Olatz López Garmendia on How to Secretly Film a Documentary in Cuba and Not Get Caught

Olatz López Garmendia’s Patria o Muerte is not your father’s Cuba documentary. Forgoing the usual emphases on salsa clubs, dominoes, headstrong women and broken-down American jalopies, the film takes a sharply critical look at day-to-day life in Cuba today. That said, Garmendia also defies precedent for critiquing the island nation’s lack of public freedoms without denouncing the Castros (or, indeed, communism) outright as the devil incarnate. Even if, until 2015, every last mention of Cuba hurled politicians into Cold War PTSD flashback mode on the floors of Congress, little attention is paid to the United States — or the Obama administration’s resumption of diplomatic relations — in the film’s hour-long runtime. This is not a documentary about how Cuba arrived at this point per se, nor does it diagnose any easy fix-alls for Cubans living under the regime today. Instead, everything in Patria O Muerte is, as one of Garmendia’s interviewees points out, painfully complicated. This is a doc built of relationships between the filmmakers and the participants, the likes of which concerning Cuba are very rarely shown here in the States.

After the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, I spoke to the Spanish actress-turned-director over the phone about political illusions, tourist naiveté, her methodology, and what it takes to shoot a documentary guerilla-style in 2016.

On the Origins of Patria o Muerte

“I had to film in a clandestine kind of way, hiding my cameras… I had no official permission to film.”

I’ve been traveling to Cuba since 1993. Back then, it was the periodo especial: a very, very bad moment, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now you see a lot of stores in the Calle Obispo, by the cathedral — it’s where the tourists go. But back then, the buildings were black and white, because there was no paint; everything was falling apart. The neighborhood had one pharmacy. I went up to the roof of the Hotel Sevilla, and what I saw was totally shocking — it looked like Berlin after World War II. Now, the areas where the tourists go have been restored. But Havana is a big city; you can go a few blocks away and it still looks destroyed. It’s gonna take a lot of time to fix.

Things have changed a lot. I can say I know the country well, and I was always interested in doing a documentary — I had the idea before Julian Schnabel and I worked together on Before Night Falls. After that film I thought I wouldn’t be allowed back into the country, so I didn’t go for a couple of years. When I arrived there to do Patria o Muerte, I didn’t know what direction I was gonna go: the idea was to make a kaleidoscopic portrait of Cuba, today, with different aspects of society, different images. I was ready to talk to whoever would speak with me.

I had no official permission to film, but I was very curious about regular people, from the street — old men, the lady whose building collapsed, etc. Because I found their testimonies very powerful; without being political testimonies, they are big political statements. I went out with writers, artists, painters, musicians, and one day I met a political dissident; through him, I met all the other ones. What happens with the opposition is, they’re very connected. After you meet one, you meet all of them. They take any chance they have to speak to the media.

On Taking a Political Stance

“Cubans have this big paranoia about their phone calls being monitored, there’s no email, sometimes we had to send hand-written letters to each other.”

Now, there are a lot of documentaries about one Cuba: the beautiful cars, the beautiful women, the music, Havana, and so on. There aren’t so many that address the problems these people are having. In the end, the problems of the old people and the dissidents at the end, they’re all the same: they don’t have freedom of speech, they don’t have rights, it’s the same discourse.

But my intention was not to make a movie that is unilateral, or solely critical of the system: I wanted to interview people who have good things to say, too. I tried really hard — for four years, I tried. I have lots of friends living in Cuba in a more comfortable position. But they don’t wanna talk — they don’t want to say, “this is great”, because they don’t think it is. They don’t have bad things to say, but they don’t have good things to say either. In the future, when you see a documentary about Cuba and the Castros, you don’t want to see somebody say “Well, I was having a good time, actually.” So these people prefer not to talk.

The embargo obviously didn’t help them. I don’t know how Cuba will be without it — it will be better, economically, than it is now, obviously, but I can’t tell you what will happen economically. And you can’t blame the embargo for everything, although that’s what the regime has done. The embargo is not guilty for the lack of freedoms, the human rights violations, the fact that they cannot express themselves in public.

On the “Old Havana” Nostalgia Factor

I was almost done with the movie by December 2014, when Obama and Raul Castro decided to normalize the relationship. So I had to update it. But it didn’t effect the principal discurso, because things have changed, but very slowly — regular Cubans aren’t seeing a lot of change yet. For them it’s still getting worse, and millions of tourists don’t always help. If you own a restaurant or bar, maybe. But for regular people, it’s harder to buy beer, for example, because now it’s all for the tourists. That’s also happening. The way tourists see Havana or Cuba, it’s a little bit insensitive — like the bloggers complaining about, “Let’s go to Cuba before it’s filled with McDonalds and Starbucks” — I find this a horrible thing to say. These people wish they had a McDonald’s. This is not Pompeii — I know there’s a certain exoticism in ruins, seeing a city paralyzed by time, but there are also people living there. Having a hard time. Personally, I don’t care to go to Cuba at this moment — it’s painful to see that. But in the long term, little by little, the easing of restrictions and the tourism — it will help certain sectors of society more than others. Most people in Havana are in exactly the same conditions, making $20 a month, and things are expensive.

On the Difficulty of Filming

I had to film in a clandestine kind of way, hiding my cameras and all that. After my seventh trip to Cuba, they kind of realized I was shooting without permission, so I stopped, and hired Claudio Fuentes as my DP. Everything was extremely difficult: Cubans have this big paranoia about their phone calls being monitored, there’s no email, sometimes we had to write hand-written letters to each other. Most of my interviews were sent to him like this, and he’d have to send me the flash drives via other people we knew were coming in and out of the country. The process was crazy.

Julian Schnabel and Olatz López Garmendia on the set of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’
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On Censorship and the Film’s Future in Cuba

I’m not sure. You never know how Cubans are gonna react — I doubt the film will play in Cuba, but then again, the movie will be seen. The problem with censorship is, it’s the best advertising you could ask for, right? That’s how we are: we like to see what we cannot. So, they don’t have internet open for everybody in Cuba — it’s expensive, you have to go to a hotel, an hour of internet will cost you a month’s salary. But they use a system called el paquete, which is like a supermarket: you go with your flash drive and go shopping for what you want. You can get different documentaries, films, interviews, concert footage — all sorts of things. So it’s gonna be available on the clandestine market. Young people in Cuba are just as informed as young people here in the States — because they’re curious, and they know how to manage with the censorship. More people saw Before Night Falls in Cuba, the first month the movie was out, than went to see it at the Angelika in New York! (laughs)

On Making a Film For the Rest Of the World

I was not thinking about making a movie about Cuba for Cubans. They know it all already — and I’m from Spain! It was more about my vision of things that are going on, for outside viewers: people always ask me so many questions about Cuba. My father was a big fan of the Cuban Revolution, and I think the left in Europe — and in Latin America — sympathize with the revolution, because it was a moment of such hope, people thought it was a triumph against dictatorship for many years. And it was, but it changed — it became a new dictatorship, this time from “the left”. My parents were in exile because they fought against Franco, in Spain: I used to fall asleep every night looking at a photo of Castro and Guevara in my room, as a little girl!

Patria o Muerte airs on HBO beginning November 28, 2016.