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Acclaimed Cuban film school trains its focus on ‘cinema and life’

Inside the main building of the International School of Film and Television (EICTV) in Cuba, the atmosphere is a mixture of warm conviviality and frenetic hard work.

Each year, around 500 applicants from more than 30 countries compete for just 42 places on its internationally accredited diploma programme.

The three-year course allows students to specialise in one of seven disciplines – directing, scriptwriting, documentary-making, editing, production, cinematography or sound.

Classes are taught by industry professionals from Cuba, Latin America, Europe and beyond, many of whom fly in regularly just to teach their modules.

They are joined by a host of visiting speakers whose ranks have featured some of the biggest names in cinema, including Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

One of the most celebrated workshops on scriptwriting is led by Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian writer, Nobel laureate and founder of the school.

The result is an extraordinary institution, described by its current director, the Dominican film-maker Tanya Valette, as a “school of cinema and of life”.

Established in 1986, the EICTV is a project of the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema, which has its headquarters in Cuba.

Its initial aim was to support the development of national audio-visual industries in countries that lacked the infrastructure or resources to train their own professionals.

It began by providing free courses to students from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. But in 2006, it opened up to fee-paying students from the rest of the world.

Ms Valette said this had made “the experience of the school even more culturally diverse and enriching” without losing its original ethos.

The school was the brainchild of a group of intellectuals, with García Márquez joined by the Argentinian Fernando Birri and the Cuban Julio García Espinosa, both leading figures in Latin American debates about revolutionary and politically committed art.

Although partly financed by Cuba’s ministry of culture, and sharing many of the ideals of the revolution’s cultural policy, the school is independent.

When filming, students have to deal with the realities of life in socialist Cuba. There is a common joke among residents of nearby San Antonio de los Baños that they live in the most filmed town in the world. But students do also go further afield.

In recent years, the institution has tried to extend access. One result is the documentary summer school organised at the EICTV by University College London, in collaboration with Ryerson University in Canada.

Set the task of making documentaries that reveal an “inner vision of Cuban reality”, students’ films are then shown at the World Film Festival held each November at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London.

As it enters its 25th anniversary year, the school intends to focus its celebrations on the achievements of its graduates, many of whom have won awards and had successful careers in their native countries.

Meanwhile, it remains a popular option for students wanting to pursue a rigorous but unconventional training in the audiovisual arts.

Summing up her view of the school, Yannis Lobaina González, a former student who now works at the institution, said: “It is a place that is always alive, always working, always thinking. A place where, as Birri said, Utopia is possible.”

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