Un Traductor was Cuba's submission to the 2020 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
rodrigo barriuso un traductor
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Barriuso

Whether or not you’re Cuban, the fact that Cubans are great storytellers is undisputed. Every Cuban I’ve met seems to have a range of rich and fascinating personal stories to share about the life experiences that they and their families have had over the past decades. These stories often depict great fortitude, humanity, camaraderie and humor. 

If you’re looking to watch a film with a unique Cuban storyline, look no further than the film Un Traductor, co-directed by brothers Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso. The full-length film (107 minutes) was Cuba’s official submission to the 2020 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. 

Set in 1989 Havana, Un Traductor is a film inspired by the lived experiences of the family of co-directors and brothers Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso.

Set in 1989 Havana, Un Traductor is inspired by the lived experiences of the co-directors’ family. It tells the moving story of a Russian literature professor who is reassigned to serve as a translator for child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster who have come to Cuba from the USSR to receive medical treatment.  

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Working night shifts, the professor struggles to cope with the emotional burden of communicating sad and often fatal prognoses to his patients and their families whilst finding the time to still be present with his own wife and son, especially as the scarcity and economic hardship of the “Special Period” sets in after the dissolution of the USSR. 

un traductor
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Barriuso

The story explores the raw and courageous challenge of navigating relationships in the context of illness, loss, grief and cultural boundaries. It features captivating performances by a strong cast, beautiful set design and vibrant cinematography. Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro plays the protagonist, Malin, and his wife Isona is played by Cuban actress Yoandra Suárez.

I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the co-directors, Rodrigo Barriuso, who lives in my city of Toronto but is currently based in Paris.

“I don’t think any filmmaker could go through the experience of making and promoting a film and come out unchanged…”

Rodrigo Barriuso
rodrigo barriuso un traductor
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Barriuso

Safa: Do you and your brother think of the film as having a deeply Cuban narrative? 

Rodrigo: We are both interested in the universality of the human experience and how national values can be presented to international audiences in a compelling way. I think our film is deeply Cuban, but at the same time it transcends localisms. Un Traductor won audience choice awards in Panama, Switzerland, Italy, India… I think that speaks to the film’s ability to resonate outside the island. Funny enough, we didn’t take that prize at the Havana Film Festival; we were the runner-ups. Of course we would have loved to collect that award, but the memory of how beautifully Cuban audiences responded to this story is seared in our minds forever.

“I am convinced that films have the power to bridge gaps, to unite, to make us better people.

Rodrigo Barriuso

Safa: In the filming process did you make conscious choices about how to depict Cuba and that time in Cuban history for both a Cuban and international audience?

Rodrigo: Absolutely. Someone once said that as storytellers we have the power to change culture with every single frame we put out into the world. Tall order, sure, but I do think of this very often. What power do we have to change the perception that the world has about Cuba? What can we do to advance the dialogue about Cuban realities? To make a film in Cuba, about Cuba, and to not consider these things would have been, I believe, a wasted opportunity. Over the past 20 years, Cuban films and foreign films about Cuba have put a lot of emphasis on the hardship brought by the Special Period and on the infrastructural decay of Havana. Without denying that this is the reality of so many Cubans, Sebastián and I also wanted to show Cubans handling the special period in a dignified way, as well as the wonderful architectural patrimony of the city. At many festivals, especially in the US, people would ask how come two intellectuals lived in such a great mid-century modern house, and we would always tell them that we had, in fact, rented that house from a cab driver and his wife who had inherited it. This is also the reality of our country and a phenomenon we think is very interesting.

un traductor Rodrigo Barriuso
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Barriuso

Safa: Watching the film for the second time during the coronavirus pandemic, I noted some parallels to our current situation in terms of struggles with scarcity and the emotional toil of illness and care work. 

Rodrigo: The world is living a very trying moment. The shortages and the tardiness in governmental response are being felt throughout the globe, with very few exceptions. Together we will come out of this, but it will also be a wasted opportunity if we don’t rethink the way we do things. This has also evidenced major cracks in our social structures — who are considered essential workers? Who has the privilege to stay home safely? It is a situation that sparks so many hard questions that we must face. 

Safa: I’m very curious to hear where you were when you found out that the film was submitted as Cuba’s submission to the 2020 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. 

Rodrigo: I was on a bus in Toronto, coming out of a research meeting for my next film. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a mean prank. Campaigning for an Academy Award with a first film has to be among the most surreal things I have ever done. I am sure I speak for my brother here, too. It is a rollercoaster. We always knew it was such a long shot, because, and here is something I learned, you need the right kind of film but also the right kind of financial backing to run that race. But we still approached it with such honesty and optimism. I think we were just so incredibly humbled, honored and happy to represent our country; to be able to stand in front of a theater full of people in Los Angeles and say — “We are Cuba’s official entry.” It is an honor we don’t take for granted.

Rodrigo also had some advice for fellow filmmakers who are coping with stay at home and physical distancing conditions. 

Rodrigo: Take care of yourself. Frankly. Just care for you in whatever way that may be that is not detrimental to others. There is no handbook on how to pass a global pandemic. Don’t let anyone guilt you into thinking that you should be exercising with some Instagram live, writing a screenplay, baking bread, watching three movies a day. If you feel like doing that, great, but go with the flow. If you need to sleep, sleep. If you need to channel your frustration and anxiety into a three-hour phone chat with your best friend, do and enjoy that. If this sparks a creative flame, use it and put pen to paper. But again, and I cannot stress this enough, take care of yourself.

As you stay home and take care of yourselves and your families, I encourage you to take the time to watch Un Traductor.  The film is available for streaming via iTunes and Amazon Prime Video. When you do, let us know what you think! 

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Safa Shahkhalili is the founder and host of the “Rethinking Development Podcast.” She lived and studied in five countries before graduating from high school, and her interest in cultural studies led her to study anthropology in Canada and Denmark. She has since worked on various international development research projects. Her interest in Cuba began in 2016 and has grown through the many lovely Cubans she has met over the years, including her partner. Safa used to be a standup/slam poet and yoga teacher!

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