Havana is a cinema cemetery

Por: Miguel Sabater

El cine Reina es la sede de la Compañía de Danza de Tony Menéndez.

To the poet and friend Juan Carlos Flores, who suggested the subject.

In 1959 ICAIC was created and cinema, for the first time, began to reach sites never before suspected. The background images show the building where the Chaplín Art Cinema and the ICAIC headquarters are located. In the foreground: a frame of Octavio Cortázar’s first-time documentary Anthology.

Rule, the measure of many things

Everything changes. We, the ones before, are no longer the same. This dynamic of nature that causes transformations in beings existing in time is a reasonable fact; but to voluntarily change the face of a people is a punch to the hearts of its people.
A few days ago I walked through Regla, where almost nothing resembles the times when I studied in one of his high schools. To the park of Martí street they took his laurels and took away the structure that made him more pleasant and unique. He lost his charm. Today is one of the scariest parks I have ever seen, and so rare to my experience that, despite me sitting on one of its benches, I could not evoke in it those youthful days that twenty years ago any corner of Regla was still able to remind me.
Destroy a park to make another worse, unjustifiably cut down the trees that always accompanied an avenue, modify buildings or pulverize them by virtue of no reasons that obey stubborn wills and crude sensitivities… it’s like dismembering a body, removing a piece of identity.
It is distressing that these things happen without anyone being able to avoid them; and so they agonize the Musical Theatre and the Martí, the Conny Island, and so many sites that remain in a state of abandonment or are no longer. The will to preserve and restore historically is almost only where the tourist’s pocket passes.

But this could be another story

As I passed through the corner of Martí and Agramonte streets, in my walks by Regla, I had the impression that a bomb had fallen: the Cine Céspedes has no roof or walls left… It’s totally destroyed. And this is not the only case. Havana, today, is a movie theater cemetery.

The Film Revolution in the Revolution

In 1959 by Law No. 169 the Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry (ICAIC) was created whose president was Alfredo Guevara. Guevara had studied Philosophy and Letters and done film appreciation studies at the University of Havana. As president of ICAIC he developed cultural, organizational and technical design for the development of the new Cuban cinematography. From then until today, he has been an indispensable person in the history of Cuban cinema and new Latin American and Caribbean cinema.
The Cuban cinema that found the Revolution was an imitation not exactly of the best of international cinema. ICAIC established new aesthetic, conceptual, structural and economic perspectives to promote new cinema, forming many filmmakers and technicians in practice.
At first cinematography used the currents of the moment, such as neorealism. Finally, the search for his own identity was imposed with the films The Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) and Memoirs of the Underdevelopment (1968) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Lucia (1968) by Humberto Solás.
During the first ten years of its creation ICAIC promoted co-productions with Western European countries such as France and Spain led by Cuban or foreign performers. The number of viewers increased and the media multiplied for popular knowledge of cinema. Film-debate projects, workshops, television and radio programs emerged, plus the important work carried out by the Cinemateca de Cuba.
Cinema reached sites never before suspected through cinema-mobiles, and, as a result of all this effort, created not only a widely popular taste for cinema but also a more analytical, knowledgeable and demanding viewer of the complexities of seventh art.
In the same decade, productions from 15 countries were presented, of which the United States featured 210 films, Mexico with 53 and France with 30. In 1970 the most frequent premieres corresponded to the cinematography of the countries of the socialist camp (USSR, Hungary, Poland with 53), followed by Japan with 23, France with 14 and Spain with 10. In 1980 the statistics reflect this more diverse situation, as the participation of films from England, Italy, France and the United States is increased by a total of 46, naturally surpassed by a large number of films from the socialist field with 61. In the year 90 most of the premieres (which were no longer as many as in previous years and will be less and less to this day) correspond to American films that reach 21, plus 19 of the socialist field and 6 of Cuba.


