January 28, 2016

Here's What You Need to Know Now That American Filmmaking is Legal in Cuba

The U.S. Treasury Department announced yesterday amendments to the 50+ year trade embargo with Cuba, which for years has stymied US-based film productions from filming inside what is one of the last remaining socialist dictatorships in the world.

While traditional touristic activities (e.g. laying on the beach) remain illegal, “professional media or artistic productions -- including the filming or production of media programs” are now fully legal under U.S. law.

Because the amendment applies to the “general license” section of the embargo law, there is no need to apply, or even necessarily report, your production to the U.S. government. Only in the case that you come under investigation (were you secretly shipping arms to the Castro’s?!) would you need to prove the purpose of your trip. Upon re-entry to the United States, you can now confidently tell the customs officer you were in Cuba making a film. Although documentary productions have long been treated as journalistic (historically, another exception to the embargo), these news amendments open the door for non-journalistic projects, including music videos, experimental, and of course, traditional narrative productions.

Before you buy your plane ticket, note that you’ll still need official permission from the Cuban government. This continues to be a fairly opaque process that involves submitting your script, crew bios, budget, gear and more to one of three official channels, the most prominent of which is the Cuban Cinema Institute (ICAIC). ICAIC is a state agency and while it retains relative autonomy, it is certainly still subject to the discretion and interest of the state, meaning you probably can’t make a Tarantino-style, revisionist feature in which the Bay Of Pigs invasion succeeds and capitalism perseveres.

'La Noche Buena'

I myself was rejected twice without comment before my short film was finally approved for production. Among other considerations (I’m half Cuban, for example), we gleaned that size of budget is certainly a factor, and the government is less interested in micro-budget short films. Even in a communist economy, money talks.

That said, it’s best to have somebody on the ground. There isn’t exactly an online application portal (internet access currently hovers around 2% of the population), so I would recommend finding a local producer, of which there are many, to help you through the process. The Cuban Cinema industry is alive and well, producing many notable features every year, as well as hosting the renowned Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano (at which Sundance made inroads this past December).

Although the changes didn’t officially come into effect until today, there have already been several US-based narrative productions including Ben Chace’s Sin Alas, and my own, La Noche Buena (the first American-directed feature and short, respectively, shot in Cuba since 1959) and countless, fantastic documentaries including  Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s Havana Motor Club, Jennifer Redfearn’s Tocando La Luz, Nicholas Brennan’s Hard Rock Havana, and Meg Smaker’s short Boxeadora.

With such big budget productions as Fast and Furious 8 and House of Lies already set to film in Cuba later this year, it appears the island frozen in time is in for some big changes.      

Your Comment

13 Comments

As a Cuban american(born in america, both parents born in Cuba but legally admitted as U.S. citizens), I just feel it's bad taste to film there do to the struggle that many Cubans have faced and continue to face due to the Castro regime. But yeah I guess the average American caucasian hipster is not gonna give a crap and just exploit the people and location because "it's so different and exotic".

January 28, 2016 at 3:17PM

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I know this must be a sensitive subject to you, but I am trying to understand your point here; you feel it is in bad taste to film in Cuba because of the struggle its people have been through? Would they benefit more from people who wouldn't go there in order to respect their... 'privacy'? How are caucasian hipsters the new evil in the world? Trust me, the exploitation of the people of Cuba will come from other demographics! Also the main reason the people in Cuba suffered was an embargo imposed by another country you're familiar with, but I don't wanna go down that road...

