Stored in the archives of Cuba's film institute ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos) are 1493 newsreels that were once produced weekly, recording the history of the island and beyond from a Cuban perspective.

They were distributed in cinemas in Havana, but they were also painstakingly transported around the island on donkeys, by foot, in rucksacks, to villages where they would be screened for Cubans who had never seen a moving picture, as part of a political mobile cinema project.

In 1990, as the island suffered economically and culturally from the withdrawal of Soviet financial support and a crippling US embargo, the production of the newscasts ended and their material remains were stored away in the archive of the film institute.

In 2012, the archives were given Memory of the World Register status by UNESCO, and since then the process of digitalisation has been undertaken to preserve it.

But what makes this cultural vestige interesting beyond the fact that it was a tool of flagrant propaganda are the experimental ideas generated by those who made the newscast.

Gathered around the Noticiero were not journalists per se, but a group of avant-garde artists, producers and film directors who began their careers making those newscasts - and who eventually became the pioneers of "Third Cinema", a 20th century Latin American film movement that rejected Hollywood and championed a more politically-engaged form of cinema production.

Cuban media historian Mayra Alvarez talks to The Listening Post in Havana about the legacy of the Noticiero ICAIC.

Al Jazeera: ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, was founded some three months into the Cuban revolution - a sign that film, cinema, and images were going to play a key cultural role in the political process. What was the importance of this institution, not in terms of the history of cinema, which has already been well documented, but in terms of the history of journalism in Cuba?

Mayra Alvarez: ICAIC newsreel first appeared a year after the advent of the Cuban revolution. It was a very effervescent time, socially speaking. It was a time when social reforms were being pursued, a time of imminent change, a change in all aspects of life.

So in time, the newsreel became a kind of political publisher in its first phase. Over time, it changed and it became political in different ways. It made its political statements with a different style. But at first, it signalled a break from several traditions at once. Firstly, with the actual Cuban newsreel tradition, in terms of the type of issues it would consider to be newsworthy. And even more than the choice of subject, it was the question of how to report it. And it is precisely in the question of how to report that it is most distinctive. Its production choices effectively created a new aesthetic sensibility.

Al Jazeera: Some have told us that they remember going to the cinema not so much to see the main film - but for the Noticiero screened before it. Can you explain this phenomenon to us?

Alvarez: They got the audience involved, they included them and allowed them to identify with the programme. They identified with the way the newsreel was made because we know that TV news is made in a certain way, there's a certain immediacy to them. That was not the objective of ICAIC Newsreel. They were after artistic creativity. It was an artistic news programme. So that set it apart from the other newsreels but it also gave it its appeal among the public.

A new generation of filmmakers were emerging, people like Daniel Diaz Torres, Francisco Punal, Lazaro Burria, Rolando Diaz. They had a kind of spark to them, they were very jokey, healthy putdowns. This was something that Daniel Diaz Torres would defend, he'd say that you had to watch out for people who didn't enjoy a good joke, a good tease. People who couldn't have a good laugh.

[Noticiero newsreels] used animations, they used comedy, they used critical reviews, and it was a very successful formula.

Mayra Alvarez, Cuban media historian

I'm not sure if this may be a Cuban thing. Cubans like to tease, they are playful by nature. It's something that's innate to us, maybe that's something that contributed to the Newsreel's success: that it would show you the truth through jokes, criticising in a way that people could relate to.

Al Jazeera: The Noticiero was made up of a range of unexpected visual conventions that moved beyond the aesthetics of a more traditional news bulletin...

Alvarez: Yes, some of the newsreels are veritable artworks. It's almost a kind of video art. They used animations, they used comedy, they used critical reviews, and it was a very successful formula. Just to pick one out, there was one on Nixon that was really interesting. There is no commentary, it's built from images of Richard Nixon and cartoons and music. The music is really well-chosen.

The thing is, at that time in the 60s and 70s, documentaries were making a giant leap forward in terms of creativity. This had a big influence on the newsreel because many of the filmmakers who worked on it had a documentary background. Then they went back to making documentaries having absorbed the experience of the Newsreel: the rigour of its work rate but also of its creative demands.

Al Jazeera: The Noticiero walked a fine line. It was produced out of a state institution but had critical aspirations. How critical was it of the government and how was it received by authorities?

Alvarez: Sometimes there would be criticism, of potholes, of roads in disrepair. Locals would be filmed criticising it. And it was done in a playful spirit and ended on the newsreel.

If bread production was criticised, there may be a high-level figure in the Food Ministry who would not accept this. In the food production field, there may have been senior figures in the Home Affairs Ministry who would not be happy about that criticism. If there was a report about the cemetery, somebody in the Council Maintenance Department may have disapproved. If the report was about public buses, there may have been people at the Transport Ministry unhappy about that.

Al Jazeera: The Noticiero stopped broadcasting in 1990. What factors do think contributed to this?

Alvarez: People speculate that it was because of the crisis that came about with the "Special Period", which started in 1990. The newsreel finished in July of 1990. But while the Special Period would have had some impact, I don't think it could have been so determinant as to shut the newsreel down. I think there just may have been one complaint too many, there may have been one unhappy high-ranking manager too many and so unfortunately, it was decided to shut down the newsreel, just as the Special Period was starting.

Al Jazeera: It's been nearly 30 years since the Noticiero stopped airing and times have changed dramatically. What do you think a Noticiero ICAIC would bring if revived today?

Alvarez: This is an interesting question. Believe it or not, in spite of technology having advanced so much compared to the 60s, 70s and 80s in the last century, the newsreel now could definitely be made, if there was the will to do it.

You could argue that, given the immediacy of television and of the internet now, what place could there be for a newsreel? It's simple. Television has always been immediate and yet, it never used to pose competition to the newsreel, because the newsreel had something else. It reported on the news but in doing so, it gave them a spin, it gave them a new form, it reached the public in such a way that it made them think. It made them reflect.

Source: Al Jazeera