Thursday, 12 July 2012

7 Days In Havana

Seven Days In Havana
Various Directors

Spanish is one of many languages I have tried and failed to learn. I simply don’t have the knack, time or patience. But mainly the knack. I attempted the learn some basics a few years back when I went to a festival in Spain and visited Cuba within a few months of each other. Nice to know the lingo isn’t it?

Seven Days In Havana is a series of seven short films by seven international film makers, all in Spanish, all set in Havana. As a big lover of Havana and Cuba in general I was interested to see how accurately they would be represented on screen and how deep it would delve into a city and culture full of contradictions.

The first four directly or indirectly show us the city through the eyes of an outsider. Benicio Del Toro directs the opener El Yuma which works at the perfect introduction with its tale of an American acting student’s first day and night in the capital. Many recurring images are brought in; those of Rum and girls and cigars and prostitutes. Mainly it is the sense of confusion, curiosity and mild fear that is expressed effectively through his experiences of home-cooked food, the omni-present Cuban rhythms and evenings in dark seedy bars.

A lot of the first half of Seven Days… revolves around the legendary Hotel Nacional around which a lot of the debauched activities centre for westerners. Having been, it the antithesis of what you would want to find in ‘socialist’ Cuba and is fairly revolting. Pleasingly, the film (s) seem to revel in this, not flinching from Cuba as a destination for men of a certain age.

Jam Session has a Serbian Film Director visiting Cuba to pick up an award and continues a vague running theme of the arts. Perpetually drunk, he forms a friendship with a Cuban driver / trumpet player which is sweet, but ultimately empty – but only the Cuban realises this. The Temptation Of Cecilia has a Westerner in town looking for talent to fly out to Madrid – another imperialist taking what he wants. There is no tone of judgement though, and a definite dilemma is presented for Cecilia, though is not examined in too much detail. Disappointing, through has the strongest narrative of the seven.

Structurally the 4th and 5th shorts change things. Diary Of A Beginner adds in elements of existential comedy in its silent portrayal of a diplomat waiting for an appointment. At first the change of pace is welcome; all Napoleon Dynamite type framings of a mute, expressionless character bemused at the world. But it tires quickly. The Ritual is perhaps significant as a turning point thematically (it sees a white girl kiss a Cuban girl. The parents of the Cuban girl then perform a ritual to ‘cleanse’ her) but it is incredibly boring, which is a shame given Gaspar Noe’s previous work. Together, although different in style from the rest of the package, they kill the piece dead in the middle, letting the pace drag hopelessly.

The last pair finally focus on the Cuban people themselves, whilst also tying up a couple of loose ends. They are oddly domestic tails; one of baking some cakes, the other of building a fountain in someone’s front room. Both celebrate strong communities and the strong women at the centre of them; a pleasing progression.

We see a Cuba of contradictions. Often the outsider or the Westerner is the protagonist, someone breaking the status quo. I can say from experience that you are eyed with a certain suspicion as you walk the streets. It’s no wonder with fifty plus years of anti-imperialist propaganda. But the west is also portrayed as something exciting and something to escape to; we also see a prostitute more interested in earning a New York Yankees baseball cap than getting paid. It’s surprisingly unpatriotic: we see major league baseball stars living in squalor and dreaming of escape to Miami by raft, qualified doctors having to bake cakes on days off (which is illegal) to raise enough cash to buy shoes. It even pokes fun at some of the acknowledged nonsense aspects of Cuban life, with recurring gags about cars breaking down and even has one character returning repeatedly to his hotel room over the course of a whole day to find Fidel Castro giving one of his literally endless speeches on TV.

The scenery is wonderful, all worn down buildings, with the opulent Hotel Nacional or ‘The White House’ lingering in the background. To view the majority of the action through the eyes of outsiders is clearly a thought out decision, but as a result I don’t feel we get close enough to the Cuban people themselves – we only ever see them from the perspective of the westerner; a taxi driver, a cleaner, a prostitute, a barman. We never see much beyond that, at least not until the end and when we do, I don’t really know what to make of it all.

Maybe that is the truth in all this. Still, I found the pacing far too slow. Aside from The Temptation Of Cecilia there is little tension or momentum. But then that is the nature of the film. There’s no great narrative or lesson; it’s just seven days in Havana.

Dean Freeman

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