Secret agent men

Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon on low budget espionage and Castro’s Spies

by Jennie Kermode

A family divided by duty in Castro's Spies
A family divided by duty in Castro's Spies Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

An investigation into the espionage carried out by Cuban agents in the US in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, Castro’s Spies is one of the most interesting documentaries to feature in this year’s Glasgow Film Festival line-up. It goes into incredible depth, with a huge collection of archive material and interviewees from both Cuban and US intelligence. When I met up with its directors, Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon, they told me that it took them over six years to make. They were very lucky to finish filming just before the Covid-19 pandemic, so they could spend their time under lockdown working on postproduction. Ollie said that he had always been interested in political history but that he came upon this story almost by accident.

“As a documentary filmmaker, you're always looking around to see what can have an edge for a story. I saw a bumper sticker on the back of the car in Ireland, about the Miami Five. I looked into the story. There were small snippets of information around it, there was an article in The Guardian, very basic. So anyway, it's from those stories that I found out about the building global campaign behind the humanitarian side of things, looking to get these guys free. It was not necessarily what they did or didn't do, but they were not allowed to see their wives. It's kind of a classic human rights campaigns. But then there was just more and more to the story. “

I note that something that stood out to me, that maybe contributes to people saying that they weren't proper spies, is that I always hear that the most successful spies are people who are a little bit sociopathic, who don't really feel much empathy for other people and don't have any trouble manipulating people. And there's a wonderful section in the film where these men talk about how difficult it is to lie to people and have to pretend to be somebody else all the time.

“I think the interesting thing about the story was, you know, despite doing murky things and running around poisoning people and doing all these things we hear about and see in typical spy genre films, you know, that is a murky world and they're doing a job to go and bump someone off, or whatever it is, was for these guys – regardless of what your political opinion is – they felt that they were doing the right thing to save people in their country from being attacked. So they felt a duty, a cause, you know, not through radicalisation and all that sort of stuff. They were doing it for the love of their country. Which is perhaps what fascinates me.”

“I think there was also a practical element to it as well,” adds Gary. “You know, you have Cuba 90 odd miles away from Florida. So they strategically made a decision that they weren't going to get involved in that style of what we described as the Cold War politics that we've grown up watching in TV and films, where you have the KGB agents fighting the CIA agents, hundreds of people are killed and all that sort of thing. America is so large and so powerful compared to Cuba that they never wanted to engage in those terms, but they wanted to do was keep an eye on the different organisations. And the Cuban exile organisations, they wanted to keep an eye on them.

“And then secondly, as the global politics developed, at that time, they were concerned about an American invasion. So they wanted to just keep an eye on that, rather than doing proactive, aggressive tactics. It was very much defensive and observational. So I think that allows for these people to be normal humans. That's why I think you warm to these people as human characters. They are people with families, tortured by the fact that they had to leave their wives and children. These are not the actions of what I understand a sociopath to be. And that's why I think it's reasonable enough to kind of form an attraction to them.”

Something else that comes across in the film is that everybody involved seems to have some respect for them, regardless of what side those people are on. Was that something that just came out naturally in conversation?

“Yeah, definitely,” says Gary. “One of the things that people have asked us repeatedly is ‘Was it hard to get people to talk?’ And that wasn't the case at all. Both sides of the debate are very comfortable in what they did, and are very open to describing what they did. And of your answer your points specifically, they all have either admiration or grudging respect for the work that the Cubans guys did, because they were so good at their job. And, you know, there's some organisations, such as Mossad, that are getting an awful lot of press. There’s an entire television industry built up around what Mossad is doing at the moment.

“What the Cubans are able to do, again, whether you like them or not, they're able to do it on a tiny, tiny budget, which is incredibly difficult to do. And they have no support in terms of what could come over from Cuba. You know that kind of dynamic that you see in the kind of Bourne movies where they're heavily integrated with some big, high tech organisation in the background? No, they have none of that. So both sides have full respect for the work that they did.”

In one part of the film they talk about the fact that they were using very ordinary equipment, ordinary cameras and things like that. Did that actually help them to go under the radar?

The situation was complicated, Ollie says, and there was only so much that could be said in s 103 minute film. The Cuban spies were indeed getting their cameras from Video Shack, but he thinks there’s a bigger factor that helped them to stay hidden.

“There's so many Cuban Americans in Florida. Most of the Cubans in in in Florida have defected in some shape or form from from Cuba, so their cover was that they were just like everyone else. They were able to blend in because, you know, the people that they were infiltrating were people like that.”

