to drive in a busier, faster world.  In fact yesterday I saw 2 bad accidents on the Malecon, one of them including a bicycle.  It made me reassess where I was going to go cycling on my new shiny bike bought at Marina Hemingway the other day.  The lack of road markings, pot holes in the road and a general inability to drive in lots of traffic are not helping the situation.  After 8 years of driving in Guatemala I am ready for anything and at least nobody is going to pull a gun on me.  Or at least not yet!

What I want to know is who are all these people buying cars and where did they get their money? Cars are changing hands at inflated prices.   Are they all bureaucrats cashing in on preferential deals while they still can?  Are they ordinary people with money wired from Miami or Canada or wherever?  I don’t know, but in the last couple of months the cars seem to have doubled on the roads and it does not appear that these cars are being driven by the most polite of Cubans.  I was commenting the other day that at least Cubans have to pass their driving tests, unlike in Guatemala where corruption is the usual way to acquire your driving licence.  I wouldn’t be so sure of that commented a wise Cuban friend with a knowing smile ……..

After having the UNESCO visit, hosting Cilect (meeting of international film school directors) and various Hollywood types turning up sniffing around Cuba and the film school we went straight into The Havana film festival which is now coming to an end and I shall be writing about it all soon …. as usual I never get to see any films as I have so many receptions and parties to attend with Rafa and juggling the family and all this has not been easy.  The children missed a day of school, Paulo got into trouble for forgetting to do his homework, I missed a parents meeting.  Never mind, only one week of school left and the Festival finishes tomorrow …..phew.  And Paulo came home with a school report that rocked as did Nico a couple of weeks earlier so all is well in their little trilingual world!

Tonight I am off to meet some British directors who made a road movie in Cuba.  I have not seen the film so I am hoping that they give me a copy and I can at least say I have managed to see one film!


Losing control, peaceful Tuesday and approaching 8.

I appear to have lost control of my children.  I don’t know when this happened, but I am trying to remain calm, as after many years I have realised that being a parent means that nothing is a permanent state.  Nothing lasts, neither the good nor the bad.

I remember the days when friends visiting last Christmas were in awe at the ease I put my little girl to bed.  She was even at times known to ask to go to bed!  Pacha, cuna, Lammy!  Pacha being Guatemalan for bottle, cuna Spanish for cot and Lammy, the inventive name of her cuddly lamb from her English godmother. I even allowed myself to be a little smug about it …. a dangerous emotion when it comes to children.

Anyway needless to say that this no longer remains the case.  Now we get woken up all night by her refrains, the most heart-wrenching of which are ……. Mummy I LOVE you (she has this one down to a tee and it comes in various desperate and persuasive versions), Mummy I want to BE with you (as previous), Mummy I don’t want to be solita (her favourite Spanglish one).  And then she does them all for Papa (sometimes she starts with Papa, as she knows he’s a soft touch) and anyone else she thinks could be in the house at the time.  Not sure why this is going on, but we are beginning to lose patience and feel as though we are parents of a small baby with the amount of sleep disturbance and deprivation we are suffering.

She has become such a bossy boots mandonna.  She makes us sit on the chair next to her bed, or lie on the rug.  A couple of times we have fallen asleep on said rug.  We crawl out of her bedroom on hands and knees, only to be rumbled at the last moment as the door creaks.

The boys are also not being so obedient on the whole going to bed thing either and it is noticeable how much happier as a family we all are when we get some sleep.  Sleep has become a commodity that I am obsessed with like in the small baby days.  My threats and negotiations to try and get the boys to at least stay in their beds reading, after the tooth brushing, storytime, quality parent time is wrapped up, do not appear to be having much success.  In fact they just laugh at me.

Yesterday I dusted down the expensive and very US style responsibility chart that I bought years ago in Guatemala.  It has things like Way to Go, Good Job, and baseball gloves and trophys on it and not many velcro stickers saying things like ….. rubbish!  A long way off! Or a thumbs down sign.  On closer examination I decided this thing but have originated in some God-fearing bible bashing state because it appears that the children don’t need it and it is just there to make the parents feel good and holy.  I have images of sweet southern belle, hat doffing children full of yes sirs and yes maams.

Anyway I showed it to the boys and said that this week we would just concentrate on the going to bed one as I placed the bed Velcro sticker firmly on one side of the week.  Paulo quickly retorted with a know it all sabe lo todo comment that the Velcro sticker was for making your bed.  For my purpose it is going to bed, I said.  Ahh but we know what it really is, he said.  I realised that I was already losing my sense of humour and patience and contemplated throwing the responsibility chart at the sniggering pair.  Then I promised them a special secret prize at the weekend if they manage 5 good school nights.  Then I remembered it was Paulo’s 8th birthday at the weekend so the whole idea of getting something special on Saturday was a bit redundant and as Paulo is the main ringleader on the not going to bed and being cheeky racket, with Nico a willing accomplice, my reward angle was already on rocky ground.

