He is sometimes described as the filmmaker who is "most representative" of Cuban cinema, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the films of Fernando Pérez are any less personal and powerful because of that description. He was born in 1944 in Guanabacoa, at that time a small village on the eastern outskirts of Havana. His father, who was a postman, took him to see his first movie when he was 6 or 7 years old. It was a western and Pérez recalls vividly the effect all those cowboys and indians had on him. "It's not like I said to myself, 'Aha, I'm going to become a movie director', but the identification had begun. And it would become a vocation."
Pérez began working as an apprentice at the age of 17. There were no film schools in Cuba at the time so he trained himself, working on whatever film he could find. Crafting more than 50 documentary films for the ICAIC Latin-American news service, Pérez learned "to approach reality with a cinematographic mindset, sharply, improvising solutions." One film from that period that can still be viewed today is Omara (1983), about Omara Portuondo, a legendary Cuban singer and dancer. Elements of fiction are apparent in the film's recreation and interpretation of her point of view.
It wasn't until 1987 when he was 43 that Pérez made Clandestinos. Starring Cuban screen legends Luis Alberto García and Isabel Santos, Clandestinos is a romance set in the final days of the Batista era. Hello Hemingway came next and, like Clandestinos, was set in the 1950s. Pérez's breakaway film was Madagascar in 1994 and it was the first to win him significant international recognition. Running a mere 53 minutes, Madagascar was hailed in the New York Times as "an extraordinary meditation on the lost promise of youth and revolution."
With his next two films Pérez kept his eye on the modern Cuban experience or, more specifically, the experience of living in Havana. His Suite Habana (2003) was called an "unexpectedly melancholy homage to the battered but resilient inhabitants of a battered but resilient city" by the American movie magazine Variety. Madrigal (2007) depicts the world of Havana theatre.
"I didn't feel ready to approach contemporary Cuban reality at first," Pérez recalls. "I didn't feel my insight into that reality went deep enough yet. In 1993 and 1994 the economic and social crisis was at its worst point and we didn't know if we could even continue making films. There was no electricity, no transport, no food, the entire country was on the brink of paralysis. I felt it was time to express something on behalf of my generation and what came out in Madagascar was the beginning of a language that isn't totally realistic, more metaphorical. This is the kind of cinema that really interests me."
Is it a contradiction to seek to express reality via a work of fiction? "I don't think so," he says. "I'm a movie-maker, but also a movie-lover, and when a film grips me, by the force of its narrative, by the motivation that surges out of its characters, I believe its story, its reality, I absorb it. And this is the type of cinema I like to make, because I believe in the esthetic emotion and in cinema that creates emotion and then lets you come up with your thoughts. When you work with emotions you create profound thought and consciousness."
We meet for our interview on Calle 23 in the lobby of the ICAIC, the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos. The building resonates with memories for Fernando Pérez. He remembers coming here to see films as a boy from Guanabacoa. He looks around the lobby at the film posters (some for his own films) covering the walls and ceiling, and he says, "I love Havana. There's an energy here I can't put words on, something is happening I feel I belong here, I feel creative here. I'd like to live 3,000 years out of sheer curiosity to see what Havana will become."
- 1 Fernando Pérez, Cuban film director
- 2 Fernando Pérez, Cuban film director
- 3 Fernando Pérez, Cuban film director
- 4 Fernando Pérez, Cuban film director
- 5 Fernando Pérez, Cuban film director