A Cuban Chronicle: 7 Days in Havana

From Clash’s 2012 film issue. This was also the cover story in a free newspaper printed by Soda Pictures.

The road linking José Martí International Airport to central Havana is a shock for the senses. Relics from Detroit’s 1950s automobile industry drift by – Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Dodges – all modified to remain just about roadworthy with the use of spare parts taken from everything from Ladas to tanks. Billboards extol the virtues of the socialist ideal and celebrate the revolutionaries of the past. And then in the Plaza de la Revolución, the most surreal sight of all emerges as two tower-block high tributes to Che Guevera and Fidel Castro light up the night sky.

It soon becomes apparent that communist Cuba has no product advertising or branding. There is, however, one notable logo that adorns bars and the backs of bicitaxis: that of Havana Club, the rum which is surely second only to the iconic image of Guevera as the country’s most famous export.

Havana Club supports Havana Cultura, an initiative that aims to increase the exposure of Cuban culture to the world at large. Currently best known for the compilation albums and events curated by Gilles Peterson, Havana Cultura’s first foray into film is 7 Days in Havana. The film sketches a portrait of the Cuban capital through seven interlinked stories crafted primarily by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura and helmed by directors including Benicio del Toro, Gaspar Noé (Enter The Void) and Laurent Cantet (The Class).

“I’ve been an actor for twenty years,” says del Toro, whose last directorial project was the 1995 short Submission. “I’ve studied all the directors that I’ve had a chance to work with, so the transition was not so hard. I was dealing with actors and I understand that process. What was a little bit harder was the post-production, the editing, trying to make the story move. That was new for me but it was a lot of fun. Directors never tell you that.”

Del Toro’s chapter follows Teddy (Josh Hutcherson), a young American who falls into every tourist trap that Havana has to offer. “My character was not a far stretch from me,” he begins. Hutcherson is about to become an official Big Deal with a lead role in The Hunger Games, which possibly explains why he’s wearing sunglasses indoors. “Teddy was an American actor coming down to Cuba for the first time. I was an American actor coming to Cuba for the first time. There were a lot of similarities. Language barriers and all that. It’s a culture shock, very different to the United States. I love it down here though. Even though times can be tough, they’re all in it together. I think that’s something a lot of countries lose.”

7 Days in Havana will surely be compared to similar omnibus films such as New York, I Love You and Paris je ’t’aime. Not that Cantet acknowledges much similarity: “The film about Paris was like a fairytale. That’s not a picture of real Paris at all. We tried to reflect the real Havana. It’s our job to look at the world and to make an account of its complexity.”

All of which would mean nothing if 7 Days in Havana failed to impress, but it’s an immensely entertaining view of a place rarely examined in film or media. It’s eclectic too. Pablo Trapero and del Toro deliver fish out of water tales rich with farcical humour, Elia Suleiman’s deadpan comedy fires huge satirical stabs at Cuban bureaucracy, while Noé depicts a ritualistic ceremony performed on a schoolgirl to halt her attraction to other girls. But isn’t this rather controversial for such a controlling state?

One man who knows more than most is Juan Carlos Tabío, who delivers the most personal segment of 7 Days in Havana. The Cuban director is best known for his film Strawberry and Chocolate – the story of a friendship between a gay artist and his homophobic classmate – that earned an Oscar nomination in 1995.

“A copy of 7 Days in Havana was shown to the president of the ICAIC [the national film body] and they didn’t say that we had to change anything. There have been a few movies that the Cuban government have not approved of.” he explains through an interpreter. Asked if there’s complete freedom for filmmakers, he almost ducks the question. “There’s censorship everywhere,” he shrugs. “I produced a film in Mexico where I wasn’t allowed to use the word orgasm.”

The biggest obstacle proved to be the myriad stack of permits needed before any shooting could take place “Every morning we had the feeling that we’d have to save the movie and every night the movie was saved,” laughs producer Gael Nouaille. “The next day we’d have to do it again. It was an adventure.”

That night, 7 Days in Havana premieres at Cine Charles Chaplin. The interest is phenomenal, although thankfully it’s short of the rumours concerning the recent premiere of another Cuban movie, Juan of the Dead (supposedly 5000 people turned up and the excess crowd was dispersed with tear gas). The locals roar wholeheartedly at every joke, the intense tribal drumming that soundtracks Noé’s short seems to hypnotise the audience and del Toro – obviously best known here for his Che movies – is greeted like a returning hero. The reaction mirrors Cantet’s statement: “Cinema can give a voice to those who rarely have one. Internationally, I don’t think Cuba has a voice all that often. So providing a portrait of this city is a good thing.”