Audience attendance in theaters recorded its highest rate in the 1970s, in which the first year it amounted to 107.5 million viewers with a frequency of 12.5. This figure would begin to shrink to the point that in 1990 viewers dropped to 46.9 million with a frequency of 1.8. This behavior is considered to be similar to the rest of the world, mainly because of the video.
In Cuba, the Provincial Exhibition Companies, through their Provincial Film Directorates, then decided to implement a series of measures to stimulate viewer attendance in the cinemas. Some of them were free tickets for children accompanied by adults, ladies accompanied by gentlemen, and a 50 percent reduction in entry to those over 60. None of this, however, could raise the number of viewers as in other years.
It is an unquestionable fact that the Cuban cinematography of the Revolution was invaluable as never before possible, creating – at the same pace of its evolution – a culture of cinema in the population. This will came to establish important institutions in the country, such as the Film, Radio and Television Section at UNEAC in 1977, the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños in December 1987, and the Faculty of Radio, Film and Television of the Higher Institute of Art in 1989.
In 1979 the first International Festival of New Latin American Cinema was held in Havana, which, from then on, every year offers the possibilities of getting to know the cinematography of Latin America and the Caribbean, and good cinematic samples from other regions of the world.
Behind this true success are the will, passion, fortitude and boldness of people worthy of high ethical and professional consideration, who have lived for and by cinema in favorable or adverse times, as the winds have been blown; whose people are so many that it is not possible to mention in this work for reasons of space.
Our cinematography could not avoid the inclementness of the special period, among whose measures were the closure of cinemas, restrictions on the time of the functions in days and hours, fewer premieres of world cinema, fewer national productions… However, ICAIC did its best to continue offering its film cycles at Cinemateca, while still exhibiting to that genre-loving audience that the institution had formed. It is a surprising fact that, in those days when so many things declined, a film of as good bills as Strawberry and Chocolate emerged, whose final embrace of the protagonists constitutes one of the most human and ethically sobering moments of Cuban cinema.
Project 23 was inaugurated in March 2002, an ICAIC response to the film crisis affecting the country. The project, which includes the dissemination of films in 35 millimetres, in VHS, DVD and DVCAM format, has been offering the best of world cinematography. This project also maintains the conservation of the cinemas it comprises (La Rampa, Yara, Riviera, Chaplin, 23 and 12 and the Cultural Center of ICAIC); although it has the drawback that it only benefits 23rd Street cinemas, it is an example of what could be done with will and passion, despite the few resources.

The cinemas weren’t the same luck

But it wasn’t all pink. While there can be talk of a revolution in Cuban cinematography and the formation not only of a film professional but also of a viewer capable of knowing and judging the best of the genre worldwide, it must also be said that cinemas did not run the same fate.
Law 169 of 1959, which created the ICAIC is a very well-conceived legislation, and has been applied as established by its letter and spirit. However, there is not a single term in his legal body that alludes to that important aspect of cinema as is the space where production is fully consummated: the dark room in which the recipient of the work of art is located. Everything it establishes concerns the film industry, the distribution and exhibition of its productions, but it does not concern cinemas even though since then and for almost seventeen years they belonged to this body.

En el cine Palace hay una vivienda.
In the Palace cinema there is a house.

