Q&A with the filmmakers
How would you describe the film?
To me it's a celebration of a different Havana than we're used to seeing, it's an experiential film that explores expression - dance, art, music, family, spirituality, dreams or desires - our roots.
It's a little like a Cuban youth culture spin on 'Buena Vista Social Club' - but instead of following established musicians resurrecting their careers it follows five young Cubans forging their dreams.
Music is a big part of the film, not just Cuban music, music from all over the world - which was carefully chosen to reflect the characters, their interests, the culture and landscape - both internal and external.
It's also a travel dream, or postcard. A rare and intimate window into Havana life and the people in our film. I call it;'a slow film for fast times'.
I wanted to evoke that dream state you have sometimes when you travel - where you 'fall into' a place and amble around and in moments of quiet discover something unexpected and delightful. Those times where you aren't rushed by a schedule, your job, shit to do - but where you can forget what day it is and just glide through time. Island time.
It's like a Sunday kind of film - where you can put it on and just chill out, let the images and the music wash over you. Enjoy the beauty of Havana and its people, slowly let the stories of Maya, Yelda, Yojany, Teresita and Ivan drift... and pretty soon you'll see, they're not that different to any of us.
What really struck me more than anything is that every character in the film is committed to what they've chosen to do. They're all fiercely dedicated to family and friends. They strive for excellence in their field, whether it's dance, tattoo art, music, make-up and acting or skate and photography. And this artful and dedicated approach to life brings joy. Joy is not about money.
Maybe too, because they have been provided with a roof over their heads (housing is provided by the state in Cuba) this takes away some of the distraction or distress we have in the West. Who knows?
Why did you chose to film in Cuba?
I'd been researching for a documentary I wanted to film on Women in Mexico and by chance came across an article on 23 and G - about the nightlife and punks and rebel youth of Havana. I'd been creative director of Mambo in Australia for years so skate, surf, youth culture music and street art had really been my life - these things have always fascinated me. I'd also been a music video director - directing indie music videos for so many of my musician friends.
I'd been a huge fan of Buena Vista Social Club. But I knew nothing of youth culture in Cuba and, although well travelled, I had never been to a Socialist country before - so my interest was piqued.
At first I wanted to do a piece on youth rebellion or punks. Then it developed into following these characters around and trying to approach the documentary and filming like a hybrid of documentary and drama. I wanted to film in a more cinematic way, to really get inside these lives. Less 'talking heads' more 'experiential' - or 'real life as a movie'.
At the time, in Australia, we were under a Liberal and National government that wasn't entirely supportive of the arts. So for me, as an artist, Cuba was appealing. It was also appealing as an 'islander' myself, coming from the small islands of New Zealand.
I wanted to see what it was like to be in a place without advertising after having worked in advertising and parenting a teenager who was constantly on socials like SnapChat and Insta, our lives in Australia are constantly inundated with advertising and media. In many ways my Cuba experience was SO quiet. No buzz screens, no ads, it really was a breath of fresh air to go somewhere without the constant noise of ads. Of course - they had their own billboards, like the one you see in the film "Socialismo o Muerte" (Socialism or Death).
Is Habana Shakes a political film? Do you take a side in the politics?
No. Habana Shakes is really a film about its characters and a young, fresh take on Cuba. It's a chance to see what a younger generation of Cubans feel about their lives, their pursuits, their dreams, love, relationships - and their country... and what they would like in their future.
The film is impartial. It doesn't seek to condemn Socialism or Communism and it's not taking a pro US position either. The political commentary included is for context.
We open, in 2016, with the girls on the Malecón, still awake and heading home as the sun comes up after a long night out - and end the film with the same girls, leaving the scene in 2016, joyous, post the protest footage from 2021. What we're saying here is simply that despite the politics 'life goes on' - and that's true of anywhere in the world.
The reason I chose to project the political commentators and figures onto the crumbling walls of the city is really a visual way to say that the politics, politicians, change and policy-makers throughout time seep into the bones of our cities, they form the backdrop we live our lives against. Sometimes we're like the old guy sitting bemused and relaxing on the Habana Veija doorstep as Obama gives his speech beside him, or indifferent as the elderly woman that walks past Trump in the street - the little kids on skate boards playing nearby an ironic counterpart or a question - will they be affected by this man and his policies? Or will they themselves affect change?
How did you cast the film?
We began the production based in Sydney and found a lot of people through Facebook initially. Vedado films had a team on the ground in Havana and their production co-ordinator spent a few months casting on the island.
When did you shoot?
We filmed over ten days in June, 2016.
