One of the job hazard’s being Startup Cuba’s Content Director is that I’m thinking about Cuba all the time. Fall’s arrival and longer nights have me thinking about movies. Not just any movies…Cuban movies. I’ve been particularly interested in the canon of contemporary Cuban films that transport me to a place I love and haven’t been able to get to. Call me homesick for the motherland.
And that has me wanting to explore the complexity of the Cuban experience: the longing, the separation, the people and the glorious tenacity of the Cuban spirit. So here are my top 10 picks for contemporary Cuban movies to watch now. Grab some popcorn, your favorite blanket and yes, maybe even some Kleenex.
(Hero image photo: Corey McLean Make Wild Films)
1. Los Hermanos/The Brothers
Los Hermanos/The Brothers tells the poignant story of Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, brothers born into an artistic family in the 1970s. At the tender age of 14, Ilmar’s talent outgrows his teachers ability to cultivate it and he is sent to the USSR to continue his violin studies. He never returns to live in Cuba again, ultimately establishing his career in the United States as a chamber violinist.
In Cuba, his equally talented younger brother Aldo is being mentored by Cuba’s impressive jazz and classical pianists. His incredible talent is achieving renown on the island but is stymied by the restriction of the US embargo. What is most poignant in this film by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider is the matter-of-fact understanding for all members of the family that being separated is the best way to support the dreams and talents of their children, caught as they are in the geo-political consequences of US-Cuba relations. Though they see each other when visa restrictions and finances allow, these two brothers have never had the opportunity to perform or collaborate together, something they both long to do. Los Hermanos/The Brothers is a film that tracks their parallel lives, their incredible talent and their poignant reunion resulting in their first performance together in the US.
Los Hermanos/The Brothers is currently streaming on Pbs.org.
2. Sin La Habana
Sin La Habana captures the inevitable changes that occur when someone leaves their lifelong home for a completely different place and all the challenges that one faces throughout that journey.
Leonardo is a young Cuban ballerino who moonlights as a salsa dancer and wants to leave the island. His girlfriend Sara, frustrated by the limits on their life in Cuba, suggests he seduce a foreigner in the hopes of a green-card marriage. Enter Nasim, an Iranian-Canadian woman, newly divorced. What ensues is the heart-breaking story of separation for survival and the unintended consequences of the pursuit of a better life. First-time feature filmmaker Kaveh Nabatian delivers an emotional wallop by focusing on the personal and emotional price paid by those who decide to emigrate. The film is written in collaboration with Cuban hip hop producer and academic Pablo Herrera.
3. Havana Libre
Havana Libre tells the story of people following their passion at great personal danger that ultimately begs the question: what would you risk to chase your dreams? Surfing in Cuba has historically been banned, a leftover restriction from the Fidel Castro regime which prevented surfing and other water sports due to the en masse fleeing of citizens from Cuba’s shores.
Despite this, a group of passionate Cuban surfers is determined to legitimize surfing as a sport in the country’s canon of athletic prowess. Frank is the group’s de facto leader who is regarded as the best surfer on the island. Yaya is a fellow surfer and tireless community leader committed to ensuring that the next generation can ride the waves freely. When the Tokyo Olympics announce surfing as an official sport, Frank and Yaya are empowered to bring their love of the sport out of Cuba’s shadows and onto the world stage. Director Corey McLean and cinematographer Seth Brown deliver a visually arresting film that chronicles Cubans unwavering spirit to sobrellevar (endure) the obstacles placed before them in pursuit of their dreams.
4. A Tuba to Cuba
In this SXSW award winning documentary, the living embodiment of America’s jazz scene – the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band – makes its way to Cuba. Led by Ben Jaffe (whose parents, Allan and Sarah, established the hall and fostered its success when it was still illegal for blacks and whites to socialize together) the mission is personal. Ben wants to fulfill his late father’s dream of retracing the band’s musical roots to the indigenous music that gave birth to New Orleans jazz. A Tuba to Cuba takes viewers on the band’s journey as they travel through hopeful, vibrant Cuba and find their roots in the spiritual home of Santiago de Cuba.
