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Almendros, Néstor (1930-1992)  
 
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Academy Award-winning cinematographer Néstor Almendros achieved his greatest renown working with such directors as Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut, but he also directed several films himself, including the blistering indictment of the persecution of homosexuals in Castro's Cuba, Improper Conduct (Mauvaise conduite, 1984).

Almendros was born and grew up in Barcelona. Always an avid movie-goer, he joined a film society in 1946. The films that he saw there made him realize that movies could be an art form, not merely a source of entertainment. He later recalled his experience at the film society as his "entry into the world of cinema, my first moment of awareness."

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In 1948 he left Spain for Cuba, where his father had been living since going into exile after the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The young Almendros was delighted to discover the wide variety of international films shown in Cuba but disappointed by the absence of film societies and scholarly criticism. He therefore started the country's first film society. Among the other founding members were Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who went on to a career as a writer, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who became a filmmaker.

Almendros and several other members of the society aspired to a career in cinema but found the closed nature of the local media unions to be an obstacle. In any event, they hoped to make more serious films than the musicals and melodramas being produced in Cuba. In 1949 Almendros and Gutiérrez Alea made their first attempt at independent filmmaking with Una confusión cotidiana (A Daily Confusion), based on a story by Kafka.

Almendros soon realized that he would need more training to succeed at his chosen profession. He enrolled in the Institute of Film Techniques at City College in New York. He was frustrated by the school's lack of resources, however, and in 1956 decided to pursue his studies at the Centro Sperimentale in Italy, but there he was disappointed by the quality of the instructors and their conservative views on cinematographic technique.

Unwilling to return to the repressive political climate of either Batista's Cuba or Franco's Spain, Almendros went back to New York, where he got a job as a Spanish instructor at Vassar College. With the savings from his modest salary he bought a 16mm camera and began experimenting with the use and effect of light.

Working in Castro's Cuba

In 1959 Almendros returned to Cuba after the success of Castro's revolution. Although he eventually became bitterly disillusioned with Castro's policies, he initially embraced the hope that the new regime would bring positive changes.

Almendros found a job with ICAIC, the Cuban government's department of cinematographic productions. He worked as a cameraman and as a director on propagandistic films with political or educational themes.

Not satisfied with the nature of his official work, Almendros undertook an independent documentary project entitled Gente en la playa (People at the Beach). He experimented with the use of light, from the brilliant illumination of the sun at the beach to the relatively obscure interior of a crowded bus.

Almendros was not reticent in expressing his ideas about film technique, which led to clashes with those in power at ICAIC. As a result, the materials for Gente en la playa were seized to prevent him from completing it. Eventually he was able to retrieve them, finish the editing, and sneak the film past the bureaucrats by retitling it Playa del pueblo (The Beach of the People). The film was later banned because it had been made without official sanctions.

As a result of Castro's embrace of communism, the films being shown in Cuba came almost exclusively from the Soviet bloc. Moreover, Cuban film criticism was based on politics, rather than artistic merit. Almendros found this atmosphere stifling, and he again became an exile.

His Career in Cinematography

Almendros went to France, where he showed a smuggled copy of Gente en la playa at various film festivals. It was well received but did not lead to any offers of work. In 1964 Almendros was about to give up his dream of a career in cinema when he had a lucky break. He happened to be present when the director of photography on Eric Rohmer's Paris vu par... (Paris Seen By . . . ) quit. Almendros volunteered for the job. The producer, Barbet Schroeder, offered him a one-day trial, and then, pleased with his results, retained him.

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