January 29, 2016 at 8:44AM, Edited January 29, 8:44AM

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Wow, the embargo completely destroyed the country or was the main cause? You're just flat out excusing the Castro regime for taking away people's rights, property, splitting families, destroying the economy, taking away religious freedoms, killings their own citizens because they had a different opinion/ or putting them in jail for decades with the addition of torture. That argument was just out of ignorance and is belittling the main problem. It's also quite disgusting. The exploitation will come from other demographics, not arguing there. But usually the folks who will have a higher probability of shooting there are the ones that can afford it. Caucasians are the majority in that area. It's not due to their race, but rather lack of knowledge of the issues. They just see poverty and the falling apart tropical setting as a "exotic, organic background with real people". And they will use people's third world living experience as a way to "sell" their films back in their comfortable home in the states. This isn't about privacy, but rather exploitation of what the Cuban citizens have to go through everyday of their lives, just so some moral a la carte hipster can feel like he is so "out of the box, raw, and real" among his or her other colleagues who are also not knowledgeable about the situation. If you see it differently, so be it. But I can guarantee you that by ignoring the problem, you're becoming part of the problem.

January 29, 2016 at 9:50AM

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It's rather funny to see such a strong condemnation of the Castro regime. What I find so funny about it is how their communism is a problem for you and how the exploitation of their citizens is a problem for you, but, have you bothered to check where the majority of the products you buy are made? The answer is more than likely, China. They too are a communist country with an atrocious human rights record, very little freedom of the press and massive exploitation of workers. That said, by your argument, if you purchase products made in China then you too are "part of the problem".

We had a war with Vietnam, we now do business with Vietnam. We had a war with Japan, we now do business with Japan. We had a war with Germany, we now do business with Germany. When exactly was our war with Cuba?

I realize that your are the son of people born in Cuba, although you were not born there. I, on the other hand was born there. I speak the language fluently and I still have family there. I know for a fact that they would more then welcome the production of US films there. They would be thrilled at the chance to earn the kind of wages we would be paying. Wages which they would consider a fortune and we would consider a bargain. How is denying them this opportunity good for them? How is denying them this opportunity going to help change things?

If you really want to help the people there, if you really want to see an end to communism, then be a part of the introduction of a little capitalism there rather than contribute to the further isolation of a people who would welcome the opportunity to work with us.

Lastly, yes it is true that in Cuba people are being tortured, imprisoned without trial and having their human rights abused or fully denied. However, the place in Cuba where those offenses are most prevalent are a place called Guantanamo Bay. A U.S. territory and military base. Perhaps you've heard of it?

January 29, 2016 at 11:27AM, Edited January 29, 11:40AM

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jfc
Director/Writer
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Sorry, I still do have friends and family in Cuba and do speak Spanish. Why you used these points to defend your argument, are beyond me and doesn't make the excuses anymore relevant. And are you telling me you've personally seen and believe people from the states hired and will hire Cuban citizens as 1st ACs, gaffers, DITs, loaders, lead electricians, and get paid the same rate as crews in the state? It's already extremely difficult and competitive to work on well paid sets in the states, even if you're part of a union. Do the Cuban citizens really benefit from the little capitalism that is introduced, or does the government benefit more? I mean if Cuban citizens get paid, and end up having a better life, I'm all for that. But I don't see American filmmakers hiring Cuban crews. If anything maybe grips and catering, but it will just be grueling hard work unfortunately.

Introduction of a little capitalism still doesn't "end" communism... an example like you said was China. What the Chinese people go through is terrible, and that's an understatement of their issues. Saying that, filming in China for your(plural context) "independent/experimental/romantic/philosophical film starring american actor" backdrop is still of extremely bad taste and disgusting. Now, going to Cuba or China to film content for historical or journalism purposes is a different story.

Japan and Germany had extremely radical changes to the government, unlike China, Vietnam, or Cuba. Including those countries is a whole different story, but you're going around the issue with another issue.

And are you also saying since Guantanamo Bay is hell, that excuses that past horrors that Cuban prisoners and citizens had to experience? Does it also excuse the living standards in Cuba?

I don't have anything against the Cuban people and I want the best for them. But I do have a issue with the government and how they will still continue to screw over the people. The government isn't going to step down anytime soon, and their also being rewarded much more for their crimes against humanity than the Cuban citizens.

