There's an unmistakeable air of mischief about Iskánder but he's an intensely serious filmmaker an independent filmmaker, which in Cuba means he has always refused to do things the easy way. "I make films without financing," he explains. "I work with many people who have nothing to do with the movie business, who come together to help me realise my projects. Nobody tells me what to do, nobody censors me."
Iskánder has cultivated his status as an outsider and he looks the part with long black hair, tinted glasses and manic energy. When we meet for our interview he's unable to sit still, loping around like a predator on the lookout for new turf. He seems like someone who has fought for and won his artistic freedom and who has been working hard to do something with it.
Iskánder's breakthrough came in 2006 with Mañana (Tomorrow), which he scripted and directed. The film's narrative, which jumps around in time and space, follows a young man (Rafael E. Hernández) as he drowns any real aspirations in the elixir of hedonism. "It's really a film about egotism," says Iskánder, "about how people's selfishness kills things."
Iskánder's real achievement with Mañana was to produce the film completely outside official channels. Cuban filmmakers typically rely on the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográfico (ICAIC), the state agency in charge of film financing and distribution. Instead Iskánder made Mañana on a ridiculously small budget, raising seed money from some of Cuba's most prominent artists, among them Silvio Rodríguez, Juan Formell and K'cho. Ironically, after the film was completed and became something of an underground hit with DVDs passing from hand to hand, the ICAIC came around and agreed to distribute it officially.
Iskánder was born in 1969 as Alejandro Moya. His father, who was also called Alejandro Moya, nicknamed him "Iskánder" in reference to the Persian name of Alexander the Great. That nudge in the direction of the heroic sat just fine with young Iskánder but his dreams of conquest were confined to the world of art. He tried music. He wrote poetry. When he got hold of a cheap Smena camera and started taking his first pictures as a teenager he realised he was getting closer to doing what he wanted. Then he veered into the family business: television.
Iskánder grew up on TV sets. Hs father was an accomplished director and producer for Cuban television; his mother, a director, writer and actress. When he was 17 he began working as assistant director to his father on various long-running TV series. In 1996 he directed nearly 100 episodes of a series called "All to the Fire", which won him a national award. Then, whether he had outgrown television or was made to feel unwelcome, the result was the same: he resigned from the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (ICRT), ostensibly because he had been unable to see his own scripts produced.
Iskánder left Cuba in 1998, commissioned to develop and direct one of his scripts in Spain, but the transplant didn't take. "I'm one of those Cubans who can't survive too long outside the country," he recalls. "I was gone for 99 days and I came running back."
He went back to writing poetry but all of it went unpublished. He couldn't find work as a director. In 2005 he told his wife, Diana, that he would have to do something creative in Cuba or he would die trying. "I looked around the neighbourhood where I was living [Miramar] and I thought, 'That's it! A film about people living in this neighbourhood.'" He wrote the script for Mañana in 18 days. A lot of the action takes place in the house where Iskánder, Diana, Diana's brother and her parents were living at the time.
Iskánder intended Mañana to be the first part of his Cuban trilogy. He completed the second part, Ahora (Now), in 2008. But before embarking on the final instalment, he got interested in rappers Los Aldeanos and started making a documentary about them. Los que no van a Morir (Those Who Won't Die) shows what happened when Cuba's most notorious rap duo met the island's leading cinema provocateur.
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