Judge Michael Rankins learned one thing from this documentary: Cuba is only an island, but a Havana cigar is a smoke.
Utopia is behind us.
In this startling documentary, advertising maven turned filmmaker J. Michael Seyfert opens a window into a world few Americans ever see, offering a peek behind the western hemisphere's last iron curtain: Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Facts of the Case
More than 45 years after Fidel Castro and his Marxist renegades ran Fulgencio Batista out of power and established the Americas' first—and only surviving—old-school Communist state, the rose-tinted gleam of the Castro revolution is looking rather dingy to most inhabitants of Cuba. Communism offered the promise of joy and prosperity, but the stark reality is that most Cubans live a subsistence lifestyle without luxuries and barely adequate necessities.
As the filmmaker's camera surveys the streets of a Havana neighborhood, it focuses again and again on people who are poor, if not utterly destitute. Some are angry with their circumstances, and the condition of their homeland. Others are vaguely hopeful that the situation will turn around. Most are simply resigned to the way Cuban life is—as one elderly man says, "I don't see things changing tomorrow. But what if they did? My life is already spent."
Many Cubans find their own individual, often unique ways to supplement the government's meager provisions, admitting, "If we relied on the state, we'd all starve to death." Young women sell their bodies. Some young men do also. Older people scrape by collecting and selling junk, repairing dilapidated appliances, manufacturing handicrafts, or simply begging on street corners. Some charge the ever-present, well-heeled, camera-toting foreign tourists a dollar to take their photograph.
And yet, there is life in Cuba. An impossibly ancient-looking couple—he is 80, she is 72, but both could easily pass for 100—dances together on their front stoop. Says the old gentleman, "When you stop dancing, you die." On the brink of death by poverty, much of Cuba still has a dance step or two left.
As Michael Moore—and his legions of adherents and detractors—can attest, political documentary is tricky business. The filmmaker walks a tightrope between an indistinct point of view, which leaves the viewer uncertain how to interpret the information presented, and propaganda, which is intended to guide the viewer's perception even at the expense of the facts.
Although the official press release accompanying Bye Bye Havana asserts that the film is "90 miles from being political," there can be little honest argument against the position that the film does, in fact, have a definite agenda. Which isn't the problem, really. The central weakness of Bye Bye Havana isn't that it has a point of view. It's that it lacks the conviction to trust its subject matter to make the case, and to stay out of its own way.
The street-level imagery of Bye Bye Havana clutches the viewer's throat with undeniable power. Seeing the people of Cuba living in rampant squalor, even as their government goes blithely along pretending that the socialist revolution has been a resounding success for all concerned, delivers a rabbit punch to the audience's collective conscience. Even though the film rarely lingers on a single subject for longer than a minute or two, we come to know a compelling variety of memorable real-life characters, from the post-adolescent street urchin whose "Hustler" T-shirt testifies to his ambition, to the scabrous beggar crawling the sidewalks with a boulder chained to his feet. Then, at random intervals, director J. Michael Seyfert allows his Madison Avenue pretensions to get the better of him, and we get falsely ironic claptrap like the fancy-dressed couple dancing with a cola bottle amid the ruins of a once-prosperous Havana.
Bye Bye Havana works best when Seyfert simply allows the Cuban people and their unenviable circumstances to speak for themselves. Strip away the dizzying, self-serving opening montage of consumerist images, and the intermittent bits of animated folderol, and the film represents a stark, heart-rending portrait of a populace betrayed by their leadership. Look into the eyes of the elderly folk who long ago abandoned hope, or those of the youth frustrated at a world they cannot control and that offers them nothing. Those eyes tell the whole story, and they don't need any help.
Seyfert shines in presenting the diversity of Cuban life despite the bleakness that encompasses it. The director captures the irony of a local official who observes that only one public toilet exists in all of Havana, yet there is a 40-peso fine levied aggressively against those caught relieving themselves in alleyways. We also catch a glimpse of an arcane ritual, fueled by a concoction made from rum and goat's blood, in which Santeria practitioners seek guidance from Oshun, the religion's version of Mary, the mother of Christ. And everywhere are the tourists, with their cameras snapping away at a world their wealth enables them to sample, then escape.
Perhaps most startling among the film's inhabitants are those who still cling to the seemingly untenable notion that somehow Communism has been for the better, or at least, is not the sole cause of the worse: the old man who still idolizes Che Guevara as some might venerate a departed saint; the man who shrugs his shoulders at talk of popular rebellion by quoting a Cuban maxim, "Put up with who you know is the bad guy; you don't know what the good guy will be like"; the woman whose most prized possession is a decaying photograph of Castro and his lieutenants at the dawn of the revolution.
That photo, with Fidel and cronies displaying their spirit of "All for one and one for all" begs the sad question that resonates throughout this film: What happens when no "one" is left with anything to contribute to the "all"?
Bye Bye Havana has been released on an independent DVD by Seyfert and his coproducers. The production values are solid, considering the guerrilla approach to filmmaking and the meager budget involved. The soundtrack fairly throbs with the music and sounds of Havana's streets. The main feature is accompanied by a single extra, an extended version of the dance sequence "Ideology Cola" that appears in the film—in this instance, more of the same is not necessarily an improvement. I would much rather have heard some commentary from Seyfert himself (who has plenty of opinions to share on the film's official Web site) or seen some of the interview footage that must surely have remained after the final edit.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the interpolation of some of the arthouse silliness Seyfert inserts into the film without any real benefit, the one troubling aspect of the documentary for me is the utter absence of any view of Cuban life apart from the depressing squalor on which the director has focused. All the money being spent by those "mojito-swilling tourists" we're repeatedly shown must be going somewhere. It would have made an interesting contrast to show the "public" face of Cuba that Castro wants the rest of the world to see, juxtaposed against the poverty that afflicts the overwhelming majority. Few things make the overseers look more inhuman than the sight of the enslaved languishing outside the plantation gate. The unilateral viewpoint of Bye Bye Havana robs it of one of its best opportunities for impact.
Not a perfect documentary, but one whose subjects touch the viewer's heart when allowed to present themselves without needless embellishment. For those genuine stories and its gritty, uncompromising reality, Bye Bye Havana merits a look.
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• Music Video: "Ideology Cola"
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