The earliest films made in Cuba were newsreel footages of the Cuban-Spanish-American War, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The melodramas, musicals, and comedies made until the revolution of 1959 were left in the shadows when the founding of ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos) effectively closed the door on earlier Cuban cinema. With a mission of producing documentaries to elevate the political arena, the early innovators of Cuban cinema were considered inappropriate. Among the feature films, documentaries, and short subjects made in accordance with revolutionary principles are works by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Humberto Solás. Thanks to the dedication and determined archival work of some Cuban critics, researchers, and cinema historians, much of Cuba’s prerevolutionary cinema history has been salvaged.
The time between 1906 and the Cuban revolution of 1959 is now called the silent era of Cuban cinema. Enrique Díaz Quesada, director of great works such as “El Parque Palatino” (1906), was considered the “Father of Cuban Cinema”. In this time there were many other important figures in Cuban cinema like Ramón Peón (1887-1971), who directed “La Virgen de la Caridad” (1930) – one of the last silent films produced in Cuba; Max Tosquella, who directed “Maracas y Bongó” (1932) – the first sound short film produced in Cuba, and Ernesto Caparrós who went on to direct the first Cuban feature-length sound film, “La Serpiente Roja” (1937). Unfortunately, only an incomplete copy of this historic film exists; it is currently being restored by ICAIC and INA (France).
Ernesto Caparrós also directed “Tam Tam”, or “El Orígen de La Rumba” (1938), a love story of two young mestizos that explores the history of the rumba from its roots of sound and rhythms of Africa from the times of slavery and its evolution over time. Caparrós emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 where he became a camera man in Hollywood. He was director of photography on Arthur Penn’s “The Miracle Worker” (1962).
Mario Barral’s “De Espaldas” (1956) is a perfect example of Cuban experimental work filled with existential reflections as the protagonist wanders the streets of the city questioning social injustice and the meaning of life. This film was a precursor of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), released only in the United States.