From the first moments when the cinematographer was shown in Havana, theaters and some specially enabled venues served to perform film functions; but it wasn’t long before the first ones showed up. In the first decade of the Republic there were already, as the film industry would become an increasingly ambitious company. The first film distributors appeared in 1905: Chas Prada and Santos y Artigas, and in 1908 seven were already counted. In 1910 there were approximately 200 rooms of 35 millimetres in the country, with a capacity of 70 thousand seats or so. Ten years later there were 350 rooms for a capacity of 135 thousand spectators.
By 1940 the rooms had declined from 500 existing to 373, but the spectator rate increased to 214,200. The decline was due to the that many of the cinemas were already inappropriate premises, since the development of the genre, and the demands of the public, required better conditions to enjoy it.
If you look at the valuable Cuban film yearbooks you can see a diversity of theater owners, some of them very committed to making them prosper more and more. It is understandable that this was the case, as the viewer deserved an ideal environment. The rooms diversified into categories according to their dimensions, their comfort, the location they were in and the quality of their projections.
In 1945 our capital was among the first in America with more cinemas. In Havana there were 109, more than Washington (64) and Mexico (97); Havana was surpassed only by the capital of Argentina (192) and Brazil (124). At the time the largest rooms in our city were Blanquita (6 thousand 730 seats), Radio Cine (2 thousand 600) and Astral (2 thousand 400).
In the 1940s-50s entrepreneurs increased the construction of cinemas throughout the island, which influenced the increase in viewers by more than ten million. This increase in capabilities increased profits for distributors. It is true that distributors made a lot of money, but it is no less true that the public could pay, because it had cinema options and prices. In fact, it is known that the Cuban spent 0.7 percent of the national income on film.
In 1950 there were 521 cinemas in the territory that offered more than 361 thousand 900 capacities. Of these, more than 140 exceeded one thousand seats, and the number of spectators is estimated to be 57.2 million. The collection, the highest recorded in the Republic, is estimated to be 16 million,440 thousand, surpassed from all the following years to 1990.
Around this time many entrepreneurs created circuits with three or more cinemas. In 1958 there were 30 of them that grouped 170 rooms with a capacity of 167 thousand 81 seats. Cinema had become a considerable source of work with around 8,000 workers engaged in different activities. In the Capital the figure exceeded 3,800 employees with salaries ranging from a minimum of 120 pesos to 500. According to official sources in the film sector, about 12 million pesos were paid as wages per year.
In the 1950s, Havana, like Paris, was also a party, and at the same time hell. There was discontent with Batista, but his repression coexisted with a curious rich and diverse art scene. Participation programs in radio and television, theatre, circus, ballrooms, social clubs, multiple outdoor musical shows and other popular meeting places such as cafes and bars… filled the population with options, and turned night into day.
Cinema was in the most splendid of its moments in Cuba. There were a considerable number of premiere halls, equipped with the greatest comfort and the best technologies in which the latest european, American cinematography and the two Latin American cinema powers of those times were exhibited: Argentina and Mexico, even Russian films and the rest of Eastern Europe. From this boom the Catholic Church benefited, because through the Catholic Center for Cinematic Orientation it rented cinemas and offered cinema-debate functions in rooms such as El Duplex, 23 and 12, Trianón, La Rampa and El Focsa.
At the same time, neighborhood cinemas proliferated, which were modest but comfortable, such as those on Avenida de Belascoaín, which were five highly visited rooms.
In 1958 the rooms offered capacity for 396 thousand 100 spectators in Cuba, whose figure was never before or after surpassed.
The Revolution would not find authentic Cuban cinematography, but many good cinemas. I do not know if this situation influenced the law instituted by ICAIC not to collect anything on them. What is clear is that they were all intervened and passed to the State, controlled by ICAIC until 1976 when they began to be administered by the organs of the People’s Power. Since then, the Film Exhibitor Companies of each province have been transformed into Provincial Film Directorates, whose functions include managing cinemas and video theaters. Perhaps the decision encouraged her to be very good pretensions, but in fact it was a more adverse blow to cinemas. Statistics prove it. In 1952, 131 cinemas were offered in Havana. When the Revolution triumphed, there were almost 150. In 1980 they decreased 22 for a total of 109. Ten years later, 28 rooms decreased for a total of 81. After only three years, in 1993, 25 stopped working and there were 56 left. Today there are 58 cinemas operating in the Capital, so from 1980 to date 51 of them have ceased to offer services, i.e. almost half.
This is a truly alarming event, especially since the relentless and seemingly inevitable exit from cinemas has been going on for many years; it was not even stopped by the economic prosperity that existed during the second half of the 1980s. Nothing has to do with the decline in viewers that began to be experienced in that decade, which is a global experience. Nor was it as a result of the led and brought Special Period, to which so much debacle they have blamed; because while it is true that from 90 to 93 25 cinemas ceased to operate, from 80 to 90 they stopped doing 28, that is, more than during the bloody years of our economic crisis.
What has happened or no longer happens – you will know – so that much of our cinemas no longer work? Will others still leave the service? How many will we keep?
See. In Centro Habana they stopped offering functions 18, and on October 10, of 16 that existed in 1980, only 8 remain. In the municipalities Arroyo, La Lisa and Habana Vieja left the service 3 cinemas; and on Hill 4. In Guanabacoa and the Parrot there is only one.
And what happened to the theaters that came out of public service?
To cite some cases, karate is practiced in the Esmeralda, Neptuno and Cuba cinemas. In the Palace there is a house. The Stew is a shop. Edibles are sometimes sold at Bayamo. Music concerts are available at jiguee. Dance lessons are given in the Queen. El Trianón is home to the theater group led by Carlos Díaz. The Favorite is the headquarters of narcissus Medina’s Modern Dance Company Project. The Astral cinema is the official meeting and event room of the Union of Young Communists.
Other rooms remain closed waiting, like the powdered harp of Bécquer’s poem, for someone to one day play their strings and reveal their melody…
Those neighborhood cinemas where interesting films were offered twenty years ago have virtually ceased to exist. Consider, for example, that Guanabacoa is one of the largest municipalities in the capital with 127 square kilometers and, of 3 cinemas that there were, only one remains; and in Rule… well, none of them.
The other side of the problem is the few cinemas that today give functions. Most of them have broken air conditioning, troubled bathrooms and useless seats. For example, the Alameda cinema has 1141 seats of which 84 are not used; the Acapulco 1047 seats, 54 of which are not taken advantage of; the Current 781 seats, 63 of them are not used; the Golden Eagle 358 seats, of which 30 are not taken advantage; The Ramp 922 seats, of them 25 are not used… The Cinecito has 6 rotates out of a total of 136; Payret more than 30 and Guanabo’s about 40 useless, and this number is increasing because they continue to be broken by their years of use or abused by users.

