A RARE chance to connect with Cuba is being offered to people all over Scotland this year as the Havana Glasgow Film Festival goes online for the first time.

Cuban films are not often shown outside Cuba so although the organisers are disappointed there will not be a physical event because of the coronavirus pandemic, they are pleased the move online will increase access.

The theme this year is Extraordinary Cuba and the festival will highlight how difficult life is for Cubans under the US blockade as well as their resilience in coping with it. Some of the country’s best known musicians will also be featured.

Now in its sixth year, the festival is the brainchild of Glasgow filmmaker and writer Eirene Houston, who has been visiting Cuba since 1997 and has taught at the national film school in Havana, which is twinned with Glasgow.

“Cuba has done so much for me so I thought it would be good to promote Cuban culture here both for Cubans and Scots,” she said. “Also people have no idea how bad the blockade is. Under Obama it was lifting gradually but Trump really upped it and it is probably worse than it has ever been – he is just trying to cripple the country.

“We will be looking at how Cuba survives and it is quite a remarkable story. They are the most remarkable people and the most remarkable country in the world.”

Houston maintains that there is a strong similarity between Scots and Cubans, a belief shared by her co-director, Hugo Rivalta, who lives in Cuba but usually visits Glasgow for the film festival.

“They share a warmth, an openness and an appetite for social justice,” Houston added.

With support from Glasgow City Council and Creative Scotland, audiences have more than doubled as the festival has grown in popularity and it is hoped that its special community feel can be recreated online although the digital move has not been without its challenges.

“I knew it would be hard but didn’t really realise what was involved,” said Houston. “We have been trying to Zoom with Cuba which is a story in itself. We are still figuring out ways to do that because we would like to do some live things to create that community feel.”

Making sure the digital platform is secure so films cannot be pirated has been another challenge, as has accessing the content as Houston would normally go to Cuba and bring the films back with her.A full programme has now been drawn up, however, and includes a feature on how Cuba, which has so far only had just over 100 deaths, is managing Covid.

“There was a lockdown but Havana has now mostly opened up,” said Houston. “It’s interesting as Cuba is very adept at handling crises and, like Vietnam and Uruguay, has very locally based health services where the doctors know everyone and pandemics can be more easily controlled by the local clinics.

“But it is tough because there are loads of queues for food because of the blockade so they have had to manage a pandemic in the middle of a crisis. However people are very socially conscious and you sense they trust the government which tends to work better, whereas we have tremendous polarisation in the UK which is really working against us.”

Following Salud, a film that explores what puts Cuba on the map in the quest for global health, there will be a discussion led by Dr Helen Yaffe of Glasgow University. The same evening, ­November 15 there will be a screening of On the Slopes of the Himalayas, a documentary about Cuban medical volunteers in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake.

In the afternoon that day there will be short films about life in Cuba while on Saturday morning there is a film for kids by the famous animator Juan Padron.

That night there is a Cuban cocktail making demo and newly released music videos of top Cuban salsa band Los Van Van, followed by a Cuban legends double bill featuring documentaries on two of Cuba’s music greats – Eliades Ochoa: From Cuba to the World and Silvio Rodriguez: My First Calling.

Other special events include Glaswegian Masterchef winner Gary ­Maclean’s Cuban cookery workshop, screened from his home, while ­Migrant Voice will teach a poetry workshop and salsa dance stars ­Oscle and Lisi will lead an online dance class.

The festival will be held from ­November 10-15. For more information go to www.hgfilmfest.com