“A low budget is no excuse to make a mediocre movie,” Esteban Insausti told a packed audience this past Saturday as his film,Larga Distancia(Long Distance), had its formal international premiere at New York’sLincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Screened as part ofthe Center’s “Latin Beat” film series,Larga Distancialooks at the personal and emotional losses that resulted from the 1994 mass exodus from Cuba, when more than 35,000 people left the island. Facing her thirty-fifth birthday, Ana—who lives outside Cuba—plans a party for herself and the three closest friends of her student years in Havana. Only as the film progresses, tracing the three friends’ lives since then, does it become clear that what appears to be a reunion is Ana’s invention, a solitary look back at her own life.
Set in a stylish, starkly modern home with a striking, black-and-white geometric décor,Larga Distanciatakes a deliberately elliptical approach in its dramatic structure, disrupting the usual cinematic sense of time and space. In a conversation with the audience after the film, Insausti acknowledged the influence of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s milestone filmMemorias del subdesarollo(Memories of Underdevelopment), callingLarga Distancia“a debt to the filmmakers” of that work. "Cuba is a cultural powerhouse,” he said, but went on to say that his greatest influences were two international directors: Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. Interestingly, traces of all three—Welles, Godard, andMemorias del subdesarollo—are discernible inLarga Distancia.
As for Ana’s stylish home, Insausti confided that it was purely low-budget sleight of hand—“one example of the immense creativity of my country,” as he put it. “It’s actually a house in Havana that’s been in ruins for thirty years. What you see is constructed from wood, cardboard, and paper.” In another low-budget solution, Insausti edited the film at home on his personal computer. “I’m not even going to say how much this film cost to make,” he joked. Casting the film was difficult because “this is a really visceral film, and I wanted to have honest actors.” Unlike film industries elsewhere, in Cuba there are no formal casting directors or agencies. “The person who does casting for a Cuban film essentially calls people she or he knows, and asks them to come in and be part of the movie,” Insausti explained. “It’s much more stressful this way—you rely on a personal basis of making phone calls and identifying people. It took a year to identify all the actors. I’m very demanding, so it took that long.”
Zulema Clares, the actress portraying Ana, also attended the premiere screening. She had previously worked with Insausti and knew she wanted to be part ofLarga Distancia. “I saw that this was a different kind of film,” she said. Just reading the script, she could see that the movie “would essentially break with what was known about Cuban filmmaking, and I was very interested in being part of the project.”
In addition toLarga Distancia, the “Latin Beat” schedule also featured screenings ofAcorazado(Battleship), Alvaro Curiel’s incisive comedy about a failed trade unionist in Mexico who has a novel plan for emigrating to the U.S. but finds himself making a new life in Havana instead; andChe: A New Man, an Argentinian documentary—twelve years in the making—about Che Guevara. Cuban director Octavio Cortázar’s classic short filmPor primera vez(For the First Time, 1965) will screen on Thursday, August 21, on a program withExpedición Argentina Stoessel: Raid Buenos Aires-Nueva York-1928(The Stoessel Expedition), an Argentinian documentary.