The 34th edition of the Havana Film Festival was held in Cuba last month. It's retained its socialist-tinged remit of Latin American films for the masses, but since the fall of the USSR has been opening out with increasingly global programming and more foreign guests. Dazed was invited for its ten days to stay in the Hotel Nacional, the festival's hub. A sprawling mash-up of art deco and neo-classical styles, it was built as a copy of the Breakers Hotel in Florida's Palm Beach and harks back to the city's decadent resort era. In the '40s it hosted the largest-ever get-together of the US mafia, who rolled into town under the guise of a Frank Sinatra concert. Now that the casino's gone and photos of Castro line the halls, it's a potent symbol of perceived tourist wealth to Cubans on the hustle.
Shortages are a daily fact of life in embargoed Havana, and cinema's no exception. With limited, rigidly controlled internet access (Cuba has one of the lowest usage rates in the world) and extremely slow connections (even trying to check email is a hair-pulling frustration) downloading films is next to impossible, so the festival is a point of rare availability of quality cinema for locals.
Of the 21 Latin American features in the main competition, three were Cuban and in these scraping a living through desperate measures was a running theme. Daniel Diaz Torres's broad-humoured Ana's Film might well be a wry comment on Michael Glawogger's documentary Whore's Glory, which observed brothels in developing nations. It sees a soap actress latch onto her chance for a highly-paid role, emulating a hooker to sign on for a documentary about prostitution in Cuba being shot by a naive, exploitative Austrian crew. In black comedy For Sale by Jorge Perrugoria (who gained fame as an actor in '90s Cuban cult classic Strawberry and Chocolate), a man tries to sell his only possession: the family tomb. For whatever it's worth, non-prudish Cuba might be the only nation to have twinned the badly choreographed musical with porn-style sex, Jorge Luis Sanchez's Irredeemably Together being the sole film we've seen where a couple serenade each other during an energetic shag.
Three of the strongest films in the main competition are set for UK release this year. Post Tenebras Lux, Carlos Reygadas' visually lush, sensory stream of bizarre images and fantasies (from an orgy in a French sex club with rooms named after philosophers to a glowing red devil stalking through hallways with a toolbox), was partly shot at the director's own home in the Mexican wilderness, and depicts class tensions through the lens of a conflicted middle-class couple. Argentinian director Pablo Trapero's White Elephant, a tense and emotionally devastating drama about priests working with youths in a slum on the Buenos Aires outskirts, also shows disenfranchisement as a catalyst for violence, while Pablo Larrain's No from Chile stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad-man called on to use his talents for political campaigning during the dictatorship years.
But the biggest revelation was Los Mejores Temas from Mexico's Nicolas Pereda, a daringly experimental, witty fiction-documentary blend about the return of an absent, flaky father to face the resentment of his son, who hawks CDs for money. In the first feature section a highlight was Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho's Neighbouring Sounds - also coming out in the UK this year. Set in Recife, one of Brazil's most violent cities, it sees disquiet grow when private security guards are introduced in a gated community, using strikingly innovative sound design for an atmosphere of creeping paranoia. If Castro was right in saying a revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past, these two films prove Latin America fighting fit for cinematic innovation.