Rushes

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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY Cuba seems remarkably less ideological and bureaucratic than when I last visited, four years ago. Then, it took me three hours at the airport get beyond passport control. This time, I'm out so fast that I miss Danny Boyle, the young British director of the film, Shallow Grave, who's here to meet me, and instead find my way to the vast Hotel Nacional in a taxi, its radio salsa rhythms filling night streets otherwise strangely devoid of traffic and light, thanks to severe shortages of petrol and just about everything else.

Danny is here, with a contingent of other Brits, for the Havana Film Festival, and I'm here to discuss with him the film we are making of my novel, The War Zone. This being the British film industry, we're both on tight budgets and when we do finally meet up, I'm smuggled into the hotel to share his room free of charge. "Hide your toothbrush and make your bed," he advises.

MONDAY We are picked up at the hotel by a bus that has seen better days, and taken to the International Film and Television School, situated outside Havana in what used to be an orange grove.

Danny and Stephen Frears (director of Dangerous Liaisons, The Snapper and the forthcoming Mary Riley) are very much the star guests. There is a generational split among the students between those who want to discuss the entirety of Stephen's career and those excited by Danny and the new generation of film-makers. "It's all part of the Oedipal struggle," Stephen remarks, in his deadpan manner.

Back at the Nacional, Danny interviews Stephen for a video diary about the festival. We are distracted by the sight of seven or eight young women in bikinis, sunning themselves by the hotel pool, who volunteer, somewhat bizarrely, that they are the Argentinian Field Hockey team. Suspicions run deep that Fidel has shipped them in simply to bring a touch of Cannes to a festival which is certainly honourable, but not exactly sparkling.

TUESDAY The final day of my flying visit, and I manage to watch half a Cuban film and half a Mexican, the combination proving none too enlightening.

A strange afternoon, combining a trip to Havana's grand main cemetery, and a party at the British Embassy - real Graham Greene territory, with a neatly marshalled tropical garden and a dazzling old swimming pool.

The seductiveness no doubt fades if you have to live with these conditions every day, though there are signs that things are changing. The people are poor, but investment is moving in.

On our last night, we find a welcome at the opening night of a stylish restaurant, and meet with a group of film students. The film school is perhaps under-resourced, but truly international, recruiting talent from Africa and Asia as well as Latin America. As we sit eating with two Japanese students, a Bajian and a Belizian, someone jokes "Hey, we're the united colours of Benetton!" Cuba may have one large, hostile neighbour, but it isn't completely isolated in the world.

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