There was no BestBuy nearby or FedEx delivery to quickly ship a replacement to the Cuban capital.”It took us three days to find another,” the Cuban-born U.S. filmmaker recalled. For years, a small contingent of U.S. directors and producers has managed to legally travel and film in Cuba despite the U.S. embargo against the country, navigating a maze of ever-changing U.S. Treasury Department regulations to get approval. Once in Cuba, they’ve been bound to working with just the few cameras and equipment they are able to bring and a tight cash-only budget with no access to an ATM. Now their work could become considerably easier.
Under President Barack Obama’s new regulations, which went into effect this month, documentary filmmakers will no longer need to apply for permission to travel to Cuba from the U.S. government. The process of filming should be simpler as well: The ban prohibiting U.S. banks and credit card companies from operating on the island and the cap on daily expenses have been lifted. American Express Co. and MasterCard have announced plans to start doing business in Cuba.
And down the line, American companies could help boost the island’s Internet and communication systems. The eased trade and travel measures are expected to increase the number of U.S. filmmakers shooting on the island. However, a major Hollywood production still appears a distant prospect.
While documentary filmmaking is permitted, travel for feature-length commercial films is not specifically authorized. Even if it were, there remain a number of barriers: The U.S. embargo is still in place and Cuba’s tightly-controlled economy is stagnant. “It’s still not an open door,” said Bill Martinez, a California-based attorney who has helped U.S. filmmakers travel to Cuba.
Hollywood and Havana’s relationship dates back to the 1920s, when the Fox Film Corporation filmed scenes for its “Movietone Follies” in Cuba. Despite decades of sour U.S.-Cuba relations, many celebrities have been unafraid to flaunt their affection for the island: Beyonce and Jay-Z notoriously visited Cuba — legally — to celebrate their anniversary in 2013.
Sean Penn visited and interviewed Raul Castro in 2008. Filming in Cuba, however, has remained a vexing odyssey. To produce his film “Alumbrones,” examining the work and life of 12 Cuban artists, Rojas and director Bruce Donnelly contracted a Canadian production company to help obtain a Cuban government film permit. The post-production work was done in Brazil.
Alysa Nahmias, the director of “Unfinished Spaces,” an award-winning documentary on Cuba’s revolutionary National Arts Schools, said it took 10 years to finish her film working on a cash-only budget on the island. Bob Yari, who filmed a feature-length Ernest Hemingway biopic “Papa” on the island last year, said it was hard to do basic tasks like pay crew members. “I think those things are going to be much simpler now,” he said. A number of new works filmed in Cuba are now underway:
Actor Matt Dillon is making a film on Afro-Cuban music. The Discovery Channel is filming “Cuban Chrome,” which will follow Cuban car mechanics trying to keep their classic American cars on the road. Rojas is working on a second documentary, chronicling the life and work of a gay men’s jazz ensemble he founded in Havana. The filmmaking bubble comes at a time when Cuba’s independent film community is thriving despite limited access to digital technology.
Film will be an important channel to share stories and bridge a five-decade divide, said Catherine Murphy, a producer for Dillon’s documentary. “That’s what’s beautiful about documentaries,” said Murphy, who spent eight years producing the documentary “Maestra” on the women teachers behind Cuba’s 1961 National Literacy Campaign.
“The power of the human story.” There are economic motives for Hollywood to return to Havana as well — it’s cost effective. Cuba offers low labor and material fees. And aside from a lush tropical landscape, Cuba offers something that hasn’t changed much since the last time Hollywood had a significant presence in Havana: Locations that still look like the 1950s.