The film is a beautiful masterpiece that celebrates music’s universal language and encourages us to find the common ground we share to make music and friends. Politics are not mentioned, and in these divisive times, any movie devoted to celebrating what unites us is well worth seeking out.
Viva introduces us to Jesus, a young hairdresser and drag performer navigating Cuba’s nighttime scene and courageously trying to live an authentic life. That is until his estranged and machista father resurfaces and forces him to quit his love of performing. Directed by Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach, this tender powerhouse of a film explores the struggles of mending a broken father-son relationship and highlights the historically taboo topic of being gay in Cuba. It’s a film that inspires finding one’s voice, overcoming the challenges to live one’s truth and the love that sustains us through it all.
6. Cuban Food Stories
From the executive producers of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and director Asori Soto comes a visually enticing and unique film about food, society and culture on the island of Cuba that will have your mouth watering for all things Cuba.
After a decade living in the US, Soto returns to his homeland of Cuba to search for the missing flavors of his youth – a journey to discover culinary traditions believed to have been lost due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hardship it caused Cuba. In Cuban Food Stories, Soto embarks on a road trip adventure, visiting regions so remote one can only arrive by horseback, swimming or raft. Throughout these journeys, the rediscovery of Cuba’s culinary roots take center stage in a “culinary adventure that would have made Anthony Bourdain blush,” according to Remezcla magazine.
7. Cuba and the Cameraman
Filming for this documentary started back in 1972, when a young cameraman made his first trip to Cuba and his camera equipment caught the eye of none other than Fidel Castro. Now an Emmy winning filmmaker, Jon Alpert has been returning to Cuba for five decades capturing the island’s tumultuous history. For over 45 years, he made trips to the island to visit three different families, who ultimately become friends, putting together an incredible documentary that always asks the questions, “What’s happening to Cuba?”
8. Sergio & Sergei
An unexpected buddy film, you’ll have to either like to read subtitles or be able to understand Spanish to appreciate this film of two unlikely friends. This 2017 film features Sergio as a professor of Marxist philosophy in Havana. He is also a radio ham having received one from his colleague. Through it, Sergio contacts Sergei, a Soviet cosmonaut in the Mir space station. A friendship based on mutual curiosity ensues with each sharing their daily experiences. Meanwhile, a failed coup brings the end of the Soviet Union leaving Sergei literally in limbo until the new Russia can rescue him. Down on earth, Sergio endures the harsh realities of post-Soviet Cuba and the beginning of the Special Period. The ending, you might say, is out of this world.
9. Miss Angela
Miss Angela tells the story of Angela Alvarez, a singer and songwriter from pre-revolutionary Cuba. When she announced to her family her dreams of becoming a singer, she was forbidden by her father to perform, because such endeavors were not permitted for respectable women at the time. And so she was relegated to writing her songs in secret.
She married, had a family and then the world turned upside down. The Cuban revolution quickly shifted from emancipation to repression. Only decades later at the age of 92, would she be able express her talents – culminating in a concert at the historic Avalon in Hollywood, hosted by her superfan and advocate Andy Garcia. Miss Angela is a stunning story of a remarkable, resilient woman overcoming adversity, defying the odds, and tasting the sweetness of her dreams.
10. Craving Cuba
Created, directed and starring Startup Cuba’s very own Zuzy Martin, Craving Cuba is a documentary film about the Cuban-American experience and our complicated relationship with Cuba. Developed during Obama’s opening of diplomatic ties with Cuba, the film explores the issues of identity and all the life that is lived and needs to be reconciled in the dash that exists between Cuban-America. Viewers are invited into Zuzy’s intimate journey as she desires to better understand her family, herself and the enigma of Cuba. Along the way, she interviews well-known people across the Cuban-American diaspora but the story roots itself in the conversations with her own family members, especially her abuelos and abuelas. They both appear and are honored throughout “because they are the reason I still feel Cuban.”
The film highlights the humanity behind why the issue of identity is complicated. “There is an inherent level of trauma and loss when one leaves their homeland under hostile conditions. This type of pain and loss crosses generations.” The film’s dramatic ending helps build a bridge of understanding between the past on which we rely and the future we hope for and dream of. Yes, we’re all Craving Cuba.