P.S. I avoid buying products from China for the same reasons you pointed out. Hence, why I'm against Apple and Foxconn for their horrendous record of worker stress and suicides.

January 29, 2016 at 2:30PM

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You are responding to this matter in a purely emotional manner and based on the questions you raise with regard to crews being hired in Cuba and whatnot, it is clear that you have not taken the time to research the topic or even read what has already been addressed here at NFS on this subject.

You keep harping on the past, yet offer no alternative for moving forward. How the hell is anything gonna change like that? Right now, we are provided with the first opportunity in nearly 60 years to normalize relations and move forward. If you want to go down to calle ocho and hang out with the guajiros, play dominos and reminisce about the good ole days before Fidel, by all means, go for it. The rest of us will be living in the present and forging a future.

And please, don't even pretend you don't buy Chinese products. Living in America, it's not even remotely possible. By the way, Foxcomm also manufactures android phones. What are you using? A 1972 rotary phone? Because that's pretty much the only phones that aren't being made in China.

As for the government screwing over it's people, hey man, you live in America, you should be used to getting screwed by the government on a regular basis by now. Every government does it. Screwing the citizenry IS the function of contemporary government. Or don't you read news either?

January 29, 2016 at 3:38PM, Edited January 29, 3:43PM

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jfc
Director/Writer
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You just blamed me for being emotional, and completely dodged every relevant question with your "witty sarcasm". You don't know who I am, what I do, or what I research. You also didn't give me any proof of Americans hiring Cuban talent. So it seems you also don't have any backing and you're going off your emotions. Do you see how it works both ways?
I can't tell you the proper way to go about helping Cuba grow since It's not a black and white answer as you seem to make it be. But I can tell you that letting the Castro regime get away with what they did (people unjustifiably killed and imprisoned, freedom taken away, religious beliefs controlled) is not the answer. Do I feel the United States does messed up stuff to it's citizens and to the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, absolutely. But it does not excuse others for their actions.
If you feel that it's okay for the people of Cuba to be exploited by foreigners for the sake of their bullshit film, then that's your opinion. And like I said before it's of extremely bad taste. Just like going to China, North Korea, and Somalia to do their arthouse film is also of bad taste.
Those films aren't going to save the country and the people. They're just going to boost the egos of the ignorant while marketing the different exotic locations to bring in tourists. Also, if you feel the U.S. is of the same level of f*cking its citizens over, feel free to leave.

January 29, 2016 at 7:35PM, Edited January 29, 8:29PM

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Saying that, I actually have to move on with my life. Enjoy commenting on NFS since you just opened up an account earlier today. Take care. ;)

January 29, 2016 at 8:33PM

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Guys, guys...
I used to be as Nick, and even for the reason that I was born and raised and came to US when I was the little age of 32... I lived and suffered in both sides, so stories are galore. Now I see the "cuban problem" as an ethics argument like (and please, don't be offended) as politics, religion and something so thorny as abortion: sometimes you can't take sides because every side has a point.
Although I abhor the cuban government, there is no point on subtract US citizens from the equation that could be "how to improve cuban citizens' life" meanwhile you enjoy our country without feeling guilty- if any. It is true that will be some exploitation, there is no way to avoid it, but from the exploitation that comes from the communist government, anything else would be a vast improvement.
Now, with the little wisdom that my years gave me, I think there is a few points to guide to those wanting to know and visit Cuba:

1-Spend the money with the people, not the government. All big shiny things (hotels, touristic compounds, etc) are owned and operated by the government, or in complicity of foreign capital -which btw, they pay the 51% of their earnings to the government. The money earned by those governments businesses always go to the wrong pockets, to keep people stupid, isolated and repressed. If you can't distinguish the government operated business from the private you can ask (Esto es particular, o del gobierno?) People will gladly tell you. If you want to stay in a fancy hotel, think about this: until 8 years ago, the government barred cubans from using this places, like in the 60's segregation in some parts of america, "For Foreigners Only". Plenty or private houses with warm people and Airbnb.

