Like many documentaries about Cuba, the Havana Libre film about surfing in Cuba opens with shots of waves crashing onto El Malecon, Havana’s seawall. Unlike many of those films, the opening sequence toggles between the ocean forcing itself onto land and a whirlwind of flashbacks on Cuba’s fraught relationship with the ocean that divides them from the world.
One of the film’s protagonists, Frank, is seen shaving and shaping a piece of styrofoam. The action mimics, brilliantly, the way the waves crash onto the shore. This juxtaposition presents the primary conflict in the film, surfing was not legal in Cuba.
Frank and Yaya’s voices add the first dash of salt that flavors this conflict – the Cuban state denies its people the waters of their own island due to a complex history. Cuban nationals have been taking to the waters as a means to escape an oppressive regime, scarcity and famine for decades.
Havana Libre was a breath of fresh air for us to watch as Cuban-Americans. It is a film that masterfully skirts and is in conversation with history and politics but occurs in the present.
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For a place where surfing isn’t legal, or recognized, you’d expect that people who do it might have some inhibitions or fears of participating. Yaya, an activist for the sport and Havana Libre’s other protagonist, is not afraid. These waters mean so much more to Cubans than anyone outside the island could ever imagine.
As we meet other members of Cuba’s small but budding surf community, it becomes clear that surfing in Cuba is not merely a pastime, or even a sport, it is a way of life. Frank and Yaya are two heavily tattooed quintessential surfer types – a complete rarity for Cuba where it is dangerous to simply look different.
Resourcing their life’s passion is nearly impossible. Surf boards don’t exist, raw materials can’t be found for purchase or acquisition. Though we don’t learn exactly how demanding this process is until we follow Yaya onto the shore to the remains of a raft that Cubans planned to use to leave the country. Police had burned the raft overnight, leaving only fragments of the refrigerator insulation the raft was made from. Yaya collects these materials for Frank to make another surfboard.
Havana Libre touches on the effects of Cuba’s special period and the rafter crisis – points in history that are not points after all but that have continued to Cuba’s present.
Frank describes feeling like he’s trapped under a wave without going up for air. Poetically, this is exactly what it is like to do anything in Cuba, and especially anything not explicitly approved by government entities.
Although this film is shot in a very classic verite form for documentaries, the choices to include the mundane details are not an oversight, or simply included because they happened. In every shot, form marries function. The camera follows its subjects very closely while on the island – we get the sense that in this environment, they are the biggest players.
Yaya spends days trying to get on the phone with INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Física, y Recreación). Each time she is turned away. This is an important detail to show because it’s typical of life in Cuba – citizens spend a lot of time waiting for basic things. Waiting in line to be able to buy rations. Waiting in line for goods, waiting in line for jobs, for care, for opportunities, and more. While Yaya understands the logistical steps that need to happen to make progress, she also understands that she cannot give up when she finds herself stuck. She’s made a video about surfing and uploads it to YouTube. Since it now lives on the internet, her only way of showing it to her peers involves the inconvenience of accessing wifi in Cuba: from a public park, and at a steep price. But Yaya isn’t just sharing a video with her friends, she is also organizing and mobilizing in plain sight.
The way the filmmakers have chosen to show the many layers of challenges that ordinary people face every day just to exist and surf remains sensitive and respectful.
Yaya’s video changes everything because it reaches out into the world in a way that Yaya’s phone calls to the INDER office can’t. And the world learns about surfing in Cuba. This paves the way for more opportunities and soon Yaya and Frank find themselves in Hawaii – another horizon they never thought they’d see.
Frank is also invited to Peru to compete without the Cuban government’s approval. He is faced with the heavy decision of going and risking never seeing his family again. When Frank finds himself at this competition, the shots widen. He’s on an international stage: alone, without uniform, without a team, without a flag. Meanwhile, Yaya is back at home in the small town of Santa Fe in Cuba: with a team of kids, matching t-shirts, and plywood surfboards.
Weaving the two threads and stories, we are able to follow both the future and the present of surfing in Cuba. By the end, the tone shifts. Frank describes feeling like he’s trapped under a wave without going up for air. Poetically, this is exactly what it is like to do anything in Cuba, and especially anything not explicitly approved by government entities. What could be, if they simply had access to basic tools, resources and support? If, already, these trailblazers are making a splash outside their hermit state, to what heights could they soar if they were afforded what much of the world already has?
Havana Libre was a breath of fresh air for us to watch as Cuban-Americans. It is a film that masterfully skirts and is in conversation with history and politics but occurs in the present. It speaks to the heart of the Cuban struggle, resilience, ingenuity and humility. It broke our hearts to watch these characters experience so much push back. Following the lives of Yaya, Frank, and other Cuban surfers, the storytelling was grounded in their love of the ocean, of community, and their hopes for their future. Havana Libre observes life and does not try to put on a show or sensationalize surfing as the act of rebellion it is on our beloved Cuba.
You can follow the Havana Libre film for information on where to catch it.