My old philosophy teacher used to be fond of presenting us with the dilemma, "Which do you care more about, the child starving in Eastern Europe, or the child starving on your doorstep?"
While both children are of equal value, we tend to prioritise that which is closer to home, and rightly so. We could take in the child on our doorstep, feed it, then make sure that it got a proper home. But the way we deal with those we cannot find a solution for is a little different. Maybe we give to charity, maybe we write letters for Oxfam or Amnesty, but often, once we have done what we can, we tend to 'look on the bright side' so we can get on with our lives unburdened by guilt.
Looking under the surface is what East Of Havana set out to do, which makes it doubly sad that it failed so miserably. It wants to look underneath the ‘bright side’ that is presented to tourists.
Any powerful narrative documentary ultimately gives the viewer not only a satisfying story but some insight into complexities. The narrative in East of Havana is at odds not only with responsible reporting but verifiable facts.
Before forming a judgement, I made notes during the film, and was also lucky to meet prodcuer Charlize Theron and the two writer-directors and put some of my concerns to them. I also re-watched the film in the light of their comments. But the claim it is a fly-on-the-wall documentary is hard to sustain, especially when the film is interrupted by black screens with writing that give us very specific versions of 'facts'.
The United States has its own particular view of Cuba that is not shared by most of the United Nations or major Non-Governmental Organisations. In an attempt to bring down the government of Fidel Castro, it has kept up an economic blockade for 45 years. The previous, US-friendly government, was corrupt, but at that time Cuba had an effective trade (around 67 per cent) with the US that kept money flowing into the country. When Castro came to power, trade was cut off - in the longest running economic embargo the US has ever implemented, and one condemned by nearly every country in the world as inhuman or in breach of international law. At the 2005 United Nations General Assembly, for instance, 182 countries voted to condemn the embargo (only three nations, supported the US).
For many years Cuba managed in spite of the blockade, but in the Nineties the US stepped up pressure and ordinary Cubans experienced extreme poverty, concomitant with a drop in foreign aid from the USSR as the Soviet Bloc started to dissolve.
This film first appeared in Britain at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, within days of President Bush announcing $80million - not in aid, but to 'boost democracy' by helping the Cuban people in their "transition from repressive control to freedom." Was the film part of that kind of thinking?
Many of the films assertions regarding poverty are quite correct, but, in dealing with the causes of it, the film points a vague finger at Russia and Castro and avoids putting any blame on the American embargo. I put it to Ms Theron and the two directors, Emilia Menocal and Jauretsi Saizabitoria, that surely, this is political whitewash, isn't it?
Their answer was long and not very convincing. Firstly I was assured that just because the embargo wasn't mentioned on the black information screens (intertitles) it didn't mean it wasn't addressed (I must have blinked in this bit). Then Charlize said they never wanted to make a political film. Really? “Do you think it is a pro-American film,” she asks me? Yes, I do. "If you really made a film about the embargo it wouldn't make sense," says Charlize.
Frankly, it is difficult to make sense of the history of poverty in Cuba without looking at the embargo. Only this week, in a leader under the heading, ‘Stop helping Fidel’, The Economist states, “One of the biggest gestures Mr Bush could make would be to support moves to scrap the United States’ unfair and counter-productive trade embargo against Cuba, a country that no longer poses any threat to the United States”.
I found it worrying that the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, Oxfam International, and every other world interest I looked up, had no problem making sense of it, but these filmmakers did not understand it.
I watched the film again. No discussion of the embargo.
Let's have a look at why this film can reasonably be called 'pro-American':
1) Its nominal story is not about Cuban indigenous music or culture but about rap music, a music form associated primarily with the US.
2) The interviews selected show people who are largely ignorant of world affairs, even those affecting their own country. The filmmakers told me that Cubans get Intranet, but not Internet, so cannot access the world wide web. Information from visiting Americans is, understandably, anti-Castro rather than anti-American.
3) Most worryingly, the film takes an emotive issue (malnutrition), dodges clear US culpability, and subtly suggests that the blame rests with Fidel Castro's repressive regime or the drying up of aid from Russia.
4) False information is needlessly used as propaganda against Castro. East of Havana specifically and repeatedly infers "hardly any damage" in Cuba from Hurricane Charley. The BBC, MS-NBC, CBN, The International Federation of Red Cross, and numerous other media and NGOs similarly report facts that are denied by East of Havana.
Ms Theron, who had left her boyfriend to fly in briefly to promote the film, seemed saddened that it was not received as an honest statement of ordinary Cubans. She denied she had introduced a political bias.
The press conference was not convinced.