Papa: film about Hemingway's Havana years raises hope for Hollywood in Cuba

Biopic about American author’s life in Cuba makes history as first US production filmed on the island since 1960 trade embargo

Ask the people of Cuba today about Ernest Hemingway and many will shake their heads. “Big drinker” comes up a lot. “Very difficult man,” say others. But most will then break into a reverential smile. “But he was also brave,” says one Havana bartender, to nods of approval. “He loved Cuba when it was dangerous to do so. He stood up for our country. We see him as one of us.”

The American novelist’s relationship with this Caribbean island is well-documented. He lived there for 30 years, writing some of his most famous works in his Finca Vigía home and spending his evenings drinking at El Floridita in Havana. It was only a few months after he was forced to leave his beloved Cuba due to the revolution that he took his own life.

It is fitting, therefore, that a film documenting Hemingway’s final troubled few years on the island this week made history in Cuba. Papa, which premiered at this year’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, was the first American production to be shot on the island in over 50 years, since the trade embargo was imposed in 1960.

Its debut at this year’s festival has been taken by many as symbolic of the opening up between the US and Cuba, following the renewal of diplomatic relations in December last year. At the Havana premiere, an official from the American embassy said he expected many more Hollywood productions to follow in Papa’s footsteps.

Many have also argued that if more Hollywood productions come to Cuba, giving the island an increased international visibility, artists and intellectuals will be emboldened to speak out against cultural oppression and censorship – which can lead to imprisonment or exile.

The US trade embargo on Cuba remains in place but the director of Papa, Bob Yari, said he hoped other productions would follow suit and prove the embargo was both “outdated and redundant”.

“I absolutely believe this will be a pivotal film,” said Yari. “What we’ve done here will hopefully trigger more film-maker cooperations and more film-making in Cuba from the US side, as well as raise an awareness that this embargo really should be dropped, because it’s the Cuban people who are suffering. And I think it is perfect that it was a film about a man who was beloved by both Americans and Cubans that finally broached that barrier.”

The script was written by and based on the experiences of journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who befriended Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) and his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), after writing the author an impassioned letter. Yari said he felt it would be “inauthentic” to film it anywhere else.

Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson in Havana.
Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson in Havana promoting the film. Photograph: Desmond Boylan/AP

“This was a story so rooted in Cuba and the places of Cuba, and the look of Havana is very difficult to duplicate,” he said.

That view was echoed by Sparks, who said making the film in the settings Hemingway had lived, worked and drunk – including his home, which is preserved as a museum, the former government palace, and even Hemingway’s real typewriter – had helped make Papa a depiction of the author like no other.

“It made me aware of how much Cubans adore Hemingway. I’d be walking down the street and people would shout out ‘Papa’ because that’s how everyone on the island knew him. He felt loved here, and I really felt that just by being here, it was palpable – and it made me really understand why he lived here for 30 years. It had a very profound impact on the film.”

Papa’s backstory was long and difficult. It took Yari two years to convince the US State Department and US Treasury to make an exception for the film, and even then he had to agree to a £100,000 spending limit for the cast and crew – a staggering budget limitation for a Hollywood production.

On the Cuban side, Yari had to submit the script to the government in Havana, though Yari was keen to point out they made no changes. While Cuba is now open to filming, the Cuban Institute of Film (ICAIC) clearly states: “Permits will not be granted if the script content is detrimental to the image of the country and the people of the Cuba.”

A mural featuring Hemingway shaking hands with Fidel Castro decorates a wall in a car park in Havana.
A mural featuring Hemingway shaking hands with Fidel Castro decorates a wall in a car park in Havana. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

It was 1961 when Fidel Castro’s government censored the first film, a documentary featuring a largely black crowd socialising in the Havana port. The scene supposedly depicted people engaged in counter-revolutionary activities such as prostitution and organised crime. The ICAIC, which is still state-run, continues to entirely fund, produce and create most cinema created in Cuba.

