Juan Carlos Cremata
Film director

Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti didn't become a film director by accident. He was clearly pre-destined to tell other people's stories, and he considers himself fortunate to live in Havana where other people's stories so often cry out to be turned into movies.

His specialty is bittersweet comedies, and he handles his subject matter with tremendous sensitivity and intelligence. "Nada," Cremata's first feature (released in 2001 as "Nada Mas" or "Nada +" abroad), garnered a loyal following at film festivals around the world, but it was his second film, "Viva Cuba" (2005), that made him a star. So far "Viva Cuba" has won more than 30 national and international prizes, including Best Children's Film (awarded by a jury of children) at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was Cuba's official entry at the 2005 Academy Awards in the United States.)

His latest film, "El Premio Flaco" (The Meager Prize), got an enthusiastic reception when it premiered at the Havana Film Festival in December 2008, but that day was still in the distant future when we paid a visit to the set. The film was shot over 22 days on a backlot belonging to the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) in Havana. "El Premio Flaco," adapted from Hector Quintero's play, tells the story of a woman whose luck changes in a big way when she wins a contest sponsored by a ham company. Cremata's crew had constructed a dozen wooden shacks (most of them merely facades of wooden shacks), and with the period signage and underfed livestock it all made a thoroughly convincing Havana barrio, circa 1958.

Cremata provided a stark contrast to the period décor, wearing an L.A. Gear sweatshirt, khaki trousers, large white wristwatch, panama hat, sunglasses, and communicating with his cast through a red megaphone. The film's star, Rosa Vasconcelos, arrived in a yellow Lada station wagon and distributed kisses all around before ducking into one of the shacks to shoot the day's big scene.

The film's budget, small even by Cuban standards, seems to have been a source of inspiration for Cremata. "This film is a black comedy that talks about the importance of hanging onto what's spiritual as opposed to the material," he explained, "and that has a lot to do with how we're making this film. We're poor – we have a miniscule budget – but we're trying to make a film that's rich in spirit, with a rich soul."

Cremata grew up in an artistic family. His mother, Iraida Malberti Cabrera, is a choreographer and a film director who used to work in children's television, which also provided a starting point for her son. And Cremata repaid the favour, bringing his mother in as co-director on both "Viva Cuba" and "El Premio Flaco."

"I grew up surrounded by a strange mix of reality and fantasy," Cremata says. "I played with toy swords that were actually television props made to look like real swords. That fantasy world had a big impact on my life."

Cremata was born in Havana's Vedado district in 1961 and spent most of his childhood in La Víbora ("I'm one of those rare true Habaneros"). Which is not to say he hasn't seen the world. He taught film classes in Buenos Aires, lived in New York on a Guggenheim fellowship and attended film workshops at the Sundance Institute in Utah. But now he's back in Vedado and has every intention of staying there.

"I don't know how to make anything that's not Cuban," he says. "I'm more and more interested in Cuban culture — in our roots, what we were, what we are, what we will be… My first film, 'Nada,' is a film from Vedado, all the action happens in this neighborhood. My second film, 'Viva Cuba,' is a road movie that takes place all around the island – it gave me the justification to get to know parts of Cuba I didn't know."

"Nada" was intended as the first of a trilogy, to be followed by "Nadie" (Nobody) and "Nunca" (Never), but the financing didn't come together for parts two and three, and Cremata moved on.

Currently topping his wishlist of film projects is an adaptation of "Hombres sin Mujer" by Carlos Montenegro. The novel, a brutal tale of Cuban men in love and in prison, caused an uproar when it first appeared at the end of the 1930s, and Montenegro's legacy remains controversial in Cuba today— but controversy, like small budgets, is not something that worries Cremata, so he's still dreaming that one day he'll get his hands on the film rights to "Hombres sin Mujer."

"I think I've been a very lucky person," he says. "'I get to do whatever I want to do. And I do it with a lot of pleasure and a lot of love. Coming to work is, for me, like playing a game. It's a reason to be alive."