Laurent Cantet • Director
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French director Laurent Cantet shot his sixth feature, Return to Ithaca, on a terrace in Havana, where five friends reminisce about their youth in Cuba, and the hopes and dreams they had at the time.
Cineuropa: Why did you wish to return to the Havana?
Laurent Cantet: I’ve been going to Cuba regularly for about ten years now. First of all, location scouting for Heading South which I finally filmed in Haiti, then to screen my films in festivals, and also on holidays to visit people that I had met. I was immediately taken in by something that I can’t define, like when you fall in love. What’s more, Cuba is a legendary place for any left-winger who’s in some way committed to the cause. It has a really powerful atmosphere, even if I, like many others, have now challenged it. It’s also a strange place because you have the impression that you only understand a small part of it, there’s always more to discover.
I was lucky to be offered the opportunity to direct a short film in the movie 7 days in the Havana. It allowed me to meet a Cuban writer whose books I had read in full: Leonardo Padura. We started working on the short film project and I suggested that he think about the story of an exile that returns home and visits his group of friends, freely inspired by an extract from one of his books. Very soon, we realised that 15 minutes wouldn’t be enough and so we abandoned the idea of a specific period of time. Later, we met up again and we developed the same storyline so as to obtain a feature-length movie. I insisted that it maintain its initial form because I felt that the theatrical form that we had in mind was most effective. One might expect that by developing the storyline, you expand it, that you might walk around the streets of the Havana in search of that unique atmosphere. However, I preferred to stay on a balcony that was to be imagined as a kind of raft overlooking the Havana: on one side the sea, a black hole as soon as night falls, both a border and the beginning of another world for all Cubans, and on the other side, the city, its roofs and all of the life that occurs there. So, it’s the city that enters into the scenery.
How did you build the characters?
There were several phases in writing. First of all, we wrote up a step outline with the general ideas. Very quickly, we held some improvisation sessions with actors who are not in fact necessarily the same ones that appear in the movie. It was a way for me to discover Cuban actors, to make a cast without it being too tedious. These sessions allowed me to make sure that what we had to say was meaningful. Very soon, the actors told me: "it’s our story, it must be told!" Then, once the screenplay was written, we had various readings. Everyone had the opportunity to question what had been written. I wasn’t there to give my opinion on Cuba, rather to let the Cubans speak.
Did you have any problems filming?
No. We made the film very officially. We filed the screenplay with the office that manages everything to do with film on the island. It passed through the hands of the minister for culture and we were given permission to film. After that, we weren’t subject to the slightest constraint or monitoring. Leonardo Padura told me that this film had arrived just when it was possible to make it. That proves also that something in the country has changed. All of a sudden, there’s a desire to reflect on the recent past, which up to now had been difficult to question, but today can be reassessed.
Is this a film about disappointment?
It was important that it be a Cuban story because I wanted to hear what had happened from the mouths of those who had been there, more or less. But it also went beyond Cuba, to reach out to each and every one of us, to every person who is committed to or encouraged by a cause. The film tells of how this generation, which Padura calls the lost generation, that was born practically with the revolution, believed very firmly in the values of the revolution, and was committed to it. I have friends for instance who spent their holidays giving reading and writing classes in the countryside. These people were really committed and expected to have a role to play. But when they were old enough to gain positions of responsibility, the country fell flat on its face. The USSR that had been drip feeding Cuba collapsed. The American blockade continued, the country was totally ruined and then came what’s known as the "special period", a very difficult period when people literally died of hunger. This generation understood, at a glance, that it would never be able to play a part and it became disengaged. The movie recounts the disappointments, the betrayals, the compromises and the shady deals, that each one made. It’s also about fear; fear that prevented some from painting, others from writing, and others from living; fear which Amadeo’s character, returning from exile, finally succeeds in overcoming, and, without a doubt, that’s one of the film’s optimistic messages.