Alejandra Espasande was shown the Cuban film “Casta de Roble” after her grandfather died.
Though her grandfather had worked on the drama, Espasande said she had never seen it before because many of these pre-revolutionary Cuban films were inaccessible to the public.
Espasande, a film archivist who now works for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was shocked to finally watch her grandfather’s work in the rare 1954 movie. She felt responsible for helping audiences appreciate cinema that may have been hidden or forgotten.
“Casta de Roble” is the first film selected for restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s project entitled “Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles (1932–1960).” It will restore old films from countries such as Cuba, Argentina and Mexico, culminating in a film exhibition during fall of 2017 that will display the recovered materials with English subtitles, Espasande said.
Espasande, a UCLA alumna, said she was asked by her former film professor, Jan-Christopher Horak, to collaborate on this project as a guest curator. Horak, the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, is leading the program.
Horak said he received planning grants about a year ago from the Getty Foundation, which is sponsoring “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” an initiative to explore Latino art in 40 institutions in Southern California. The archive proposed restoring Spanish-language cinema from downtown Los Angeles because several theaters in Los Angeles used to regularly feature Latin American films, Horak said.
This endeavor, Horak said, was complicated by the fact that both the films and the history of the films have disappeared.
“If you look at film history books, they mention virtually nothing about films made in (Latin American) countries in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” Horak said. “We’re trying to recuperate this history, but many films are not in good shape because the archives in most Latin American countries are underfunded and understaffed.”
After the 1959 revolution in Cuba, Horak said the government policy was to only save films made by the communist government.
“Up until this year, the Cubans never admitted these pre-revolutionary films even existed,” Horak said.
A lot of classic Cuban films have been lost, Espasande said, because they were not properly stored; the heat and humidity of the country’s climate damaged the strips, but the UCLA Film and Television Archive is trying to save what remains.
The project was able to begin after the United States ended its five-decade embargo against Cuba, Horak said, and after the national archives in Cuba hired a new director, Luciano Castillo. Horak said Castillo, who visited in February to discuss the collaboration with UCLA, is a historian of this time period.
Currently, Espasande said she is reaching out to the national archives of several Latin American countries to make connections and discover what materials are available to send to UCLA for restoration. She said one title has been chosen so far – “Casta de Roble.” Espasande is also contacting private collectors, like former film producers or actors in Argentina, that may possess old 35mm negatives.
“It’s like Sherlock Holmes,” Espasande said. “You have to use your intuition and contact the people and convince them that this project is important, so they can trust you with sending you these rolls of film from afar.”
The films are likely to arrive between six months and a year from now, Espasande said, and then the restoration process can begin.
“The team at UCLA will start making the restoration work, which I believe will be both digital, by scanning the pictures, but also photochemical, meaning they’re going to make copies of the negatives,” Espasande said.
Starting fall quarter of 2017, the exhibition will show the collection of classic Latin American films and the film materials will be returned to their original countries, Horak said.
“The goal is to introduce Cubans and scholars and audiences to the cinema of the past,” Espasande said. “(It’s) not so foreign, because once upon a time in Los Angeles we had a good number of movie theaters than ran Spanish language films.”
Shannon Kelley, co-curator of “Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles (1932–1960),” said the project represents a rare chance for the Archive to learn about the culture of this continent and the past of Southern California.
Espasande said she hopes the exhibition helps people identify with the city of Los Angeles and understand its history. She said viewers of Cuban movies, for example, can learn a lot about Cuban culture.
“Sometimes I don’t even know where I belong, but my identity is as much as Cuba as L.A. because I’ve lived (in Los Angeles) a long time,” Espasande said. “It makes me very happy the United States and UCLA are collaborating with Cuba.”