Director Lester Hamlet (Havana, 1971) presented his forth feature length film Ya no es antes - now being premiered nationwide - during the 38th Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

With a degree in Theater Directing, since the 1990s Hamlet’s filmography has included theatrical productions such as Okantomí, Almacén de los Mundos, and El Público. Later, he made the successful move over to music video production with Transparencias, by Sergio Vitier; Leo Brouwer y la Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional; Santa Bárbara, by Celina González and Lázaro Reutilio Jr., and Una decepción, by Chucho Valdés and Anaís Abreu, before releasing his first feature length fictional movie, Tres veces dos, in 2004.

Six years later he returned with Casa vieja, taking on the enormous responsibility of adapting Abelardo Estorino’s classic play La casa vieja to film, alongside Mijaíl Rodríguez; a work which won him a special mention during the 32nd Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Shortly afterwards in 2011, Hamlet released his third feature length production, Fábula, based on the story Fábula de un amor feliz by author and essayist Alberto Garrandés, with script by Alejandro Brugués. This work saw him win a more prestigious honor: The Third Coral Prize in the 33rd edition of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Now, he is back presenting his forth feature length movie, Ya no es antes, inspired by the playwright Alberto Pedro’s (Havana, 1954 – 2005) popular 80s production Weekend en Bahía, which explores family separation and the impossible love between two people living an emotional limbo caused by emigration. The play, as well as the film, features subtle nudity whose function is merely to entertain, while it is in fact self recognition, evocation of the past and truth, unraveling memories of past experiences, that strip the characters bare in a bitter ritual of remembering and mutual discovery.

Granma International spoke with Hamlet in Havana’s Chaplin Cinema, minutes after the film’s premier during the Festival, which was well-received by the public; an exchange we now offer in the context of the film’s nationwide release.

What has the reaction from the public been like?

Very positive, the public is wonderful. I like how they commit to and move through the emotions I set out for them. I created a path along which I wanted audiences to travel, I wanted to make them laugh, think, cry, hope, be surprised, and it all happened. That is to say, I liked how unassuming they were, falling into my traps, that was very satisfying. Sometimes I’ve fallen into my own traps, but today I feel that they fell into the ones I set for them, in order to tell the story I wanted to tell.

A sterling performance by Isabel Santos and Luis Alberto García, directed by Lester Hamlet, in a 90 minute film, with only two characters and a single setting. Photo:

How did you go about exploring this well known story to achieve the kind of surprise that you mentioned?

Firstly by modernizing the text, secondly, this is a piece which takes place in one place according to how the author wrote it; in a room with a window at the back, and the entire action taking place on the sofa. This is an overly theatrical perspective, so we decided to make it more kinetic, move further into the apartment space, deconstruct it, and within that find many new spaces: the kitchen, bedroom, junk room, daughter’s bedroom, patio, living room, sofa, and balcony, to give people a more dynamic experience than that offered by the play. It’s a film with a lot of camera movement, which is why working with a cinematographer such as Raúl Pérez Ureta (National Prize for Film winner) was so important.

In my opinion another surprise is making the conflicts a little more serious by making the characters older. In the original by Alberto Pedro, the protagonists are 38 years old and for me, one of the biggest conflicts was something which one of the characters mentions: the fear of growing old alone, and I thought, at 38 years old that doesn’t seem so scary. These were resources I searched for to intensify the main conflicts. The original also features an elementary school girl, and in this version she is a university student, and her rejection of her father is more conscious, more determined. In the end it was about intensifying the conflicts, making them more consistent with the actors I had. I also wanted to show that Cuban theatrical literature is important, is essential, and must be taken to the screen, in order to protect it.

Is this why you always return to theater?

I think I always move toward theater, because in my life I continue to pay-off debts. I never saw Weekend en Bahía, or La casa vieja. They are works I became familiar with when I studied theater at 17 or 18 years of age. They were always things I wanted to do, texts that interested me and I never put on stage, and at the same time it seemed like a good idea to take them to film, because theater is very ephemeral; the audience member watches the show and then it ends, and I feel like there are texts from Cuban theater and literature which must achieve the transcendence that film provides. I think that of the arts, such as painting or music, it is film which forms the largest part of history, because theater leaves behind vague memories; you can’t see the same performance twice, but everyone can watch a film again.

The film is set in the 1980s and we are living in the 21st century. Is there any difference?

I think that the reality which this script addresses is that of the most static sector of our society, distance, that eternal longing to return. The play and the film center on a woman who wants to know if a promise made out of love was kept, love which is also a very dynamic and constantly changing situation.

The tender love of 14 year olds is very different from perhaps the coarseness with which the protagonists must now face each other at 54 years of age. I wanted the film to talk about these nuances, these differences, the importance of continuity and the beauty of always being able to solve a problem with a hug; to welcome the other person when they arrive, knock at the door, and tell us I’m here to bless your life.

You worked with two greats: Isabel Santos and Luis Alberto García, tell us about directing these actors…

These two are one of the most important duos in Cuban cinema and this is the fourth time they have worked together (Clandestinos,1987, La vida es silbar,1998, both by Fernando Pérez, and Adorables mentiras, 1991, by Gerardo Chijona), and I wanted to use them for my film. It is an honor to have their performances, for what they represent to Cuban film history. This was the first time I worked with Luis Alberto, but I had worked with Isabel previously on Casa Vieja, and was familiar with her approach, which is very similar to mine. We both believe in singular moments, that magic thing that occurs from the moment you say action to the moment you say cut, they are sacred moments.

Talk to us about the music and the soundtrack…

The music was composed for the film. I once again had the good fortune of working with Harold López-Nussa, with whom I made Fabula. However, just as important as the originals composed by Harold is the music from the archives which forms part of the dramaturgy of the story: Los Van Van, Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Bola de Nieve, Esther Borja, rounding off with a special track, full of cubanía, love, hope and lyrics about love, a song composed for the film by Kelvis Ochoa, featuring Haila Maria Monpie. This all gives me great pleasure and a feeling I appreciate.

Are you satisfied with Ya no es antes?

I am very pleased that on December 10, 2016, the film premiered to a full house, and people enjoyed the film, a reason to be more than proud. My life isn’t contaminated by wars, today it is embellished by films and this is my great pride. Perhaps this is the reason for everything, why I live here, why I insist on creating here, because here I live in peace.

When can we expect to see more of your films?

I have upcoming projects, one is called Compota, a story about a night in Havana, with sex, lust, and debauchery, and another ambitious venture, a biopic about our very own Bola de Nieve.

Ya no es antes – produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) – was one of the big winners of the 38th Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, where it won the Popularity Prize, with Luis Alberto García winning the Coral Award for Best Male Performance.