Cuban Film Research, An Introduction

“El cine es un arte.”

–       Ley No. 169, the second law of Cuba’s Revolutionary government, 1959


December 31, 1958.  Cuban revolutionary forces, led by Fidel Castro, defeat Batista’s troops in the city of Santa Clara.  January 1, 1959. President Batista flees Cuba in the dead of night.  January 8, 1959. Castro and his revolutionaries arrive in Havana, Cuba.  The Revolution is over.  Or, rather, it has just begun…


March 20, 1959.  Castro’s Revolutionary government issues its second official decree.  Weeks earlier, the first decree had announced the authority and legitimacy of the Revolution.  What would the second decree entail?  Organization of legislative power? Enumeration of executive responsibilities?  An outline of voting procedures in Cuba?  To the contrary, this historic Revolutionary decree, Ley No. 169, establishes the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).  It acknowledges the potential of film to foment revolutionary spirit in Cuba, and asserts that above all, “el cine es un arte [film is art]”.  From this moment on, the social, cultural, political, and ideological fabrics of Cuba are not so much spun by the loom as they are by the camera lens.  Cuban film adopts a practical, educational, organizational role, while evolving into a supremely unique art form.  The extraordinary development of film in Cuban society will be the subject of my summer research.


Preliminary study of the development of Cuba’s national cinema and present film culture will give way to more specialized research into cinematic representations of Havana, in particular.  Specifically, I will analyze how Cuba’s capital city has been depicted on screen across space (how these representations differ between cinema filmed on the island and cinema filmed off of it) and time (how these representations have changed over the past century).  The following research questions will further guide my investigation: How do pre-Revolution representations of the city differ from post-Revolution representations?  Are there different iconic locations before and after the Revolution?  Have urban restoration efforts in Old Havana, resulting from the declaration of Havana as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, influenced current cinematic depictions of the city?  How have cinematic representations of Havana responded to forces of globalization in Cuba and related changes in migration, communication, and tourism?

My research into Cuban film and the cinematic representation of Havana will be structured around the production, compilation, and editing of the book World Film Locations: Havana.  With my fantastic research adviser- Professor Ann Marie Stock- I will be preparing this book for its publication at the end of the summer.  I am honored to have been granted the freedom and support by Professor Stock to write a series of original essays for our book.  I am currently drafting two essays that will respectively describe the depiction of Cuba’s National Art Schools in the documentary Unfinished Spaces, and the cinematic substitution of San Juan, Puerto Rico and Montevideo, Uruguay for Havana when socio-political barriers impede filming directly in Cuba.  I approach these essays with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a filmmaker looking through the camera for the first time. I am absolutely thrilled to be involved in our literary tribute to the genius of Cuban film and the entrancing city of Havana.  More to come on the progress of my essays, my transcription of filmed interviews with Cuban directors, and my recent visit to the Cuban cinema panel discussion at this year’s Latin American Studies Association’s annual conference in D.C.  So stay tuned!



  1. Where does your interest in Cuba come from?

  2. laleblanc says:

    Hi Emma,

    Never knew Cuba had such a strong film culture! I’ll be interested to hear from you about how Cuban film culture has changed over time.

    Did you initially predict post-revolutionary cinema to be entirely dominated by a communist lens? Does post-revolution cinema in Cuba deviate from the highly politicized cinema of the early Soviet Union or other early communist countries?

  3. emrodvien says:

    Great questions! The history of film in Cuba is fascinating because while it is intrinsically linked to the geopolitical situation of the island, it has also developed in ways that appear at times contradictory to the socio-political climate in Cuba. Prior to 1959, almost all of the films shot in Cuba were foreign movies, mainly US films that needed a swank, glitzy tropical locale. After the Revolution, this all changed, due in large part to 2 main events: the US embargo (which ended the filming of American movies on the island) and the establishment of the Cuban Institute of Film. Interestingly enough, this was the first decree of the new REvolutionary government. Aka, Fidel liked his movies. This meant that the government funneled many resources into creating a new national cinema to promote the new Cuba- not just the new politics of Cuba, but the new social fabric and the new island aesthetic. It’s interesting because not all of the films from the early Revolutionary years are politicized- many have to do with the general sense of confusion that dominated the island. They broach the questions of “who are we as a nation?”, “what role does art play in our new society?”. In recent years, though, due to the struggling economy, the government can’t fund as many cinematic projects as it used to, so there is a huge movement of young, independent filmmakers who make movies separately from the national film institute. This has really diversified the range of topics, styles, and filming techniques utilized in Cuban film