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.
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.