Why did it take until 2023 to finish the film?
A few reasons. 1. because it's a self-financed, independent niche film - and it was predominantly just Joelle (editor) and I working on it then 2. when I got back to Sydney from Cuba I had to move to NZ. My mother had a terminal diagnosis and everything was put on hold for a few years. By the time Joelle and I got back into the rushes to work out the form of the film, much had changed. But like so many things that happen unexpectedly, this hiatus turned out to be good for our film.
Context mainly. The political changes that occurred from 2016 to 2022 gave us a context in the background of our characters stories.
When we began filming President Obama had just visited Cuba and was preparing to work towards ending the embargo. He'd given a rousing speech enabling Cuban youth, saying they could change their future. He talked about access to the internet, opening Cuba up, listening to the voice of a younger generation.
On the 25th of November, 2016, Fidel Castro, the father of the Cuban Revolution died.
Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017 and in June of that year ordered tighter restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba and a clampdown on US business dealings with the island's military, saying he was cancelling Obama's "terrible and misguided deal" with Havana, citing a lack of human rights concessions from Cuba in the detente negotiated by Obama.
Then in 2020 Covid hit and in January 2021 Biden was elected US President.
On July 11, 2021, triggered by food and medicine shortages, the government response to Covid, a lack of economic reform and civil liberties incursions, thousands of Cubans demonstrated against the Diaz-Canel Communist government, both in the streets and across socials in Cuba, Miami, Spain and Mexico. Some considered it the largest protest since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Cuban ex-pats and Miami Republican Mayor Francis Suarez suggested airstrikes against Cuba and called for Biden to re-instate internet access. Biden called Cuba a "Failed state" citing extreme food shortages, economic mismanagement and a repressive regime. Internet access was cut off to the island by the authorities, demonstrators were arrested and one year on Amnesty International are still protesting human rights abuses from this event on the island.
It is complicated. There are those that are pro Castro and Communism that say the protesters in Cuba and Miami (and across the world) are misguided. That the US is responsible for the hardship in Cuba due to the blockade. And of course there are those that hold the opposing view - that Cuba is a 'failed state' and communism and a dictatorial regime are to blame.
Both Maya and Yojany put it well in the film when they talk about an open and collaborative communication - the older generation listening to the younger generation and coming together in understanding, Affecting change.
Q&A with the filmmakers
Some background on the film.
What drew you to the film, what was it like filming in Cuba and what are a few anecdotes you could share with us about your process?
One of the greatest fears one has as a traveller is being asked “… have you packed your own bag?” Flying with a production team and sharing the equipment load meant accommodating equipment, some of which I’d never seen before, the DOPs most quirky piece, an item that looked suspiciously like antiquated spyware ended up in my bag… and thus started our Cuban adventure.
I was to cut a trailer and some assemblies for Marcelle to shop around in LA on her way back to Australia. The following 12 days were a whirlwind of around the clock shooting, dodging Cuban police, hanging with young Cubans on the street and in their homes. The crew lodged on different floors of the same run-down high rise each with a different government-vetted family. I spent the next 12 days navigating the maze of corridors and terrifyingly shoddy lifts, at all hours of day and night exchanging media cards and news of what was happening on the shoot.
When tagging along on a few of these shoots, I witnessed Marcelle’s gentle, respectful approach to her subjects. Always mindful of the sensitivity of the situation, never steering them towards a particular point of view. Being conscious of having that same approach with my editing, I made sure nothing was ever taken out of context; that the political time stamping was matter of fact, letting the subjects tell their stories. It was exciting to have the freedom to experiment with the structure and to play around with the hypnotic sequences that punctuate the film, making use of music and the inter cutting of scenes to illustrate some of the more abstract concepts. A favourite example of this is the street scene of a traditional Rumba band, the footage slowing down as the sounds are replaced by Lejardi’s electronic music. This was a simple way to demonstrate his musical influences but also highlights the powerful hold traditions and family still have on the younger generation, this is also evident in all these young people’s belief in the Afro Caribbean religion of Santería.
Among some of my other favourite scenes are Yelda dancing in a decaying 50s Batista era sports complex, Yojani skating down pot-holed streets, Maya on her scooter at night caught in a lightning storm.
It took 7 years and a few Melbourne lockdowns to complete the film, but it is much more powerful for it. In 2016 there was a sense of excitement and hope that the city was about to change, but then Trump as well as the death of Castro and the more recent violent protests have changed all that. Nowadays the hopefulness of 2016 must feel like a distant memory as the country grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades.