Sunday, October 18, 2009

A first hand commentary: The Agony and The Ecstasy of Making Independent Movies

For over 39 years I have been involved -directly as well as through my ex husband Orlando Jimenez Leal and my brother Leon Ichaso- on "the agony and the ecstasy of making independent movies".

And this dramatic phrase is the perfect one to describe our plight!

Especially -since we all are Cuban exiles and came to the USA when we were very young- we all have made movies and documentaries that have to do with Cuba, albeit without having the help and support of a 'state sponsorhip', like the Cuban filmmakers in the island have. On the contrary! Cuban filmmakers in exile have pushed ahead with a total lack of support fron officials of any government sponsored institution, as well as with a sometimes surprising lack of support from many of our own people, our compatriots.

Some compatriots have helped though- like when my cousins Purita and Julio Carrillo- organized an amazing and generous cooperative among their friends and we were able to finish the filming of Bitter Sugar (Azucar Amarga in 1996. As well as the time when RAI Italy paid for Orlando's documentary "The Other Cuba" --and a French company helped with "Improper Conduct", directed by Orlando and Nestor Almendros. A cooperative of Cuban/American doctors and human rights activists, produced my documentary "Ninos del Paraiso"...All this has been wonderful but scant. But when it comes to "go to the movies" --and support the films with their presence, it has been quite a poor showing, even in a city like Miami! Of course, I later discovered than in Miami most Cubans do not go to the movies --and when distribution companies faced that reality, their support for our films trickled down to zero.

It's a shame, because -at least according to my experience with our 'family' films- if people had any inkling of the countless sacrifices we make when it comes to bring to fruition these films, they would be very, very surprised! From physical sacrifices (carrying cameras, working 20 hours a day, facing horrible stress, etc) --to depleting savings, paying with maxed-out credit cards, finding actors and technicians who would work 'gratis' on the promise of getting paid when and whenever the movie was sold and some money came back to us ---even using up whatever little money we have received from our parents upon their death, like Leon just did with our mother's savings for him which he used to make his latest film Paraiso --it's an amazing path. And sometimes a horror story! Debts, emptied bank accounts and -to boot- sometimes the insults of discontented actors and actresses who 'think' they have not been paid because the money went into our personal bank accounts. If they knew!

Ever since El Super, in 1979, we have faced these problems. El Super, which Leon decided to make when he saw the play written by Ivan Acosta --- and started filming with $18,000 from a Goya Foods commercial he had made, plus my contribution (on my new credit card) of the 'production car' --and my father paying for the 'catering' of sandwiches cubanos for cast and crew! Orlando joined in as a DP after finishing a Julio Iglesias movie and did not get paid either...I remember he even doubted joining Leon in such a crazy adventure the same day the shooting was due to start! But it was a success immediately --and later on some nice Cubans (Emilio Guede Sr. and some of Orlando's friends) paid for the cost of finishing the movie --which helped sending it to the Venice Film Festival where it received a standing 10 minute ovation! The situation was so bad that Orlando, who was making money with his succesful career as a director of TV commercials, was the only one able to attend the European Festivals (Venice, Deauville, Biarritz, etc.) where El Super was shown. Leon had no money to do so, so he never went to one single big movie festival to hear the praise El Super was receiving -- and at that time even the electricity was disconnected from his New York apartment, which our father had to run and pay for! Those were the years!

When in 1999 I made my documentary Marcadas por el Paraiso (Branded by Paradise)-which was highly praised and very succesful- I paid 100% for everything with my own savings, including trips to Madrid, Paris and Miami, to film some of the women. Gloria Pineyro generously helped me with the editing --and the film went on to amazing success in exhibitions in film festivals, universities all over the world and even the United States Congress. But nobody bought it, very few people saw it --and I never recovered my savings. All was done for Cuba and to show the world the truth about women in Cuba! I hoped it did.

And so on...and now this brings us to 2009, when Leon made Paraiso, and again we are faced with the dilemma: Will audiences go see it?...Will he even recover his investment?...Will this stunning film bring in the help and support from moviegoers as well as distribution companies? It's funny, because he even credits our late mother Antonia Ichaso as "Executive Producer" of the film! She was!

Paraiso is another example of 100% independent cinema about a Cuban subject. A movie made with 30 thousand dollars and a crew of 10, including 4 film students from Miami Dade College. But since it is honest, blunt and realist, it will probably shoo-away the eternal Che/t-shirt/wearing/ sympathizers (including 2 Movie Festival directors in Spain which already have rejected it!. But --will it bring the Cuban exiles to bat for it? The Miami TV stations to buy it and show it?

I really hope so, because like in our family, there are many of us, Cuban-Americans who make independent movies with great sacrifices ---and maybe one day someone will notice it.