So this week I have a huge piñata birthday party to organize in the back garden and as I am just coming down from the success of our biggest party last Friday in the house, my enthusiasm for organising a children’s bash is slightly waining.  I have to admit to an inherent dislike of children’s birthday parties.  I know I have 3 kids and many years to go but I would willingly give someone a fistful of notes and let them do it for me with a small cameo role for present giving and cake cutting expected whilst I hang out with my friends and enjoy an early glass of wine to get me through.  I know I should revel and enjoy their happiness on their special day …….. but yeah well I just don’t.

So here I am enjoying one of my peaceful Tuesdays when I give everyone the day off and the boys are in school until 4pm after theatre and magic classes and I get chance to write and rattle round the house in my pyjamas with my little Lila the dog.  But I know that this is the quiet before the storm of 30 children descending on the house with puppet shows and jugglers to entertain them.

Also the Havana film festival is just around the corner and I have another couple of parties to organize and a very un-Christmassy Havana Christmas with my biggest goal being trying to find somewhere to sing Christmas carols.

Meanwhile the Cuba winter weather is here, rather better than a British summer and I am marveling at how fast my clothes dry on their windy seaside washing line.  Sad I know, but laundry is the only domestic task I quite enjoy, way more than organizing children’s birthday parties anyway.  To me nothing more satisfying than a fast drying by the sun and wind pillowcase smelling lightly of the sea breeze.  Hmmm maybe I am quite sad, but it is peaceful Tuesday when stroking my fast drying laundry is about as good as it gets ………… ,-)


The EICTV graduates ……. my first three films.

My first 3 films of many ………..

I began with one of the better-known directors/writers who is now pretty famous in Spain and Europe Benito Zambrano.  We actually bumped into him on the dance floor in Guadalajara so I got to put a face to the name.

Havana Blues was the first one that caught my eye as the poster looked fun and I needed something a little lighter.  I actually ended up shedding a tear at the end of the film but not before a wonderful romp through the lives of two musicians and their families and friends and music.

Benito was actually a student at EICTV during the special period, so he knew the hardest times in Cuba and I think he portrays them really well: from the poverty and frustration of no electricity, to families torn apart by economic desires.  But even throughout the worst times, the Cubans still had pride and style.  I think these two things have always kept them going.

The actors are all exceptional and the music a great introduction to some modern Cuban sounds.  The story revolves around two main characters, musicians being seduced by Spanish producers into signing a contract which seems to include selling their Cuban souls, changing their Cuban lyrics and cancelling their first Cuban performance so they can be marketed in Spain as a new politically-repressed act.

The mulatto Ruy, considers this a betrayal to his country and his art, Tito just recognises the financial necessity and his desire to escape the trap.  Throughout all this their families are dealing with breaks ups and heartaches.  A boat full of illegal immigrants in the middle of the night leaving behind fathers and families hit me hard and just writing about it again brings tears to my eyes.  Seeing the mother pull her daughter from the arms of Ruy wading out in the sea as the boats is leaving is about as tough as it gets.  I had hard times in Guatemala when I wanted out of there so badly, but I stayed as I could never have done that to my children or my husband.  Separating families is a constant theme here in Cuba, but not just Cuba.  How many men leave poor Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico to work in minimum wage jobs in the US and never come come back to their families?

After that I moved swiftly on to Benito’s first film, his opera prima which was shot in Seville on a budget of around $750, 000.  His script was selected by the Spanish Ministry of Culture for funding.  In this film I see Benito going back to his Spanish roots.  The pace is slow but never boring, the economy of language makes the script more powerful and allows for steady but beautiful characterisations.  All the people in this film are incredibly believable and all of us have spent lonely times, especially in big anonymous cities even if it is something that is not cool to admit.  In the words of Claire Norton-Smith

Solas is a brave film that’s able to address the broader political concerns of poverty, isolation and physical decline from within the concerns of ‘the family’. It stands as a work of immense maturity and warmth and delivers its message without triteness or sentimentality: “Defeat is not the enemy’s triumph,” as Maria’s aged neighbour declares, “Admitting the defeat is”.

I enjoyed Solas and watching the two films one after the other, I appreciated Benito’s ability to make two such different films describing two very different worlds but at the same time exploring humanity regardless of new world, old world differences.  If you had watched those two films blind I doubt you would have guessed they were the same director.

Next stop …….

I met Tania Hermida at this years Havana film festival, I think I had met her previously at other festivals but never enough to get to know this bright, funny, kind film maker that even throughout the craziness of the festival and the parties, remembered me and brought me a lovely little gift when she came to my house.  Sometimes those little thoughtful things touch you most.  She also knows how to tell a good story!  Ask her about her first personal encounter with the great Garcia Marquez. ………

I loved her first feature film Que tan lejos, (literally translated how really far ….so something like It’s a long way) which I have just noticed is available to buy on Amazon (so get online and buy it now in the name of supporting great independent film making).  Her film could also have the title serendipity or madness just like this blog.  It captures beautifully those journeys you make in your life without realizing you are at some kind of crossroad.  Or maybe those journeys introduce a crossroad, who knows, just like when I travelled to Guatemala all those years ago.  If I ever write my film script, I would love Tania to direct it!