2-Talk to people. Americans are only diabolic in the government propaganda, and some 5% percent or so of the population -old die hard communists. People will gladly strike a conversation with you in the middle of the street, something shocking for you if you are from NY ;)
All the media is owned by the government, and the news that come from the outside world, only will make its appearance in national tv if is a tragedy or something horrible that happened in a capitalist country. So, when you talk to people, let them know that there are countries that the education and healthcare are actually free (lets not get into this, America), and people can think and plan a future without having to give explanations to anyone. or, shocking, that you can have a job, or jobs, and live out of it without having to commit felonies at the end of your shift. (corruption and black market is everyone's second job in Cuba). 60 years of media brainwashing will surprise you when you say that to Cuban people. that only is worth the cost of your plane ticket, and it will start some kind of new thinking.

3-because we are filmmakers, is difficult to avoid government backed agencies and etc, so do as said, and take precautions and ask for permits and stuff. BUT hire cuban independent crews, there is a thriving filmmaking community that will be gladly part of your project. There is two main film schools, the San Antonio de los Banos school, but is mainly foreigners from Latinoamerica, and my alma mater, the Faculty of Arts of Audiovisual Communications (FAMCA) which is mainly cuban nationals. Almost everyone that does filmmaking, come from those schools.

4: World cinema is big over there, so get a Hulu subscription before visiting Cuba ;) Also, there are some cuban classical films that never got to US, maybe because the embargo, that are worth watching.

PS: Don't think that the "free health care and free education" is as advertised; cubans have the lowest average salary in the world, around 25$ per month; all the wealth the produce is taken by the government to keep the world revolution alive and barely the health and education system.

PS2: Michael Moore and its "Psycho" movie is a lie after lie piece of propaganda. It's difficult for me recover from that.

PS3: I hate Scarface. But what can you expect from the Oliver Stone's pen.

January 29, 2016 at 10:36PM

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Carlos Luis Pujol
Director of Photography
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What Carlos Luis Pujol said!!!! I am a dominican filmmaker and photographer. Studied in NY and Buenos Aires and have been wanting to visit and film with my fellow cuban brothers forever. My wife and I were finally able to go there for a month last october and it was bittersweet. Cuba like the DR is gorgeous. Beautiful climate, beaches, tropical jungle, the food, the people and the music. At the same time you see the oppression and the censorship that the cuban people have been put through and it straight up angries me. Dominican Republic is a 3rd world country but I much rather be poor in the DR than in Cuba where things like buying or selling or starting your own little business are strictly forbidden. Luckily the Cuban people are not stupid, far from it...like Carlos says they've found ways to set up clandestine private businesses and get access to information. You can travel through the whole island with airbnb. In havana I wanted to buy a cuban Tres, a little suban guitar and we met Leonardo a 20 year old local that took us into his neighbourhood to show us his secret luthier business he runs in his mother's house. He dreams of one day opening a little private music shop in the centre of Havana. Filmed the whole thing and looking to edit a little documentary piece alongside a similar dominican story. Like Carlos said there is a thriving filmmaking community in cuba with great film schools and a lot of those kids believe it or not watch better cinema than the average american. I think that not only Cuba but the entire film industry will benefit from the young cuban directors of the near future. Music and storytelling...they have it in their blood. It's a cultural thing...they just need to be able to get it out.

check this out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTTno8D-b2E

February 1, 2016 at 1:15PM, Edited February 1, 1:19PM

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Arturo Dickson
WEAR ALL HATS
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"Due to the Castro regime". and You forgot; and due to the US embargo...

February 6, 2016 at 5:31PM

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d h
245

I'm out of this

January 29, 2016 at 3:10PM

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Hey @Nick, Im a DP LA based. Where are you from?

January 29, 2016 at 10:38PM

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Carlos Luis Pujol
Director of Photography
204