Gary feels it’s important to clarify that the Cuban agents didn’t have a choice about the equipment they used.

“They didn't have money. So what we did was they used this very analogue equipment and stuff that you could buy from retail stores, and they were trained really well, they used a lot of what's called spycraft..And they were quite accomplished. Some of them had been to Angola, so they had a lot of very practical experience.”

When deciding who to interview, Ollie explains, it was important for them to talk to people who had been right in the thick of it – the people on the ground rather than the generals.

“It's kind of a way to access the history, because the history is gigantic, but no one no one knows about Cuban history in the US and certainly in the UK. So for us, it was really quite important to find those people that talk us through it from the very early days.”

“We were just always very keen on having first hand testimony, as opposed to a documentary which strays into more TV territory when you have like a series of experts or perceived experts,” says Gary. “They come to the discussion with with their bias and agenda, and this is such an emotive topic for people in Florida, in Cuba, in America. So we didn't want to go into those well worn paths that people have heard before, but we wanted to hear was a group of people that lived an amazing life. It's just so different to what we live. So much more exciting, somewhat dangerous. And also, most of us do jobs that are fairly benign. not such a big risk and reward. So it's really interesting to see the motivations of these people.

“Why would you do this? Like why would you leave your country and risk being locked up in American prisons for the rest of your life? That's really, really interesting. And it's like all of these things, it takes time. Ollie was working on this for a couple of years before I got involved. We built this trust with the Cuban side, and then later we built up this trust with the American side. And, it allowed us, we felt, just to make a very honest documentary. We don't have an agenda here, we're filmmakers. We want to make a really entertaining form of documentary. And because both sides are so committed to their position, they speak freely, and we feel they gave us a lot of really, really interesting things.”

They also interview family members of the spies who had no idea what was going on at the time, including a woman who went through the agony of thinking her husband had betrayed both her and his country before becoming suspicious and deciding to do a bit of spying of her own.

“It was his job to betray her and leave her with her feeling betrayed,” says Ollie. “And that's how he was portrayed in the US. And then she put the dots together and she followed this thing and rumbled him. She found his handler. She then went over and took her kids over to Florida. So doing that, you’re in a hornet's nest, and if they get found out by the authorities... it's such a dangerous thing to do. So it shows again, I think, that commitment to do this. Again, our approach was just to hear that story, so I was flabbergasted to hear that she tracked him down.“

The film is illustrated in interesting ways with all kinds of different bits of footage. How did that develop?

Gary says that they were keen to avoid repeating techniques that they had seen over and over again in other documentaries.

“We had a challenge, inspired by the very nature of the work. They do stuff in the shadows, they don't record it, because no camera crews are there to be able to do that. So, you know, this is a very difficult thing for us to do that. In an interview we have with Fernando [González], we were asking about his favourites, what inspired him to be a spy, and one of the things was a TV show that he saw growing up. We didn't know this show because we weren't familiar with Cuban television. Plus, it was almost as if each episode that he was describing was one of the shows. So we were able to match up a lot of the time elements that they were discussing, you know, passing on information, wearing disguises, doing bugs, or the various different drop offs that they did. And were able to match that up with this representation from Cuban television. It also just allowed us to give it a very human feel. We enjoyed playing with this particular style.”

I ask how Cubans have reacted to the film, if they’ve seen it, and Ollie tells me that it was scheduled to be shown at the Havana Film Festival but that Covid-19 meant, in the end, there could only be a small locals only screening. It has been received well and he’s hoping for the same reaction from a bigger audience.

Gary says they’re thrilled that it’s part of the Glasgow line-up.

“The two markets we're really, really interested in challenging straight away are the UK and US. So it's a real honour to to do it. Glasgow and Scotland were really important for this film. Gambit Pictures, the company that we work for in Ireland, has also established Gambit in Glasgow, and we work out of the Glasgow collective. And this film virtually half financed by people in Scotland, so it wouldn't have actually happened without the support of Scotland. And Glasgow has a really strong relationship with Cuba. It’s twinned with Havana. There’s such a very long tradition of the unionist movements. So it's great.

“We're just there to show the film to the people that made it happen. And also, all the people that we're going to be working with on this and other projects in the future and stuff. We just really wanted to show it to people in person, you know, be able to have the back and forth. All those things are the reason you do it, you know, you got to show it to other people as the catalyst for future projects that you work on, you get to meet all the people in the industry. So that side of it is really disappointing. But we're thrilled that we were selected for for Glasgow.”

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