LatinoBuzz: Havana Film Festival New York Closes with Cuban Zombie Comedy Juan of the Dead

Why a Cuban Festival?

I’ve attended the Havana Film Festival New York for a couple years and have heard lots of reactions. People who are at the Quad Cinema (the festival’s main venue) to watch other non-festival films sometimes wander up to the information table, look over a catalogue, and ask things like, “Movies from Cuba, is that legal?” I once heard an old guy mutter “Havana! Why would you support communism?” and storm out of the theater. I guess this is the consequence of a trade embargo that not only stops the flow of money between the U.S. and Cuba but can also inhibit cultural exchange. American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, the organization which produces the festival, is committed to “building cultural bridges between the United States and Cuba.”

The Festival--a Family Affair

The Havana Film Festival New York does exactly that. The 13th annual festival screened 40 films from across Latin America and hosted almost as many filmmakers. Directors, actors, and producers were flown in from Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Guatemala. The festival’s small scale creates a close-knit community of filmmakers who end up watching and discussing each other’s films at dinners that last into the wee hours of the night. At the Closing Night Awards Ceremony last Friday, Sergio Ramirez, director of Distancia (Distance) (Isa:Producccions Concepcio) said it best, “The beautiful thing about this festival is that you feel like you are with family.”

Closing Night Awards Ceremony--a Guatemalan Sweep

Ramirez, a Guatemalan filmmaker, was the big winner of the night being awarded the Havana Star Prize for both Best Picture and Best Director. Best Screenplay went to Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra for Trabalhar Cansa (Hard Labor)(Isa:Cinema Do Brazil). The Brazilian thriller was the pair’s first feature and had its world premiere at Cannes. Con mi corazón en Yambo (With My Heart in Yambo), by Maria Fernanda Restrepo won the Havana Star Prize for Best Documentary.

Closing Night Screening--Severed Limbs, Blood Hungry Zombies, and Social Commentary

The absolute highlight of the night was the New York Premiere of the hilarious and campy Cuban zombie film Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead)(Isa:LatinoFusion). As Havana becomes flooded with zombies, the Cuban government declares that the living dead are just dissidents paid by the U.S. to stir things up. Juan, a part-time thief and full-time slacker steps in and starts a zombie-killing service.

Billed as Cuba’s first zombie movie, it’s a Spanish-Cuban co-production with a $3 million budget. It’s probably not appropriate to quote exactly what the director, Alejandro Brugués, said when asked how he managed to put together millions for the film but let’s just say he alluded to sexual favors. Brugués clearly doesn’t take himself or the film too seriously. When a young woman asked his thoughts on the impact his film and other Cuban art has on its society he shrugged his shoulders, “It’s a zombie movie.”

But it’s not just a zombie movie, it’s so much more. Yes, there are severed bodies and gallons upon gallons of splattered blood but the film is able to take the genre much further. He not only injects humor into the film but also makes sharp social commentary about Cuban society.

Media Buzz and Distribution--a Planned Accident

The director’s secret weapon, a media savvy producer, built up a huge buzz landing a New York Times review and eventually theatrical, DVD and digital distribution deals. “There was no specific media strategy,” says Brugués, “but everyone knew about it. There were heads and arms strewn all around. The shoot wasn’t even over and people were asking where they could see the movie.” It’s rare for a Latin American film to land in U.S. theaters but audiences’ love for the zom-com surely helped. Cinetic Media handled North American sales. U.S. theatrical rights were nabbed by Outsider Pictures, with a limited release planned for about 20 cities. Focus World, operated by Focus Features, will release the movie on August 14 via VOD and DVD. Major international sales deals ramped up after its Toronto premiere including Germany, Russia, Spain, UK and Japan.

If You Were a Zombie...

When the film premiered in Cuba at the Festival Internacional de Nuevo Cine Latino in Havana, the lines snaked around the block. Everywhere it’s played extra screenings have been added. And even with worldwide sales Alejandro Brugués stays humble. I asked him what would happen if he was a zombie. “Oh that’s easy. I’m the most useless person in the world. I’m a director and all I know how to do is make films. I would be the first one that would get eaten.”
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