By S.T. VanAirsdale
STV: What can you tell me about the story and background of A Man of Two Havanas?
VLW: It's a documentary that I made about my father. He was a revolutionary in Cuba and he was best friends with Fidel Castro. My father was the head of propaganda for the revolution because his biggest asset is that he's very eloquent and a very good writer as well. So he would go back and forth between Havana and the mountains and broadcast via radio against the Batista dictatorship. When the revolution came to power, my father had a falling out with Castro over the liaison with the Soviet Union, and he left to Miami. But when he arrived in Miami, he had a third position, which was both against the Cuban government as well as against the US policy toward Cuba. That position later evolved to include embracing dialogue and peace and trying to reunite the two Havanas. Hence the title.
But the movie's a hybrid. I went to film school and studied fiction film; I didn't care much about documentaries or reality. So for me, what I wanted to explore was my relationship with my father. So primarily it's a personal story. But because my father's a political, public person, it ended up being a hybrid between a political activist film about Cuba and anti-Cuba terror, and an expose of the groups that were responsible for keeping the embargo in place -- as I tell the story of my growing up in this climate of violence and repression, with drive-by shootings.
STV: How did you fold your experience of that tumult into the story?
VLW: I always felt somewhat alienated from my community because my father was a lone voice, and I also felt alienated from my family, because I couldn't really give a darn about Cuba. It was the thing that came between me and normalcy. I didn't really have a place; I was an outsider on two fronts the same way he was an outsider on two fronts, because he didn't have a country. He also didn't have any backing in the exile community; he had a beef with the CIA, the exiles, the US government and the Cuban government. We were consummate outsiders. Really, it was what any kid would experience growing up in a war zone: drawing the blinds when they announced that there was going to be a drive-by shooting, or worrying when my dad had to run out to the offices of his magazine. His magazine was bombed 11 times; it was the number one target of anti-Castro terrorists.
But slowly I came to terms with the fact that to understand my dad -- in order to have a relationship with him -- I needed to understand his passion. Just like any kid would need to understand whatever her father's passion might be. Maybe it's golf. But as I explored the work in the documentary, I realized where his passion came from and his motivation, and I understand him, and I also understand my country better.
STV: What was your father's comfort level in opening up to you?
VLW: First I sat my dad down in an armchair, and I just started interviewing him. And it was really difficult to get him to sit down every day in that chair. He's still very active. He has a radio show in Miami that's listened to once a day. He has to write his commentaries and editorials, and then he also frequently goes on trips to Cuba. So I was taking away from the time that he needed to do his movie -- which is his life, his activism. Of course, when I shot in Cuba, it was completely different, because all I did was follow him around with a camera. He's very affable, and that was great. It was interesting and very cinematic. But for the interviews, that was difficult, because it really got in the way of what he needs to do.
As far as access in Cuba, it was easy. I was able to go around and basically talk to people in the street. People are very open there; I wasn't asking sensitive political questions, but rather just about the separation of the families, the new laws that allow Cuban Americans to visit as often as they were allowed to before. It's about how the families are separate -- the divide between the two Havanas.
STV: What are you looking forward to in premiering at Tribeca?
VLW: I very much wanted to premiere at Sundance, but I wasn't ready. I was disappointed, but when I received my invitation to show in Tribeca, I realized that New York is the natural audience for this film. It's very sophisticated film viewing audience, it's politically sophisticated as well. It's very discerning. There are so many immigrants here, and it's an immigrant story, so it's the natural best place to open the film rather than sheltered in the mountains of Utah.
I believe, as a fiction filmmaker, that you really affect audiences through the heart, not through the brain. I tried to simplify complex political issues as much as possible and always keep the personal story there -- I'm sort of the conduit for the audience. Even though people say they didn't know a lot of these stories and they're edified, I'm most pleased when people get teary at the end. I think that's how you show the suffering of the Cuban people because of our policy: when people really connect with the human element. That's why it was important to tell the personal story and not just have subjects, but also the frame for the movie.
Posted at May 2, 2007 7:08 AM
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