East Of Havana

East Of Havana


Reviewed by: Chris

"I'm a lover of documentaries," Charlize Theron has enthused. Based on this effort, I hope she means watching them rather than producing them.

Charlize Theron has an admirable track record as an actress for compelling presentations of difficult issues – witness the prosthetic lengths she went to in re-creating Aileen Wuornos's life as a prostitute/serial killer facing Death Row in Monster. Or her heartbreaking depiction of sexual harassment of women trying to find work in North Country. So it is with considerable disappointment that East of Havana is not the verité documentary it professes to be, but a mixture of polemic, misinformation and some nice rap songs.

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If feeling generous, we can credit good intentions. As producer of the film, Theron travels to Cuba and, with some Cuban friends, documents the preparations for a hip-hop festival on the island, shortly before Hurricane Charley.

What do you do when the story you start to make folds? Such a dilemma is not a new one. A documentary about Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated Don Quixote, for instance, became Lost In La Mancha when it was clear that Quixote wouldn’t get finished. Having spent seven days filming, the Cuba festival is cancelled, so what does Theron do? No problem! Turn it into an anti-Castro political statement! Nothing wrong with that – Castro, for all he has achieved, is guilty of the most terrible human rights atrocities. But does that justify passing as fact things can be clearly demonstrated as false? I think not.

East Of Havana makes the point that 'looking on the bright side' is what people tend to do when thinking about Cubans - we think of their smiles, their music, their dancing, speak fondly of their culture. But the reality may is different.

The film interviews the many rap artists, both native Cubans and visitors, who are gathering there. It also explores the poverty many have faced - one woman laughs about how she is very good at making a meal for the whole family out of a single banana, while rap songs underline food shortages.

It dwells particularly on the Nineties and the period of economic crisis Cuba went through. It shows young people complaining about their lack of political freedoms and how they cannot travel abroad to rap festivals. Older people who remember the revolution, by contrast, reminisce more fondly and count their blessings. "Thanks to the revolution, I have a house," says one elderly man.

This is not an easy subject to tackle - the American-born filmmakers (the two writer/directors have Cuban roots) had to negotiate difficult protocols firstly in the US and then in Cuba.

On the plus side, East of Havana shows a little of the interesting variation of Cuban hip-hop - which seems to contain more gentle love songs than its US counterpart, but the lack of information and weight of misinformation is sufficient to make it an embarrassment as a documentary. A simple recording of interviews and rap songs, whatever the filmmakers' agenda, might have sufficed, but the 'message' factor at odds with established and verifiable facts rather less so.

The first warning lights flash when intertitles appear, giving a distinctly American version of Cuban history. As this is a film largely about poverty in Cuba, some explanation seems necessary. Most major organisations and governments around the world pinpoint the unfair and counterproductive US trade embargo as a major factor. It has been roundly condemned by the United Nations every year.

The blackboard, which interrupts the film, says in firm, clear writing: "In 1990 Russian aid to Cuba ended, provoking a crisis." No mention of the embargo. No mention of the US stepping up its efforts with extra legislation to make the Cubans' lot even worse. In the Oxfam International Report on US Sanctions on Cuba, it says that in this period: "the average Cuban lost 20 pounds." The film cuts straight to stories of people selling everything to make ends meet, with no mention of the real cause.

But so far, we have a slanted US view of history, nothing worse. What follows shatters any pretensions East Of Havana has to ethical film-making.

A fuzzy America news clip reports Hurricane Charley has barely touched Cuba. Nothing worse than maybe a tree uprooted. (Cut to a tree uprooted.) Extensive damage is a vicious lie, used as a pretext by Castro to cancel the festival. Cut to rappers berating Castro. The film ends with a wistful look at the musicians who whom Castro has needlessly inconvenienced.

Not a bad story, except it is fictitious, made up of an unidentifiable news clip and right-wing anti-Castro rantings.

The BBC, who had a reporter in Havana, stated that, "About 200,000 people had been evacuated from parts of western Cuba, and tourists have been airlifted from the most vulnerable areas ahead of the storm's arrival. The hurricane took almost three hours to cross Cuba. It left behind a broad trail of damaged homes and extensive flooding. The streets of the capital were deserted, and the electricity supply was cut."

MS-NBC reported stories of families from one Cuban town, immersed in over five feet of floodwaters for a day and a half after the storm hit. "Like thousands of other Cuban families, the Camachos lost all their worldly goods." CBN carried pictures of the devastation that the East of Havana crew missed or omitted.

The International Federation of Red Cross assisted those who were evacuated, and said Cuban authorities undertook preventive measures to avoid the outbreak of disease, given the damage to health centres. They reported the hurricane as a Category Three storm with fierce winds of 170kph and squalls of over 200kph, resulting in flooding of low-lying areas. They report that the Civil Defence ensured the evacuation of 215,532 people from high-risk areas. As a result of the passage of the hurricane, the report continues, more than 70,000 homes incurred damage and thousands of hectares of crops were spoiled. Reports indicate that around 8,000 trees were uprooted and 95 per cent of sugarcane, bean and banana crops were seriously affected. The electricity, water and telephone networks were also severely affected. In addition, in the two Provinces, 798 schools and 312 health centres were damaged.

Not as strong as when it hit the US, but rather more than just a pretext perhaps. It is unclear where East of Havana got its erroneous news clip of a few seconds but, whatever clamp downs Castro may or may not have initiated, his government's response to the hurricane looks pretty competent and factual by comparison.

Castro, although a cult figure, may not be the most desirable of leaders, and guilty of much iniquity, especially towards minority groups or those that criticise him. There is no need to make up stories to disparage him. East Of Havana’s unethical approach to documentary filmmaking lowers cinema. The filmmakers maybe felt the ends justified the means. Sadly for them, audiences, especially those outside of America and used to more balanced reporting, cannot be relied on to be sufficiently gullible.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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A documentary about poverty in Cuba.

Director: Emilia Menocal, Jauretsi Saizabitoria

Writer: Emilia Menocal, Jauretsi Saizabitoria

Year: 2006

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US


Birds 2007
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