Ah, Cuba: a land of timeless enchantment, where the music of decades past haunts its dimly lit streets, and the smell of rum and and Coke impregnates the thick, tropical air. It’s a land of mystery and tropical sensuality, rumberas, santeros. and ’57 Chevys, where the hustle and bustle of modern life seem to dissipate into the air like the salty mist of waves crashing against the Malecón. That is, if you’re a tourist.
For Cubans, there’s plenty to love about their island, but daily life is really the sum of an endless litany of small frustrations. The ’57 Chevys are around, sure, but Cubans do a lot of walking. A lot. And under the searing heat of the Caribbean sun. The music haunting the streets is generally a monotonous local spin on reggaeton, and the rum and Coke…well yeah, there’s a lot of rum and Coke.
For international cinephiles, Cuban filmmaker Carlos Lechuga’s recent feature debut Melaza provided a realistic and loving portrayal of the absurdity of life in the Cuban provincia, where the pools don’t have water, the sugar mills are shut down, and good people will do just about anything to make some extra money to get them through the month. Now, for those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to catch Melaza as it cruised through the international festival circuit last year, racking up its share of prizes along the way, we get the next best thing.
Lechuga’s 2010 short Los Bañistas picked up a Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival and a Special Mention at the Latin American Film Festival at Antwerp, Belgium before making a victory lap on its home turf with a Coral Prize from the Havana Film Festival. Now it’s available online.
For anyone who’s seen Melaza, the themes in Los Bañistas will be recognizable: a small-town youth swimming instructor shows up to the local pool for practice only to find that the water pump is broken and the pool is empty. Intent on not letting his swimmers down on the eve of a big tournament, the instructor rallies his team and they hit the road, on foot, in search of another pool. Along the way, the kids help their coach on his door-to-door sales circuit as he peddles cloth, yogurt, and black market beef to supplement his no-doubt paltry income. But when the crew finally arrives at a nearby pool, an unsympathetic attendant fishes for a bribe and insists the coach give up everything he’s earned to let the kids through.
It’s a simple slice-of-life story that is nevertheless filled to the brim with the contradictions and complexities of life in contemporary Cuba, and it’s comical and heartwarming ending is a paean to the resilience and resourcefulness of its people.