Since Cuba opened up again to tourism in the 1990s, visitor numbers have swelled. Tourism revenue overtook sugar as the country’s primary income source in 2015, and in 2019, nearly 4.3 million tourists arrived on the island, attracted by its Caribbean beaches, legendary laid-back vibe, unique culture and history, and of course – its music. Despite depending heavily on tourism, Cuba was not laid back in its approach to COVID-19. Early interventions, including an international travel ban to Cuba from 1 April 2020, have kept numbers relatively low (around the mid-range for Latin-American countries), although Havana has seen surges. In the meantime, to those dreaming of Cuba ¡no te rajes! Don’t give up! Watch these five films and let yourself be transported there.
1. Campesino (2018)
Documenting the relationship between American amateur photographer Carl Oelerich, and the tobacco-farming community of Viñales two hours west of Havana, this tender and award-winning debut film, by Mia Tate, gives viewers an insight into today’s rural Cuba. Against a backdrop of red earth, the lush green Viñales Valley and the looming Sierra de los Organos mountains, we meet characters such Modesto, a 100-year-old philosophising cowboy; Lazara, a teenage physics buff; and Giovanni, a beguiling tobacco farmer and devout Santero, nicknamed the Professor, who claims to be the best dancer in town.
In normal times, tours to Viñales are possible, with warm and simple home stays and the chance to see and try out cigar-making by hand, guided by an expert in a fragrant wooden drying hut. This film will give you a flavour of that experience, but more than that – a rare glimpse into a side of Cuba few tourists get to see.
2. Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
The phenomenal success of this album and companion film since their release more than 20 years ago makes it hard to believe its stars could have languished in relative obscurity for years. The story starts when American musician Ry Cooder went to Cuba in the mid-nineties but his Malian guitarists were held up in Paris due to visa issues. As a result, Cooder and Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González went searching for specialists in the son Cubano, a type of music originating in eastern Cuba, combining Spanish vocal and guitar style with African rhythm and call-and-response structures.
Before the call, singer Ibrahim Ferrer had been shoe-shining and selling lottery-tickets for a living. 89-year-old Compay Segundo and others were persuaded out of retirement, and together, in Havana’s dilapidated Egrem studio, over just seven days in 1996, they improvised and recorded Buena Vista Social Club. The album would go on to win a Grammy and sell over 12 million copies.
Wim Wenders’ film was made when Cooder returned to Cuba for a follow-up. Wenders avoids expert talking heads. Instead, he lets the musicians – in the studio, out and about in their city, and in their apartments – tell their own tale. Glorious concert performances in Amsterdam, and finally Carnegie Hall, sit alongside footage of Havana’s ramshackle streets. If music is the lifeblood of Cuba, this film will transfuse into you a little of that magic.
3. Fresa y chocolate (1993)
Set in 1979, Strawberry and Chocolate explores sexual politics and repression in Cuba, where homosexuals faced widespread and institutional persecution and labour camps. The multi-award-winner was made as part of a 1990s’ government programme to recognise diversity, and its tone and attitude were designed to reflect and promote growing tolerance.
The plot involves David, a straight student, who is asked to spy on Diego, a gay artist. Despite this dark premise, charming conversational scenes in a classic Havanero ensue, riffing on music, art, literature, and philosophy. David and Diego form an unconventional friendship and navigate various crises, until both their lives reach a turning point.
The building used for filming, the mansión Camagüey, belonged to then-engineer Enrique Nunez. The romantic image many have of a Havana tenement’s faded grandeur is perfectly encapsulated here. Afterwards Nunez created a paladar or private restaurant in the top of the building, naming it La Guarida after its fictional counterpart and turning into what he has called ‘an altar of Cuban culture.’ Guests climb magnificently carved but broken stairways, passing billowing white laundry left to dry on abandoned floors, before reaching the dining rooms, where yellow walls are filled with dark-framed paintings and candelabra hang gracefully above patterned floor tiles. After seeing this film, you’ll want to go there. Advance reservations are a must.
4. Viva Cuba (2005)
An independent film and the first to be awarded Cannes’ Grand Prix Ecrans Juniors, Viva Cuba is a coming-of-age movie about two childhood friends from very different backgrounds who run away to the east of Cuba together to avoid being separated forever. In the Truffaut tradition of children’s films, director Juan Carlos Cremata gives us camera angles to show the world through the two young protagonists’ eyes, taking us into the heart of Cuban classrooms, elaborate neighbourhood games and, once the road-trip commences, the island’s natural scenery of mountains and windswept beaches.
5. Lucía (1968)
Director Humberto Solás was only in his twenties when he made this epic about the lives of three different women called Lucía at three different points in Cuba’s history, each with a different cinematic style.
The first Lucía’s story takes place during the last Cuban-Spanish War of Independence in 1890. In a wild high-drama, a middle-aged, aristocratic woman from Havana commences a torrid affair with an attractive Spaniard, but she cannot escape the tides of time or history.
Our next Lucía is a bourgeois girl who becomes pregnant during a love affair with an idealistic radical, set against the 1930s’ uprising to overthrow General Machado’s brutal regime. This section is more a surreal ‘new-wave-style’ romance, but the young lovers’ search for intellectual and social equality is doomed to fail.
Finally, we come up-to-date. In keeping with the post-revolutionary literacy campaigns of Fidel’s new regime, this third Lucía is almost an archetypal Soviet-style heroine. A working peasant, she leaves her women’s brigade to marry a macho truck driver. She must battle his dominant mindset and concept of Revolution to assert herself as a free woman.