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Havana, A City of Old Cinemas

Of all the places in the world, Fernando Pérez prefers to visit movie theaters in Havana, particularly the ones on 23rd Street and the Payret Cinema.

A City of Old Cinemas

While delivering letters with his father and charcoal with his uncle in the 1950s Guanabacoa, Fernando Pérez learned to take pleasure in walking. By walking, he says, he comes up with ideas and discovers locations for his films. “When you walk you touch things, you look people in the eye, you are present in a place,” says the director of Suite Habana, the Cuban film that portrays people’s daily lives —not just those of fictional characters— in this seaside city.

Fernando lives on the 15th floor of a building in a small apartment where there seems to be plenty of space, on Infanta and Manglar streets in the very center of the capital of Cuba. In the living room, there is a bookshelf full of movies in DVD cases, some awards, a small table with framed photos and albums, and next to it another table full of prizes collecting dust. It’s not that Fernando keeps them dirty on purpose. The physical prizes mean nothing, and he knows it. The most important moment of a film is “when it is screened in theaters and you see whether people go to see it,” he says.

“What about the premieres?” I ask.

“I’m not very inclined toward premieres. For me they are the opposite of what they are supposed to be. Generally, they are by invitation, and most guests have some relationship with the film, so people go with goodwill. That already predetermines an acceptance.”

On the day of the premiere of Clandestinos, his first fiction feature, it rained a lot. Fernando says that it almost always rains on his opening days. I told him to take it as a blessing.


Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez.
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez.
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez.
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez.

Before 1954, Fernando had only been to two cinemas: the Ensueño and the Carral, in Guanabacoa; they hardly exist today, destroyed by time and apathy. He used to leave school and go straight to the Carral. He liked it better because it specialized in American cinema. But that year, his father took him to the Payret.

Joaquín Payret, a Catalonian living in Cuba, opened the old theater in 1877, without much luck. He rebuilt it three times, and all three times it was knocked down by hurricanes. Joaquín ended up in financial ruin. In 1951 the theater was demolished and, in its place, the cinema that Fernando would visit three years later was built.

He remembers every detail about that day. It was a family outing with his father, mother, and sister. They took Route 29, which went from Guanabacoa to Regla’s boat launch—a ferry that still crosses the Bay of Havana with the same route today. They crossed the bay, arrived at Avenida del Puerto and then Paseo del Prado. Accustomed to small-town routines, it was the first time Fernando visited a cinema in the big city.

“We saw a movie called The Robe. It was shown on Easter because it depicted the biblical story of Jesus Christ. But it had one main characteristic: it was one of the first films, if not the first, to be made in CinemaScope. And of course, the Payret had this widescreen format.”

“I remember the velvety wine-red seats, the air conditioning…. It was like entering a world of imagination and comfort, which is, I think, what lends to the film experience. What defines the movie theater is not the big screen, but the collective sharing of the same emotions of a film in a dark and comfortable space.”

Six decades later, the Payret is a charming old cinema in front of the Capitol building, next to the Parque Central, on the corner of Havana’s Grand Theater, which was first called the Tacón, then García Lorca, and now Alicia Alonso. The Payret is the theater where my parents fell in love. Nowadays it’s a closed, empty theater that maintains its almost lifeless structure.

Photo: Alba León
Photo: Alba León

Fernando, who liked to walk, retraced the same route alone years later, after the revolution. He crossed the bay, walked all along the Avenida del Puerto, but this time he deviated and continued along the Malecón, reaching 23rd Street. He went up to L Street, to the Yara cinema. “It’s one of the few whose name change actually stuck. Nobody remembers that it used to be called Radio Centro.”

Fernando followed 23rd up to 12th Street, in El Vedado. He got the idea to go to the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). “It was like reaching the mecca and then I asked myself, ‘so, what am I doing here?’”

The ICAIC, founded in March 1959, gradually took over the floors and offices of the Atlantic building, with an eponymous cinema on the first floor, today called the Charles Chaplin.

“The Atlantic was a top-notch cinema. It cost one peso to get in. That day I had gone out for a walk, and I only had enough change for the bus, and to buy a soda or a coffee. It was an exploratory trip,” says Fernando. “But the next week I went back and I saw a movie.”

“I decided to go to all of the cinemas in Havana.” Today, the cinemas that Fernando visited are known as the Circuito 23. He started on O Street, at the La Rampa cinema —which specialized in European films— and where the director says he discovered New Wave cinema and Bergman’s early films; and he ended up at the corner of 12th Street, with the aptly-named cinema, 23 y 12.

“It was the 1960s. La Rampa and 23rd Street had become the most dynamic part of the city. It was the hub for youth, for a very creative and diverse generation. I was privileged to have lived through the most beautiful time of the revolution, when I was 15, 16 years old. The dream. That’s why I want to make a film about that moment I lived through. But I don’t want to tell it only from my perspective, from how I experienced it. I want to tell it from how others lived it, and some had a very bad experience. And at that time, we weren’t able to see it. The UMAP’s —Military Units to Aid Production, a kind of concentration camp where homosexuals and government opponents were sent— and the restrictions, all that seemed far away. But when you read about it today, you ask yourself, ‘how did I hear about that and not realize how terrible it was?’”

“And why do you think that happened? Why do you think you didn’t realize it?”

“Because we were involved in what was fundamental—building, change.”

Fernando always wakes up early. Not because of his age, he says, but because he likes to (he spent many years working nights at the Noticiero del ICAIC newsreel—to this day, each episode is considered a standalone documentary). He makes coffee, stands at the window, and looks out at the city. Then his day begins.