More recent incidents of cultural censorship include the beating and imprisonment of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera for attempting to stage her inflammatory public installation Tatlin’s Whisper without a permit. Graffiti artist El Sexto was also recently imprisoned for 10 months for planning an art installation that would have seen two pigs daubed with Fidel and Raul running through a Havana square.

Another damning reflection on the state oppression of cultural activity came last year when the government cancelled the sold-out production of Eugène’s Ionesco Exit The King, adapted by Juan Carlos Cremata, without explanation. Cremata was later pulled up in front of the National Council of Live Arts and accused of treason.

It was the second time the playwright had seen his work pulled, and he reacted with a strongly critical open letter, calling the move “the abusive use of absolutist power wielded in the cruel exercise of vile censorship ... In the name of this ‘national socialism’ we are restricted, repressed, sanctioned, gagged”.

Cinema, though seen by Cubans nationally as a much more truthful and honest window onto their world than the state-run newspapers, is not exempt from such controls.

Last year, a film scripted by leading Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, Return to Ithaca, was prevented from being shown at the Havana-based film festival. It told the story a group of disillusioned friends after the Cuban revolution and their struggles of the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The film had been initially accepted but was later de-listed for unspecified reasons.

According to reports, the Cuban film authority also recently blocked a film based on a novel by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez from being produced on the island.

This year at the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, there are nine Cuban films on the programme, five of which are made and funded entirely by the state, and four which are classed as independent. Yet “independent film” in Cuba remains something of a misnomer.

Tourists walk around the home that once belonged to Hemingway, known as Finca Vigía, in Havana.
Tourists walk around the home that once belonged to Hemingway, known as Finca Vigía, in Havana. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

While film-makers are now allowed to make their own movies outside the state-run film institute, independent film production companies are banned in Cuba because they are deemed to be a capitalist enterprise. This means independent film-makers must go in search of money abroad, yet to do that they must get permission from the government, and a stamp of accreditation. In order to get such a stamp, the state-run institute must read the script and approve of it – thus eliminating true independence.

It was an issue faced by Cuban director Pavel Giroud, whose first independent film The Companion, is among those being screened at the Havana festival this year. It deals with controversial subject matter – the Cuban government’s programme to deal with the HIV and Aids pandemic in the 1980s where they locked all people diagnosed with the disease in a sanatorium, giving them food and drugs but not allowing them to leave.

It took Giroud six years to get his film made, because the previous president of the film industry had not liked The Companion, so refused to give him the stamp. It was only with the arrival of a new president two years ago he finally got the certificate he needed to go abroad for funding.

“If the government doesn’t want you to make the film, it is a great problem,” said Giroud. “I could go to other countries and make it but I never wanted to make a clandestine film.”

He denied that his film’s depiction of the lives of the HIV patients in the sanatorium as quite pleasant and comfortable was pandering to the government, who had kept this programme quite secret at the time.

“I know cases where the government had censored some films, but not in my case,” he said. “My first impulse was to condemn but in the process for me it was more important to play with the dichotomy, the contradictions of the programme, because it did stop a lot of people dying. I hate it when cinema is accusatory.”

Giroud was adamant that Cuban cinema had become increasingly political in the past decade, mainly unhindered by censorship, and was backed up by Marta Dias, an organiser of the Havana film festival and the dean of Cuba’s film school. The main themes Dias said were recurring in the work of young Cuban film-makers were political – “topics like concerns over their future, their sexuality, immigrations, drugs, the changes in the economy and the challenges Cuba is facing”.

Yet Giroud he and his fellow film-makers, directors and screenwriters are now pushing for change in the law to secure a more independent and protected film industry for Cuba. For the past year the group have been pushing to get the government to allow them to set up entirely independent production companies in Cuba to make and fund films, as well as laws that would protect film-makers from piracy.

Giroud said that while relations between America and Cuban would hopefully benefit this process, he believed it would be very slow and that it was still up to the current generation of Cuban film-makers to bring about the change.

“As an artist it is very hard working in this environment but it makes you creative because you have to find other ways of saying things,” he said. “But, of course, it is my dream that things will be easier.”


Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Havana

The GuardianTramp

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