“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” With those words, uttered just over a year ago, President Obama made history. And while 2015 clearly marked a move in the right direction in terms of Cuban-American diplomatic relations, there are still some tricky waters to be traveled, especially when it comes to film production. Ethan Hawke may say he wants to shoot his Tennessee Williams adaptation there, but the prospect of Cuban-American cinema productions remain needlessly tangled up in a lot of red tape.
That’s why it’s all the more exciting to watch Alex Mallis’ latest, La Noche Buena, the first live action short to be shot in Cuba since 1959. The 17-minute short follows a second-generation Cuban-American man visiting the island and meeting up for dinner with an old family acquaintance he barely knows, putting into relief the cultural displacement many of us feel when returning to what we’ve imagined is our native home.
After playing several film festivals this year including the Havana Film Festival in New York and the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the short has been released online. We had the chance to talk to Mallis and his producer Marina Fernández-Ferri and discussed this poignant portrait of culture clashes, as well as the collaborative endeavor that this short represents.
You mentioned the short was inspired by your personal experience, could you tell us a little bit about the story behind La Noche Buena?
Alex: Well, I’m half-Cuban, but I was raised in New England. In a very white community which is how I identified. I mean, I knew I was half-Cuban but it wasn’t really part of my identity. And then as I got older, especially once I moved to New York City, a place where I was surrounded by so many different cultures, especially Latino cultures, I became much more interested in understanding who I am and where I came from. So I said that as soon as I figured out a way to go back, I would. So my mom and I went down, we went through Canada, and spent like a week and a half there.
At the time, I didn’t really know any family; the only person that we still had a connection with was my family’s nanny’s daughter, so it was a real interesting connection. But nonetheless, she had stayed in contact with my mom. And we met up with this woman.
I mean, there was nothing to say. It was just like, awkward. And really what put the nail in the coffin — well, maybe not the nail in the coffin — what resonated about that experience to me was the feeling of guilt and responsibility, that feeling that I had to give her money. And from that, I decided to make a film.
Could tell us a little a bit about the film’s title?
Alex: I mean, it has a lot of meanings. The literal translation is “A Good Night” but of course, Noche Buena in many Latino cultures is Christmas Eve. And I think, for me, I always thought that that translation was for me, as a filmmaker, it was the literal translation: it’s the good night. But it’s also an extension of his misunderstanding. He doesn’t actually realize that it has a whole other significance, just in the way the character in the film doesn’t recognize his actions and what they might mean.
But there’s also the sense that Noche Buena is generally a large meal with the family, and for the people in the film, it’s a meal shared between people who are, well, it’s not a good night, nor are they family; it’s sort of the opposite.
This is the first narrative short film shot in Cuba since 1959, what was it like setting up the logistics?
Marina: It was actually pretty complicated and challenging. Because Americans can’t go really to shoot in Cuba. So we had to start looking at what were our possibilities. Actually everything has to go through the government. They had to approve our script. Finally we did it through the ICAIC [the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry], and we had this great experience with the crew there. That in the beginning, from both sides, we were a bit reluctant but once we met them and talked about our ideas they were very open, and we were surprised about it. So that was a really great experience; we had a lot of help there in Cuba with finding the best casting, because the main actress was from Cuba and we had a lot of help from them. That was actually very useful. Then we decided to come with the whole crew for the final shoot which was actually a small shoot from the Americans—we were only five—but the Cuban crew was actually pretty big for a short film — like thirty people! And the combination between the Cuban crew and the American crew was really nice.
I watched the audition video you guys posted of a woman telling a story quite similar to the one featured in the short, and since you mention it, I wondered what the casting process was like?
Marina: The casting process for us was really really useful. [It helped us] understand her character better. Because the film was written from Alex’s point of view, and hers was missing from the first script. After those meetings with all these women, telling us these fascinating stories about what they were dealing with all their lives… we ended up incorporating into that character. That helped us a lot as well. That was a collaboration, from all the actors, and that was really interesting. All the rehearsals that we did before the shoot also helped in crafting the final script. They were rehearsing, like five, six days before the shoot. Because they didn’t really know much. That was the first time they met the Americans with the Cubans. And that helped a lot to make the final thing looking so natural. We had the best compliments in the audience being like, “It looks like a documentary!” People really think it’s very natural.
The one line that struck me from that audition video was when she asks, “Why do all foreigners think that Cubans are so in need?” What kind of intervention did you want to make into that conversation with La Noche Buena?
Alex: On the surface I think it’s paving the way. A lot of people interested in collaborating with Cuba. There is a very rich cinema industry in Cuba, unlike many Central and South American countries. I mean, one of the very first things they did after the revolution was build the cinema institute, and there’s tons of cinemas and there’s this rich culture of audience members and people ready to go. And I hope that this film will show that anything is possible. That this country is not just a tourist attraction, it’s not just a place we should go before it changes. But also an independent country that has its own culture, its own cinema industry.
To me, this film is further evidence that the embargo is long past due, it’s not functioning, and there a rich and vibrant culture on the other side of the embargo that is ready to collaborate, and ready to have exchanges with our artistic institutions on this side of the ocean. And anyone can see that the way to support Cuban people is by collaborating with them, not by exploiting them.