Los Hermanos is a story of what’s possible to achieve when we break our geopolitical differences down to a human level.
Ilmar Gavilan and Aldo López Gavilán play at Jarvis Hall, Napa. Photo: Patchworks Films

Imagine sharing a deep love of music with your brother, but growing into adulthood in different countries. The film about musicians Aldo López Gavilán and Ilmar Gavilan is more than a story of separated brothers, and it’s more than the dream of surpassing individual and collective possibilities. As veteran filmmakers Marcia Jamel and Ken Schneider describe their newest documentary, Los Hermanos is a story of what’s possible to achieve across two countries when we break our differences down to a human level. And what better to unite people than that universal language — music. 

The cinematography is stunning — the bright, intimate look into the brothers’ lives and the lives of their families that takes us beyond the oft-filmed streets of Havana’s malecón and crumbling buildings…

It’s hard to pinpoint the most compelling aspect of Los Hermanos (Patchworks Films, 84 min.), which recently took home the Best Documentary Award at the Woodstock Film Festival. First, there’s the story itself. Ilmar, 43, is a talented violinist who left Cuba to train in Russia when he was just 14. As is often the case with musicians in Cuba, he hails from a musical dynasty, and his pianist mother joins him during his long sojourns abroad, leaving younger brother Aldo at home in Havana with his composer father. Ilmar continues his journey abroad with stopovers in London and throughout the Americas, ending up in New York. Meanwhile, Aldo becomes an accomplished pianist in his own right. 

Taking an advantage of the brief whirlwind of activities in the wake of Obama’s late 2014 attempt at normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, the brothers —and the filmmakers— see a window of potential collaboration. Somehow prescient, the film begins as that door is kicked ajar, and follows the brothers until the door is slammed shut by the Trump administration. But in between, they, and we, are offered a beautiful gift as the brothers are able to reunite in Havana and then tour in the United States, playing in New York and at festivals throughout the country. 

The cinematography is stunning —the bright, intimate look into the brothers’ lives and the lives of their families that takes us beyond the oft-filmed streets of Havana’s malecon and crumbling buildings and into their homes— and the score is a beautiful collection of pieces composed largely by Aldo López Gavilán. 

“The story is about them, but you can’t understand it without the politics.”

Marcia Jarmel, Filmmaker

In Cuba, music is both part of daily life and an exalted art form perpetuated through free musical training and concerts. Today’s young classical musicians are considered rock stars in their own right, in stark contrast to the United States main demographic of classical music listeners, who tend to be much older and more conservative. In a culminating scene in the film, the brothers are mainstage features at a midwest 4th of July concert. The Obama-era audience is full of elderly Americans clad in red, white, and blue, and the brothers are met with loud applause, and are personally congratulated in a greeting line after the show. In a post-screening discussion as part of the Boston Globe’s GlobeDocs festival, reporter Meredith Goldstein wondered aloud whether the brothers would have been received differently in today’s America, just a few short years after the scene was shot.

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Filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider. Photo: Patchworks Films

This is not the first time the husband-and-wife team has filmed a documentary in Cuba. Ken Schneider’s grandfather was a German-Jewish refugee who ended up in Cuba for two years. His 2014 film Havana Curveball won many awards, including Best Documentary at the Boston and Seattle Children’s Film Festival.

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Although Marcia Jamel affirmed that she and co-director Ken Schneider did not set out to make a political film, she said: “Every time you’re in the Cuba space, if you’re an American, it’s political. It’s a family story, a music story, but politics is present. The story is about them, but you can’t understand it without the politics.”

Related Post: Harvard to Havana: How Studying Abroad in Cuba Connected the Dots for Me

The film is viewable at the online DocNYC film festival, just extended through November 29, 2020. Visit the film’s website for more information and to listen to the wonderful soundtrack.

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