Cubanos, Life and Death of a Revolution is an award-winning documentary by Canadian filmmaker Yan Giroux, recently issued on DVD by Documentary Educational Resources (DER). The film follows Cuban expatriate Catuey, a musician living in Montreal, in his quest to find hope for the future of his native country, both among Cubans in Cuba and among Cubans in South Florida. He finds none, but in the process he comes to appreciate his critical distance from both his past and what the future might hold for a nation that is the battleground for its government as well as for its exiles. The story is compelling, the cinematography is gorgeous, the narrative flows and the document achieves what few works about Cuba do, and that is a sort of distant intimacy so dear to the “professional stranger” (as Mike Agar called ethnographers). What follows is the film’s trailer and a short interview that I recently did with Yan Giroux.
AHR: When did you first go to Cuba and why?
YG: I went to Cuba for the first time for the shooting of the movie in 2005. Since it was a totally independent production, we could not afford to go to Cuba before the shooting. We did a good pre-production from Montreal with a lot of research and intensive talks with Catuey, our main character, who was very familiar with our shooting locations.
The first idea behind the movie was to ask Cubans about the future of their country after Fidel Castro’s death. Once in the editing room, Fidel fell sick and left the control of the country to Raul. The question of Fidel’s death was suddenly less relevant because most of the political hypotheses our interviewees made were confirmed or infirmed by that switch at the head of the government. I see that change of perspective as a very good thing because it allowed us to go deeper into contemporary Cuban identity by focusing on Catuey’s story. It also allowed me to develop a more complex cinematographic approach rather than a very classical and didactic approach that is more typical for TV documentaries.
AHR: Who is Catuey?
YG: Catuey is a Cuban musician who left the island legally in the 90’s. Since he left, his passion for the history of Cuba and its music has grown stronger. He lives in Montreal but he went back to Cuba a few times since he left. He doesn’t see Cuban history through black and white glasses that many Cubans wear if they’re on the left side or the right side of the political spectrum. He believes in the strength of Cuban culture and identity but he is afraid to see many elements of that culture disappear through the course of such a polarized history.
AHR: Was it his idea to do this film?
YG: No, we first contacted him as a researcher because it’s something he had already done with other productions. But his charisma mixed with a good fit of personalities made him the perfect interviewer/ character. We also realized that as Canadians, we would have a lot of difficulties to meet Cubans for the shooting of an illegal movie on Fidel Castro’s death… we were very naive at the beginning of the project. Even though it wasn’t his idea, he was implicated in every step of the movie.
AHR: Is the film his personal experience and is he the guiding story line?
YG:The film is based on his experience of making the movie and rediscovering his Cuban identity through the eyes of our interviewees which were both Cubans on the island and Cubans living in Miami. His reactions, his songs and all the emotions he’s going through as we travel through landscapes and history are the guiding story line, but it’s not only is personal experience and point of view, my look on him as a director/cameraman adds another layer to the story.
AHR: Is the film located mostly in Havana?
YG: The movie has two equal parts. The first part is located in Havana and surrounding countryside. The second part is located in Miami and Key West.
AHR: Did you also film in Miami? Where? How was the experience different from Cuba?
YG: In Miami, we shot in Little Havana, in the suburbs and we went as far as Key West. The experience was different from Cuba because we could work more freely and it was easier to meet people. But it was very hard for Catuey to meet the diasporas, as a neo-Canadian, he had a hard time with the Americanized Cuban culture and he even felt fear when we met some of the Cuban-American organizations.
He started the project looking for an idealistic vision of Cuba where the reconciliation between Cubans from both sides of the Caribbean sea was possible. Unfortunately, he ended the shooting tired and exhausted, wondering who and what will be left of Cuban culture after so many years of alienation through polarized political views.
AHR: What do you think your documentary brings to the foreign view on Cuba? I am sure you were aware that there are so many cliches (ruins, mulattas, revolutionary iconography, etc)
YG: The fact that it’s not driven by a thesis determined before the shooting has allowed us to stay really open-minded to what people were saying and the experiences we were living. And following a Neo-Canadian who meets Cubans from Cuba and Miami really helped to bring a different perspective on Cuban identity at the beginning of the 21st century. The plurality of visions that meet through the movie raises questions that many documentaries could not raise because they were based on clichés or on a political point of view.
My cinematographic approach brings that forward. Once in the editing room, I realized that some of the shots that looked banal at first glance were in fact very appropriate symbols to make sense with image and sound and not only with words.
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