Shooting in Cuba with the Buena Vista Social Club Generation of Revolutionary Filmmakers

The first instalment of a three-part series written by freelance journalist, filmmaker and Rory Peck Award winner, Rodrigo Vázquez.

One of the chapters of Jean Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema is dedicated to Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez, yet hardly anybody in the film industry remembers this great director’s revolutionary contribution to world cinema – and documentary filmmaking in particular.

His son Osain and I set off on a path of discovery that will take us from Vietnam to Cuba, to rediscover Santiago’s legacy and measure the realities of Cuba and Vietnam against the revolutionary dreams of the previous generation. Santiago Alvarez, Daniel Diez, Ivan Napoles, Miriam Talavera, are names that may not be familiar to filmmaking enthusiasts – and that are never mentioned in highly regarded film schools like the NFTS, but they led the Buena Vista Social Club generation of revolutionary documentary filmmaking and news gathering. And our mission is to allow a new generation to discover them.

Along the way, we’ll put to the test how open Cuba and Vietnam are to non-conformist filmmakers like ourselves, given that, according to most international bodies monitoring freedom of the press, both countries are at the bottom of the list as the least tolerant to independent filmmakers.

So here we go.

Santiago’s son Osain sets off from Buenaventura, in the Canary Islands, where he used to work as an engineer before becoming a wedding videographer. No, it’s not a joke. Switching engineering for wedding photography allowed him to discover his true vocation. And this journey we were about to begin would become a milestone in Osain’s journey of self-discovery and, weirdly enough, my own. But more on this later.

Although we’d been discussing making this film for a long time, we failed to gather interest from media outlets in Europe and the US. In the context of an increasing political shift to the right by most broadcasters, we were actually not that surprised. I mean, we had seen how high-profile figures like Wagner Moura, the actor of the Narcos Netflix series, had bitterly struggled to finance then distribute his film about famous Brazilian Communist Carlos Marighella. And I had witnessed how broadcasters who, 10 years ago covered the ME fairly, for example, were now churning out propaganda under the cover of news or current affairs -so our idea of financing a film about a Communist filmmaker seemed to have been conceived in la-la Land. A progressive, lefty la-la-land that had no place in Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s world, in which independent coverage or dissident viewpoints are under constant attack.

The multiplication of digital media outlets and platforms seems to ensure, paradoxically, the transmission of very similar content, both in terms of form and content, (that is, in ideological terms). The very word “ideology” is only used by la-la-land filmmakers like us – although corporate media has become more ideological than ever. This day and age don’t seem to be about the plurality of content anyway and Santiago Alvarez was a leading critic of his own times, of Communism, of American made-up wars, of British colonialist attitudes – I mean, everything that’s in fashion now, he absolutely criticised! So, for us, there was no better time to revisit this great master than right now.

“Now!” That was Santiago’s first foray into revolutionary filmmaking to make his own commentary on the shocking and shameful news about racial discrimination coming out of the United States throughout the 60s. For the editing of that short, Godard hailed Santiago as the world’s greatest film editor. That was in 1965. “Now” is considered to be a precursor to the modern music video. Featuring stock newsreel footage and a handful of still photographs brought to dynamic life by Santiago’s signature editing style, Now’s compelling vision of racial violence at the hands of American police officers and the hypocrisy inherent within the American system plays out with no synch sound or voiceover commentary. Instead, the piece dances along to the tune of Lena Horne’s incendiary “Now” – a song that was banned from US airwaves for its unabashed call to open revolt.

That was the soundtrack of our trip to Cuba. Check it out here.

In the next post, I’ll tell you about how we began making this film, down and out in Cuba and Vietnam.

Rodrigo Vázquez was a finalist for the Sony Impact Award for Current Affairs in 2019. As a freelance producer, director and cameraman, Rodrigo has worked with most of the main international broadcasters since 1998, making investigative and observational documentaries in war zones and conflict areas, particularly in the Middle East. He previously won the Rory Peck Award for News Features (2003) and was nominated again four years later.