FEATURE ARTICLE by Willard Manus

HAVANA, CUBA -- Cuba's hottest film director is Gerardo Chijona. His last two films--ADORABLE LIES and A PARADISE UNDER THE STARS-- have been successful in Cuba and abroad, but neither has been released theatrically in the USA, despite the fact that both were well received and reviewed at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. ADORABLE LIES, however, has been shown on the Sundance cable channel.

ADORABLE LIES is that rare cinematic bird, a contemporary musical. Much of it was shot in the Tropicana, the famed, glitzy Havana nightclub whose popularity predates the Revolution. Shot on a budget of $400,000 (put up by a Spanish company), the musical deals quite openly with many of Cuba's social problems, but in a lighthearted and satirical way. One of Chijona's heroes is Woody Allen and he and his co-scenarist watched many of Allen's films before writing ADORABLE LIES' script.

The musical attracted a sizable audience in Cuba; two million people out of the eleven-million population saw the film, which then went on to play before packed houses all over the world--except in the USA. "Just about every American distributor at Sundance told me how much they liked the film," Chijona said, "but they all turned it down because it was in Spanish and would require subtitles in the American market. Americans just won't watch a subtitled musical, they insisted."

Thanks to ADORABLE LIES' success, Chijona was able to find financing for his second feature, A PARADISE UNDER THE STARS, which was shot on a smaller budget. For inspiration, Chijona watched numerous Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges comedies. "They have the cynical humor that I was going for," he said. PARADISE was also a hit in Cuba and elsewhere, giving Chijona the clout and the confidence to plan his next feature, which is in the script stage.

Chijona's contact with Sundance dates back to 1991, when he attended a Latin American seminar on a fellowship. He was able to develop ADORABLE LIES' script under the tutelage of such old Hollywood hands as Abe Polonsky, Walter Bernstein and Matthew Robbins. He later studied direction with Oliver Stone and Ulu Grosbard. The latter once lived in Cuba, Chijona reported, and "speaks Cuban. He recently returned to Havana and visited his old home."

Chijona did not set out to become a filmmaker. A child of the Revolution, he attended Havana University and studied American and British literature. "There was no film school then," he said. He got into the movie business by becoming a critic for the daily newspaper Granma. "I learned filmmaking by watching what to do and not do."

Then he began making documentaries "on the human condition both before and after the Revolution." One of his first efforts was shown in Havana movie houses on the same bill with Indiana Jones. After six years of preparation, he was ready to move into features.

At one time, Cuba made about a dozen features a year on budgets that were provided fully by the government. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and the financial help that country provided), the Cuban economy took a nosedive. Filmmakers had to look for outside financial backing, resulting in a national production schedule of three or four a year.

"However, Spain, France and Canada come down to shoot their own movies here," Chijona pointed out. "Thanks to the film school that opened in Havana in 1986--the private International Foundation of Latin American Cinema--we have many well-trained technicians to offer these foreign companies. We also have excellent labs and sound stages. A production team coming from abroad need only bring key personnel with it."

Of equal importance is the International Film Festival that takes place in Havana every Fall and shows dozens of films in and out of competition. Included are numerous independent films from the USA (the major Hollywood studios can't show because of the American-imposed embargo). "In the area of the arts there are no restrictions in Cuba," Chijona said. "The worst censorship is money. We have many film projects that have been approved and are awaiting production--but we can't move on them until we find backing from abroad. All these projects are different from each other, by the way. The diversity in Cuba is the important thing to stress. No one wants to resemble anyone else."