October 25, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Four: The Russia-Cuba Connection in Ocean

Day four of the festival began for me with a press conference for the Russian-Cuban film, Ocean. Director Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov and lead actor Jorge Luis Castro were slated to attend, but for unexplained reasons the director turned up alone. The film follows Joel, a young man from a coastal village in Cuba, as he leaves his home and heads to Havana after a failed romance.

An English interpreter was deemed unnecessary as all the reporters in the room were Japanese, telling evidence that the film did not make much of a splash. As I wrote in my brief review of the film last week, I found Ocean more accomplished in terms of style than storytelling, the handheld camera movements, cross-cutting techniques, and visual motifs unmatched by the ho-hum lead performance and meandering narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the questions tended to focus on the technical aspects of the film. The director spoke of how he set out to capture the spontaneity of Cuban life. During pre-production, he purposely chose not to decide on the number of cuts he would make, and shot the film with a handheld camera so that the emotions of the characters could be felt through the movements of the cameraman's body. All the dialogue was recorded on the spot, as he did not want to ask the actors to re-record any lines that they had improvised, thereby staying as true as possible to the Cuban-inflected Spanish and native slang.

The Cuba-Russia connection may have raised some viewers' eyebrows, but collaborations between the two countries are not as common today as you would think: Ocean marked the first co-production in twenty-five years. Asked why he set the film in Cuba as opposed to his native Russia, Kosyrev-Nesterov replied that the dissolution of family relationships in Russia made it impossible to draw a convincing portrait of a close-knit family such as Joel's. On working in Cuba, the director wearily recalled the amount of paperwork that needed to be filled out and wryly noted, "The Soviet brought bureaucracy to Cuba." (And Russia brought its protection to Cuba, in the form of the KGB, who stayed throughout production as protection.)

The recent economic crisis has proved an unavoidable topic during the festival, with filmmakers from around the globe expressing concern. But Kosyrev-Nesterov’s words hit the hardest when he spoke of the number of films that have had to halt production in Russia since the downturn: 180. Only time will tell of the repercussions the current state of the world has on international cinema.

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