To mark Fernando Birri’s 90th birthday, Michael Chanan, documentarist, writer and contributor to the forthcoming book Marc Karlin-Look Again, recalls his first meeting with Birri. He also includes a film made with Marc Karlin Archive co-founder, Holly Aylett, on the Havana Film Festival broadcast on Channel 4 in the early 1980s.
There was something magical about the first time I met Fernando Birri, who celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago. I had just arrived in Cuba for the first Havana Film Festival in 1979. Checking in to the Hotel Nacional in the late afternoon, I looked for a bar to quench my thirst, where I found this strange but very friendly figure—all the more mysterious in the dim light—with his long straggly beard and wearing the hat which I later discovered he never took off. I found out who he was—happily still is—over the following days. Three years later, he became a key figure in the documentary I made for Channel Four about the New Cinema movement in Latin America, of which Fernando is one of the founding figures. This portrait is drawn from those films (with a snippet—the short sequence with Fidel—taken from the film I made a couple of years later on the Havana Film Festival with Holly Aylett, also for Channel Four.) Enhorabuena, Fernando!