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The Courier goes to Cuba’s Havana Film Festival

Photos courtesy of Alina Suriel

This year’s Havana Film Festival had one addition never before seen by the island of Cuba: a Queens Courier reporter.

I attended the screening of “Mariela’s March,” an HBO documentary directed by Jon Alpert on the efforts of Mariela Castro Espín to fight for LGBT rights in Cuba. Castro is both a Cuban Parliament member and the daughter of current president Raul Castro—who succeeded his brother, revolutionary Fidel Castro, in 2008.

While Cuba is an island frozen in time in many ways, the LGBT movement is portrayed in the film as one aspect in which people are looking to the future.

Castro’s efforts over the past 20 years have affected incredible change in the Cuban population’s perception of the LGBT community. She uses her influence to call attention to the cause, serving as the director of the National Center for Sexual Education and leading annual pride marches on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

As with any good party, the audience in the screening was an eclectic mix of fabulous people excited to be a part of the scene.

American power players such as HBO CEO Richard Plepler and HBO Documentary head Sheila Nevins were present to celebrate the piece and represent their brand. Country musician and three-time Grammy-winner Delbert McClinton was in the audience as well, along with former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd and documentarian Rory Kennedy.

Many of the Cuban political elite were also present at the screening. Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla and Minister of Radio and Television Danylo Sirio López were in attendance, along with Castro.

In many ways, my experience of Cuba itself fulfilled the widely held fantasy of cigars, classic cars and seafood in intimate restaurants.

Having been invited as a guest for such a high class event, I was able to experience dinners at some of the country’s best paladares, privately-owned restaurants which are sometimes run in converted homes. A dinner after the movie screening was hosted at San Cristobal, which set up a grand table for the 60+ guests and a side room for VIP dining. All dined on lobster tails, fish fillets, pork or chicken, with a cigar offered to each person after the meal was done.

During the trip we also spent some time at the Hotel Nacional, a 1930s-era hotel which had been a mainstay of both celebrities and mobsters from the 1940s until the Cuban revolution in 1959. Peacocks roam freely over the hotel grounds, and patrons feed the birds crumbs of the complimentary cookies placed on the saucer of each coffee cup. The best classic cars waited in front of the hotel to act as taxis for international tourists, creating a brightly colored parade down the streets of colonial architecture and palm trees.

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