Skip to main content

Study Docs in Cuba! No Embargo of Visiting Professors at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión

By Libby Bassett

"I don't believe in the objectivity of the filmmaker," Hatem Kraiche asserts as he introduces himself. "l do believe in the honesty of the filmmaker." Hatem, a one-time journalist in Spain and now a first-year student at Cuba's international film school, Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television (EICTV), is meeting—and challenging—his visiting professor, New York-based filmmaker Robert Richter. He has no inkling yet of Richter's reputation for hard-hitting, truth-telling documentaries that have earned two Academy Award nominations, national Emmy Awards and a top prize at the 1998 Havana International Film Festival, where the Cuban film school discovered him.

Last May, Richter was one of a half-dozen film professionals who had come to Cuba to teach EICTV for two weeks. His assignment was to help first-year directors and screenwriters on their documentaries. Editor Ruth Schell was to help her students become proficient on the school's new AVIDS so they could edit those documentaries—in just one week. Paz Bilbao, a Spain based producer who recently worked in Los Angeles, would help first-year production students realize their documentary projects, using her notes from an IDA seminar she had attended on pitching and proposal writing. French cinematographer Bruno Flament, on his third mission to the school, had a new twist: to enhance his students' artistic perspective, he had brought reproductions of 80 master paintings from Europe and had the budding cinematographers shoot sequences of six, then write a shooting script with narration for the sound students to work on.

"Sometimes the working conditions are difficult, but this is also a present," Flament says. "We are not so dependent on technology here as in our home countries. Finding other ways to solve the problem stimulates the imagination. The originality and the strength of this school is that its teachers come from many places and give their all, so the students get much more than if they had the same teacher year-round."

Ever since the school was founded in 1986, its "professors" have been film and video professionals from over 40 countries who are invited to share their experiences and expertise, generally for two weeks. The staff coordinators of each specialty in the curriculum-production, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, editing and sound-often select visiting teachers from their own professional networks. But there is another source.

The annual Havana International Film Festival has supplied some outstanding guest lecturers, including Costa Gavras, Robert Redford, Ettore Scola, Danny Glover, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Tomas Gutiérrez Alea, Helen Mirren, Wole Soyinka, Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers. Francis Ford Coppola not only has lectured at the school twice, but he even cooked for everyone both times. In 1993, just seven years after its founding, EICTV won the prestigious Rossellini Award at the Cannes Film Festival—a first for any film school—for its work in developing the audio visual industry. And over the past decade, school graduates have won scores of awards at other festivals.

The school's Latin American founders, led by Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez, had big dreams. The first 50 students, all from developing countries, entered in 1987 on full scholarships. The idea was to quintuple that number within a few years and make the school Latin America's premier film and television production center.

Four years late, the Soviet Union disintegrated and so did its support of the Cuban economy. The lean years of the "special period" began. While the school had always had outside support, the Cuban government provided land and buildings, food, transportation and staff wages in local currency. Food became scarce throughout Cuba, as did fuel for transport and electricity. Even though EICTV grows much of its own produce and has its own generator, it still had to tighten its belt. By 1996, as tourist dollars began to filter into the Cuban economy, the decision was made to charge tuition—in US dollars—and increase the class number from 20 to 40 annually.

Students at the two-year school now pay $5,000 for the first year and $7,000 for the second, a fee that covers less than half of what it costs to teach, equip, feed and house them. They are lucky that all video and film stock is supplied by one of EICTV's sponsoring partners, Fujifilm. Another sponsor, Canal+ España, has bought two-time broadcast rights to everything produced at the school, which helps pay for the equipment.

After graduation, the students are eligible for post-graduate work and workshops, not only at the school but at cooperating institutions in Australia, Europe and the US (at Sundance). Another source of funding is the school's ongoing series of professional workshops on such subjects as directing actors, casting, telenovela writing, making documentaries, special effects, community video, make-up, art direction and underwater photography. Over the years, the workshops, taught by professionals from many countries, have attracted more than 2,000 participants. This year, 33 workshops of two to 12 weeks were scheduled, with a cost ranging from $1,000 to $2,400, which includes room and board.

The overall annual budget, EICTV Director Alberto Garcia Ferrer notes, is more than $1 million a year—not much for a school that this year was responsible for 76 undergraduates, some 600 workshop participants, dozens of visiting teachers and 130 staff members. But in the context of Cuba's average monthly wage ($10; doctors earn $30 a month), the annual budget seems more feasible.

The school's mandate is the same now as when it was founded 14 years ago—to train 20- to 26-year-old film and video professionals, primarily from the developing countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa. Over the years, 83 percent of the school's 308 graduates have come from Latin America and the Caribbean. This year, 13 Europeans, two Japanese and a Canadian were among the 76 undergraduates.

In their first year, students get a taste of each specialty the school has to offer. During their last six weeks, they form themselves into seven crews—each comprised of a producer, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, soundperson and editor to make the 13-minute documentaries that will be their first year theses.

School administrators are now considering a specialty in documentaries, which would be on a level with those in directing, screenwriting, etc. School director Ferrer told International Documentary, "The idea is to go back to the best traditions of Latin American film, making creative documentaries rather than journalistic ones. We're not interested in developing the department just to feed television, though that is an important area. We are going to do it, although we are still discussing how to do it. It means more students and an increased budget. We will find the funds."

"It also means changes," academic coordinator Maria Julia Grillo adds. "We have to decide whether to accept more students devoted solely to documentaries or have a multi-purpose first year. But any decision we take means more students, and at present we don't have the capacity. Now we can select about 40 students a year, seven for each specialization. But with a documentary division that would mean 14 directing students-seven for fiction and seven for documentaries."

One proposal under consideration, program director Megali Meneses notes, "would have first-year students work on documentaries in a very personal way, by themselves and not as a team. Then in their second year they would mix in with other departments as needed and make a documentary as their graduation project.

"Now, although the students are separated by specialties, we try to let them know as much as we can about documentaries—the different styles and ways of relating to the subject to find a form that's related to the content," Meneses continues. "This is why we invite different teachers with different styles, to take the best of each teacher."

Looking to the future, visiting filmmaker Richter observes, "The establishment of a documentary division here will be a significant development, not only for the Cuban film school but for documentary production throughout Latin America and other parts of the developing world. With such intelligent, resourceful and dedicated kids as these coming up in the documentary world, I think we can be sure they will create important and provocative works. Let's hope they can be widely distributed."

"l am optimistic that documentaries can be more successful now with new techniques, like CD-ROMs and the Internet," says visiting professor Bilbao. "I want to teach people who are going to stay in the documentary field. My production students here were from such different worlds, one went to high school in this very building, another was a music producer and tv presenter in Mexico. A Colombian girl produced cultural programs and a Spanish girl practiced law in England. Another of my students had a small production company in Guatemala, and their film was in the Havana Film Festival."

Schell, the New York-based editor, remarks, "I was impressed because the students I worked with loved cinema. It was so refreshing compared to film students in the US, who only want to become rich and famous. Here they have solidarity, values and a worldview. They are really artists with something interesting to say."


Libby Bassett is a New York-based writer, editor and designer. She is married to filmmaker (and IDA member) Robert Richter.