Que tan lejos is a great road movie, a chick flick up there with Thelma and Louise, and a stunning photographical tribute to Ecuador.  It tells a story of spontaneous friendships, broken hearts, dead grandmothers and the fun and unexpectedness of travel.  You can see Ecuador through the eyes of the two female protagonists one from Madrid, Esperanza who innocently loves to explore new worlds with a fresh openness that you can’t help but like and the cynically self named Ecuadorian literature student, Tristeza who is tired of the tourist cliché of picturesque South America and can’t shake her feeling that she needs to escape to something else.   Jesus is a peaceful easy-going lovable character who they meet as he is taking the ashes of his dearly departed grandmother back home.  It is a film that flies past fast and all this with a big sense of humour.  Buy it watch it and lend it to your friends and then book that flight to Ecuador.

This is just my beginning and I hope in the next few years I will get to watch many more films of the graduates.  Poco a poco

PS: This week I saw the Iranian film that won best foreign film at the Oscars.  Separation.  Powerful stuff.  Haven’t felt like that since I saw Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.






New Latin American Cinema ……… and me.

The dust is settling on yet another Latin American Film Festival.  I am becoming a veteran of these events, which is rather strange for a person who has never made a film in her life, Latin or otherwise.  I am a self-confessed interloper in this world but I do love it! I used to escape home life of two baby boys, once a year to the Icaro Festival in Guatemala.  My first visit to Guadalajara festival a few years ago is about the nearest thing Rafa and I have had to a honeymoon!

And quite frankly these days I don’t even get to watch many films during festivals or otherwise.  Although I am introducing my boys to some classic James Bond to give them a little bit of British culture along with the Beatles and the Stones! I am well up on the latest Narnia, Harry Potter or other such delights of children’s cinema.  Yesterday I had a discussion with Paulo and Nico on the reasons why Kung Fu Panda 2 was actually better than the first one!  So you see the depths of film criticism that I am plundering.

So I have never made a film, but I do have 3 beautiful British Guatemalan Co-Productions to my name Paulo, Nico and Saskia.

This was my first Havana Film Festival, and I know it won’t be the last.  The festival takes place in The National Hotel and several cinemas and locations around Havana.  This year it also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Film school (EICTV).  And as usual, the annual meeting of the Fundacion del Nuevo Cine Latin Americano, of which Rafa is a long standing committee member.  And of course there was the most beautiful full moon too.

So very busy we were.  The films I wanted to see but did not get to see include: all the Cuban films, all the films made by friends, all the Guatemalan films I haven’t seen and a few Brazilian and Norwegian ones too!

At least now I know I have access to the film school film library and can console myself with the fact that over the next few years I can work my way through some of the marvels of Latin Cinema at my own, mother of 3, pace.  I am just so glad I got to see a lot of films and read a lot of novels in my not always misspent, and quite extended youth.

With 3 children, it is the usual juggling act of childcare whilst I escape to the many receptions and parties to which I am always invited, to see the huge gang of film makers that make up this wonderful community that revolves around the energy of EICTV and the Fundacion.

But what is New Latin American Cine exactly?  I am told that the term grew out of the dark days when most of Latin America was under right wing dictatorships. When writers, artists and filmmakers trod a delicate line with the authorities.  Also the filmmakers wanted to break away from the avalanche of Hollywood cinema hitting the region and defend the right to express themselves through their own images and stories during a time of great artistic repression.  And from what I can see the movement has not stopped growing since those days.

When I met my husband (whilst interviewing filmmakers in Guatemala) and we began our family (the two events pretty much coincided) I did not realise that I too was entering into another family.  A family of amazingly talented and passionate, independent filmmakers, good friends, warm and wonderful people, who never once made me feel like the interloper I so obviously am.  Who knows maybe one day I will make a film ……… all about them!

The Party at the Film School was almost rained off, not something that happens too much in Cuba.  The Van Vans, could not play and Rafa could hardly wrap up the ceremony as the heavens opened, but it did not stop most of us having a crazy night of dancing, reminiscing and drinking.  Workers and their families mixed with diplomats, students and former students, musicians, film stars, directors, film festival Jury and of course little old me.  Also a handful of my favourite Guatemalans to help me feel at home in my new life!

I had bought a new red dress for the event so I was rather too easily identifiable and I managed to stay up until 5am.  I have to admit that it has taken me a few days to recover.  I managed to keep going for the party in our house in Havana, which took place the following night but just could not make it to the closing party of the festival.  Sorry to those friends I did not get to say goodbye to, but it was a school night!!  I would like to take you up on your invitations some day to visit Brazil, Berlin, Costa Rica ………etc, etc.  But I’ll see you all in Guadalajara in a couple of months, I hope.  Guest Country Reino Unido ………. Oh yes that is my little country!  I have not forgotten you.