Sundance Returns to Havana: A Brief History of the Institute’s Work in Cuba

Michelle Satter

As I arrived at the Hotel Nacional, 16 years since I was last in Cuba, I was immediately swept up by the majesty of an historic hotel that has been such an important destination for travelers to Havana over many decades. My colleague Paul Federbush, who has been leading the Institute’s work in Cuba, was there to greet us, and we were off and running.

We would spend the week presenting a suite of programs in screenwriting, producing, film music and documentary editing, in a new partnership with the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema and La Escuela Internacional De Cine Y TV.

For me, it was also an opportunity to absorb how Cuba has evolved over the years since my last visit. It was exciting to feel the spirit and undercurrent of a city defined by its people, history, politics and a deep and enduring culture reflecting a new generation of artists creating work in art, photography, design and film..

We all attended the opening of the Festival to watch the outstanding Argentine film The Clan (directed by Pablo Trapero) at the Karl Marx Theater, preceded by an exquisite string orchestra concert featuring musicians from a local conservatory.

The Institute’s trip to Havana marked the first time that our Artist Programs collaborated to present a multi-faceted international program supporting artists working across several disciplines. We began with a Screenwriting Panel that I moderated with Scott Z. Burns, Erin Cressida Wilson, Sebastian Silva and Ethan Hawke.

The audience was hungry to learn from the group, and the lively conversation ranged from the art and craft of introducing characters to finding inspiration for your work. Over the next two days, the panelists engaged in our Sundance/Havana Script Meetings, one-on-one conversations with the writers of three very promising Cuban projects, helping them dig deeper into their work through creative and inspiring story sessions.

As part of our partnership with the Festival, Sundance also presented a series of master classes featuring Christine Vachon on Creative Producing, Carla Gutierrez on Documentary Editing and Peter Golub on Composing For Film. They were all followed by more in-depth conversations with artists.

Away from the action of the festival, our Documentary Film Program (Bruni Burres and Rahdi Taylor), in collaboration with EICTV and The Guardian, led a Story Edit Workshop to support five filmmakers whose short docs offered a personal lens into the transitions taking place in Cuba today.

During the evenings, we found time to explore the city, visit artist studios, hear music and experience the food in the paladars set up as restaurants in people’s homes and buildings that have been renovated to take advantage of the increasing opportunities in Cuba for private enterprise.

On our last night in Havana, we arranged for a Festival screening of the award-winning Todd Haynes film Carol, which was introduced by producer Christine Vachon. Our group had one final evening together at a dinner surrounded by beautiful art pieces created by a local artist whose work is reaching the world stage.

In leaving the next day, I knew that we will all hold on to the personal stories from Cuban filmmakers, the connections made by artists to artists and the warm balmy nights of mojitos and new friendships that will last way beyond the trip.

I’m especially grateful for the insight and generosity of our advisors, our extraordinary collaborators Iván Giroud, Lia Rodriguez and Claudia Calvino, as well as Rosa Bosch. It was special to work with a group so united in the support of the next generation of Cuban and Latin American artists.


From 1989 to 2000, the Feature Film Program collaborated with the Festival and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry on an exchange program for American and Cuban filmmakers. During these years, we hosted the filmmakers Todd Haynes, Rory Kennedy, Todd Solondz, and Liz Garbus, among others with screenings at the Festival and lively conversations and meetings with filmmakers from Cuba and other countries in Latin America.

As part of the cultural exchange, we brought the master filmmaker Tomas Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment, Strawberries and Chocolate) to our June Screenwriters Lab as a Creative Advisor. We also hosted the emerging filmmaker Gerardo Chijona, then developing his feature Adorable Lies, that we were later proud to premiere at Sundance. And in 1989, the Sundance Film Festival was the US premiere of the Dangerous Love Series, a collection of films adapted from the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and directed by leading Latin American filmmakers.

This initial program in Cuba represented some of FFP’s early efforts to support international artists through a Screenwriters Lab and a partnership in support of Latin American producers. Around that time, we began bringing international filmmakers to our annual Screenwriters and Directors Labs in Utah. The nineties also saw the establishment of Sundance Screenwriters Labs with great partners in Mexico and Brazil, which supported the early feature films of Alfonso Cuaron (Love in the Time of Hysteria), Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), Walter Salles (Central Station), and Braulio Mantovani (City Of God).

In the years since, Sundance Institute’s core mission of the discovery and development of independent artists and audiences has had an international scope, and we have defined the Sundance community by its yearning for excellence in artistry rather than by geographic, political or cultural borders. The FFP’s work internationally has evolved to other regions and this year, we have held Labs to support independent filmmakers in India, Turkey, Japan, Europe and the Middle East.

Additionally, our artist programs in Documentary Film, Theatre, and Film Music have all created their own programs to support artists around the world, and the inclusion of international artists has allowed Sundance to help celebrate the richness, history and diverse perspectives of the world’s storytelling cultures, as well as enrich the dialogue within the Sundance community.

We all feel privileged to be part of a new delegation of artists spending time on the ground floor of exciting changes in Cuba which will continue to evolve as the opportunities for cultural exchange and local support of Cuban storytellers grow.

Over the coming years, we look forward to the challenge of crafting a system of support for an artistic community long regarded for its excellence in many different artistic formats. We are so thrilled to be able to resume our artistic dialogue with Cuba, which remains one of the world’s most vital and unique artistic communities.


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