6.6/10
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4 user 10 critic

East of Havana (2006)

East of Havana is a blunt, unflinching close-up on the lives of three young rappers compelled to address their generation's future from the confines of a Cuban ghetto. Soandry, Magyori, and... See full summary »

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East of Havana is a blunt, unflinching close-up on the lives of three young rappers compelled to address their generation's future from the confines of a Cuban ghetto. Soandry, Magyori, and Mikki are the defacto leaders of Cuba's rebellious underground hip hop movement. Possessing the undeniable talent and charisma of pop icons, these fearless performers push self-expression to its sharpest, riskiest, and most triumphant point. Written by Anonymous

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14 March 2006 (USA)  »

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$500,000 (estimated)
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political whitewash
18 August 2006 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

East of Havana makes the point that 'looking on the bright side' is what people tend to do when thinking about Cubans – we think of their smiles, their music, their dancing, speak fondly of their culture. But the reality may be a little different.

In the build up to a hip-hop festival on the island, and just before Hurricane Charley, the film interviews native Cubans. It explores the poverty that many have faced – one woman laughs about how she is very good at making a meal for the whole family out of a single banana. It dwells particularly on the 90's and the period of crisis then that Cuba went through economically.

Is it a 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary, as the makers claim, or does it insert its own agenda; and if it does, are its assertions consistent with known facts on the one hand, or an effective challenge to them on the other?

I was very lucky to meet Ms Theron and the two writer-directors and put some of my concerns to them, but the claim that it is a fly-on-the-wall documentary is hard to sustain. The film is interrupted by black screens with writing, giving us a very specific version of 'facts.'

The US has a very particular view of Cuba that is not shared by the UN or major NGOs. In an attempt to bring down the government of Castro, it has enacted an economic blockade for 45 years. The previous, US-friendly government, was more corrupt than that of Fidel Castro, but at that time Cuba had an effective trade (around 67%) with the US that kept money flowing into the country. When Castro came to power, that was blocked, in the massive, longest running economic embargo the US has ever implemented, and one condemned by nearly every country in the world as inhuman or in breach of international law. At the 2005 United Nations General Assembly, for instance, 182 countries voted to condemn the embargo (only three nations supported the US).

For many years, Cuba managed in spite of the blockade, but in the 90's the US stepped up pressure as ordinary Cubans experienced extreme poverty, concomitant with a drop in foreign aid from the USSR as the Soviet Bloc started to dissolve.

This film appeared at the Festival within days of President Bush announcing $80 dollars – not in aid, but to 'boost democracy' by helping the people in their "transition from repressive control to freedom." Was the film part of that kind of thinking?

Many assertions are correct, eg the period of poverty, but in dealing with the causes of that poverty, the film points a vague finger at Russia and avoids putting any blame on the American embargo. I put it to Ms Theron and the two directors, this is political whitewash isn't it?

The answer was long and not very convincing. Firstly I was assured that just because the embargo wasn't mentioned on the black screens it didn't mean it wasn't addressed (I must have blinked in this bit). Then Charlize said they never wanted to make a political film. Really. Did I think it was a pro-American film she asked me? Yes, I did. "If you really made a film about the embargo it wouldn't make sense," says Charlize.

The blackboard in question that interrupts the film says in firm, clear writing up: "In 1990 Russian aid to Cuba ended provoking a crisis." No mention of the embargo. No mention of the U.S. stepping up efforts with extra legislation to make the Cubans' lot even worse. The United Nations, the World Health Organisation, Oxfam International have no problem making sense of it, but these filmmakers didn't understand it. Worrying, especially as the film is in competition for a EIFF Documentary Award.

Can the film can reasonably called 'pro-American'?

1) It's about a music form associated primarily with the US. 2) The interviews selected show people who are largely ignorant of world affairs, even the US policies affecting their own country. 3) Most worryingly, the film takes an emotive issue (malnutrition), dodges clear US culpability, and subtly suggests that the blame rests solely with Fidel Castro's repressive regime or the drying up of aid from Russia.

What about other 'factual' assertions? An American news clip reports hardly any damage in Cuba from Hurricane Charley and we cut straight to a blown down tree and extended interviews suggesting Hurricane Charley was merely a pretext for Castro to object to the hip-hop festival. Having found so much spin elsewhere in the film, I decided to check this as well.

The BBC, MS-NBC and the Red Cross, all of whom had reporters in the ground, are at odds with East of Havana's presentation of facts. They told stories of hundreds of thousands of people evacuated, 798 schools and 312 health centres were damaged, 70,000 homes damaged, 8,000 trees were uprooted and 95 per cent of sugarcane, bean and banana crops as well as electricity, water and telephone networks severely affected.

More than just a pretext perhaps. It is unclear where East of Havana got its erroneous news clip of a few seconds but, whatever clampdowns Castro may or may not have initiated, his government's response to the hurricane looks pretty competent.

On the pluses, East of Havana shows a little of the interesting variation of Cuban hip-hop – which seems to contain more gentle love songs than its US counterpart, but the lack of information and weight of misinformation is sufficient to make it an embarrassment as a documentary. A simple recording of interviews and rap songs, whatever the filmmakers' agenda, might have sufficed, but the 'message' factor at odds with established and verifiable facts rather less so.

"I'm a lover of documentaries," Ms Theron enthused. Based on this effort, I hope she means watching them rather than producing them.


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