El Céspedes era el único cine de Regla. A la hora de redactar estas cuartillas la entrada no estaba tapiada.
The Grass was The Only Cinema of Regla. At the time of writing these quarters the entrance was not covered.

Cinema administrations can do nothing to deal with the material problems that affect them. Money is needed, and administrations do not; depend on the budget that the Provincial Government assigns to the Provincial Film Directorate and then the priorities that it establishes in its planning to solve the skyscraper of inconveniences that exist in the rooms of the 15 municipalities. Of course, the budget offered for cinema repairs is not significant when considering the inventory of difficulties.
As I chatting with employees and managers in some theaters, it seemed clear to me that they have all done what they can to keep their rooms as best as possible; but, despite their noble efforts, there are many things that slip out of their hands, and they even lose initiatives by giving them the same beans or chickpeas. I have no doubt that the Provincial Film Directorate also makes efforts to solve the heightened difficulties; but this institution depends on the decisions of the Provincial Government, which was given the cinemas at a bad time, because I would like to understand what the People’s Power has to do with an issue that I think concerns the ICAIC, or, in another case, the Ministry of Culture.
Another drawback of the rooms is the inappropriate conduct of not a few of the spectators, whose unscreokful and vulgar attitudes give a lot to do to employees. This type of viewer ingests groceries and alcoholic beverages, alters the voice and annoys the rest of the viewers.
The truth is that after 1959 you can count on the fingers of one hand the built cinemas, and, as has been said, the existing ones are not subjected to a conservation process. The result is that in the last 45 years in the Capital they have ceased to exist or serve almost a hundred cinemas, and we do not know those that have ceased to function in the rest of the country.

It is not coherent that Cuban film production has been built and universalized, that institutions have been created that form and disseminate professionals of the genre even to the world, and that fewer and fewer rooms are in service. It seems incredible that in Cuba, where every year a New Latin American Film Festival is held, cinemas are being destroyed.

El cine Reina es la sede de la Compañía de Danza de Tony Menéndez.
The Queen cinema is the thirst for Tony Menendez’s Dance Company.

The body best equipped with information to clarify this matter is the Provincial Film Directorate. It’s on 4th Street between 23rd and 21st Street. It is a house of many years and poorly preserved, which was adapted for offices. The reception is located on the portal, where there are some uneven and uncomfortable chairs for visitors. The interior is unclear and ventilated. A dangerous almost vertical and railless staircase, located to the right of the entrance, allows access to the barbecue. The first office of this upper part is a premises of about six square meters, almost totally occupied by a round table or something and metal archives. A sliding door, to enter through which you have to bend a lot, allows you to step into a corridor in gloom where there are more offices.
It is an area sincerely without concert, labyrinthine, penumbroso… In a word: really very uncomfortable to work and to be visited. To top it off, you don’t have a library or file service.
If this is the Provincial Film Directorate – I wonder as I wait on the portal to be taken care of – what can be expected of cinemas?
I present myself here with the puerile hope that they will give me data, because even at 44 years old I still stumble and fall by the same stone; but there’s always hope. I identify as a contributor to the magazine Palabra Nueva, but the specialist who serves me has no idea about this magazine. Then I begin to explain, until I can explain that my project is to write a report on the closure of cinemas in Havana. What interests me is knowing what the institution does or plans to do to improve the state of cinemas and prevent them from closing further. I clarify to the specialist that it is not right that one only refers to the problem without at least trying to know what solutions might exist to eradicate it. The specialist shows me a series of files telling me that everything I need to know is there, inside those papers. And it seems that all of a sudden a kind of miracle is going to be performed. But the explanation he offers me is that Word New is not an official press body, that I can manipulate the information and that can bring confusion…
Naturally this official silence is as problematic, pitiful and suggestive as the plight of many cinemas

cines de la habana desde 1952-2004
Havana cinemas from 1952-2004


Denying information for the performance of this work under which the New Word is not a state press body is not also a way of being manipulated and manipulating information? But besides, manipulate what, how… if there is no worse adversary to question this issue and confuse people more than the obvious abandonment in which cinemas remain?

* I thank all the people who contributed to the realization of this work, especially the cinema employees with whom I dealt about the matter and offered me their criteria. I also appreciate the decisive cooperation of Arístides O’Balrill, a contributor to this magazine.

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