In tonight's State of the Union address, President Obama made the case to congress to end the 50 year-old embargo against Cuba. Does this mean you can film in Cuba now?
President Obama has already used executive action to ease travel restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba, which will allow individuals (not just approved groups) to buy tickets to Cuba — if they promise their visits are for "legitimate" purposes. These purposes are divided into twelve categories, which include religious, cultural, or family visits (but not tourism). Does filmmaking qualify as an approved reason to travel to Cuba? From my reading of the new literature, including the White House's fact sheet and the Treasury Department's Frequently Asked Questions, only "journalistic" filmmaking, i.e. documentary, qualifies. But it's more complicated than that, so let's listen to Obama's words on Cuba from the State of the Union:
"In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo"
That last sentence is important. After utilizing the powers of executive action to ease travel restrictions, Obama can't repeal the legislation enforcing the embargo without action by Congress. El bloqueo lives on. So where does this leave filmmakers attempting to work in, and with, Cuba? I've never shot anything in Cuba, so I asked for the opinion of filmmakers who have:
Alex Mallis, La Noche Buena
Until 2014, when Papa began shooting, there hadn't been a single Hollywood film shot legally in Cuba since 1959.
Alex Mallis: Currently, it's nearly impossible to legally produce a US-based narrative film in Cuba. The Cuban Cinema Institute (ICAIC) might approve it, but the Treasury Department sure won't. Until 2014, when Papa began shooting, there hadn't been a single Hollywood film shot legally in Cuba since 1959.
Legal productions of any kind require an application for a special license through the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Applications often take a year or more and are often rejected without comment. Journalistic documentaries can try to argue they fall under the auspice of "professional research" and "journalism". But the law is interpreted by OFAC and there is no guarantee you won't be fined. Red Bull was fined nearly $100k this year for shooting a series of promotional documentaries about action sports.
"The cinema industry is alive and well in Cuba. Havana is host to one of the most important film festivals in the western hemisphere — and we don't hear anything about it in the US."
Lucy Mulloy and Yunior Santiago, Una Noche
Lucy Mulloy and Yunior Santiago are the writer/director and producer, respectively, of Una Noche, which won best director, actor, and cinematography awards at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Yunior Santiago, producer: Obama couldn't have made a better move in Cuban policy. This will bring greater economic and political reforms within Cuba faster than many may think. In terms of filming there, I am certain that U.S. Filmmakers have various projects ready to make as co-productions and this move will make it possible, without people having to travel through third countries and risking been caught and facing big fines. Local productions and co-productions will be able to access much needed US technology, from an Alexa Camera to a hard drive or editing equipment. We will see a sharp increase in the import of US technology. I know that Cubans are waiting to collaborate on US-Cuban productions with open arms and mutual respect. 2015 is the year we should expect many productions to start, as everyone I have spoken to wants to film there before big changes happen. Some are afraid Cuba will become too Americanized. I say, Cubans have a strong culture and are very proud of it, and it won't be that easy to change.
"My main hope is that life becomes easier for Cubans and that this new era empowers them to further create work to expresses their views and talents. "
Lucy Mulloy, writer/director: After spending years making Una Noche in Cuba and having to jump many hurdles in terms of production logistics, I am optimistic about this news. My main hope is that life becomes easier for Cubans and that this new era empowers them to further create work to expresses their views and talents. I have no doubt that it will be easier for people coming in wanting to collaborate on projects. I hope that this will facilitate the cultural exchange that will be so important in making progress in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.
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