Juan Carlos Tabío
No filmmaker living in Cuba has achieved greater worldwide acclaim than Juan Carlos Tabío, but you’d never guess it from talking with him. He is happy to ascribe the astounding success of a film like Strawberry and Chocolate – and, indeed, of his entire movie career – to mere good fortune.
Tabío was born in Havana in 1943. After the Cuban Revolution his parents were preparing him for a career in the diplomatic service. "I became a filmmaker because of a very lucky situation," he explains in his interview with Havana Cultura. "The woman who ran the ICAIC [the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry] was a friend of my family’s and I went to talk to her." Tabío started working as a production assistant in 1961 and spent the next four decades of his life as a filmmaker. "If that woman wasn’t a family friend I would have done something else in life. You’re carried on by life, life isn’t carried on by you. You can’t tell where life is going to take you."
No wonder his films have tended to place such a big emphasis on chance occurrences. "Today is my lucky day," says one of the protagonists in Strawberry and Chocolate. Tabío’s lucky day came when he was picked by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea to co-direct both Strawberry and Chocolate in 1993 and Guantanamera the following year. Alea, known to his friends as Titón, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Those two films turned out to be his last, and Tabío proved to be one of Titón’s greatest finds.
"Titón and I had a personal and professional relationship that went back a long way," Tabío recalls during our conversation in his Vedado flat. "Each movie was always as much his as it was mine. We always worked closely together, right from the script, the staging, the casting, all the little details."
Both Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award in the United States, and Guantanamera work as timely social commentary, yet the real testament to the talents of Titón and Tabío is that their films are also timeless romantic comedies, as poignant and funny today as they were a decade ago. And Tabío has proven himself capable of hitting many of those same notes on his own. Waiting List, released in 2000, tells the story of a group of people at a provincial Cuban bus stop who wait for a bus that fails to show up. Once again the allegory of life in modern Cuba is heartbreakingly apparent, but Tabío gives his characters sufficient warmth and humanity to push beyond simple stereotyping. Tabío dedicated Waiting List to the memory of Titón, who died in 1996.
The irony of achieving international acclaim for films that are often microscopically focussed on Cuban mores isn’t lost on Tabío, but he doesn’t let irony get in his way of telling a good story. He doesn’t let small film budgets get in his way, either. In one memorable scene from Plaff! (1989), the director comes on screen to tell his audience what he would have filmed if he could have had the money to film it. Very Cuban. Very funny.
Se permuta (1984).
Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) (1993).
Lista de Espera (Waiting List) (2000).
El Cuerno de la Abundancia (Horn of Plenty) (2008).