Cuba People to People: Roses, Cars & Wings/John Buchanan and Gail August

Filmmaker John Buchanan and linguistics professor Gail August traveled to Havana, Cuba, under the People-to-People program to study the country’s remarkably high literacy rate. As was their custom when traveling, they brought along August’s belly dance costumes as a way to connect with the locals. In this short film, director and dancer reveal what can happen when people of good faith and good minds come together to learn from each other and share ideologies.


DT: What was your purpose in making this film?

JB: Gail and I had done a number of films that could be considered home movies, so we really didn’t go down with a purpose. We went with our normal assortment of belly dance outfits and wanted to see what would happen when we got there. As we were shooting, we saw a richness in the culture and Gail’s interaction with the kids and thought there was something that could be made out of this footage, though it wasn’t until we came back home and started putting the pieces together that we saw there was a story here. Of all our travel movies, this one really stood out because of the special nature of what Cuba was all about and the program we were there for.

DT: How did you choose the People-to-People program?

JB: We’d always had an interest in visiting Cuba, and after Trump’s election in November, we said, “Maybe this is something we should do.”  Obama had set up the People-to-People program for Americans to travel to Cuba without going through a tour agency; it was much cheaper and less restrictive than tours. We were concerned that Trump would reduce the program somehow, so the night Fidel passed away we booked our tickets.


DT: What was the belly dancing all about?

GA: We always take along belly dance costumes whenever we travel. We’ve used it for photography because it’s really pretty, but we’ve also used it for what I call the Pied Piper stimulus. I put on the costume, we go out, and people start following us, especially the children. Children love the colors, they love the costumes, they want to know about the dance. Dance is a universal language. I speak a tiny bit of Spanish, but you don’t have to speak the language to engage in dance. It was a way for us to offer something but also bring them in with us so that we could share together. Cuba is a very musical place. They live music and they live dance. Everybody wants to hear music, everybody wants to dance. Belly dance is the dance that I know, and all the little extra pieces like the wings tend to attract attention, which children in particular find so dramatic and interesting.


DT: How do politics in Cuba affect people’s everyday lives?

JB: The revolution is on every street corner. You see signs of it in the museums you walk by, you see it when you’re dealing with the double currencies down there.

DT: What are double currencies?

JB: There is the official CUP currency, which is the peso-backed currency that the locals are able to use. For Americans there’s a dollar-to-dollar exchange with the US, so there are two currencies going on at the same time.

GA: It’s the third prong of the revolution. Free education, free health care, and nobody is supposed to starve. There is a food subsidy; everybody gets food coupons every month. They don’t get enough, but they do get some. By changing the currency, people are able to buy what they need. It’s not 100 percent true, they’re still struggling, but tourists pay a higher price for everything. There are hardly any grocery stores—it’s kind of scary—but when you do find one, you’ll see two lists of prices, one for Cubans and one for outsiders.

JB: There’s the classic Cuba that people consider—the cigars, the rum, the classic cars—so that was a dichotomy that was really striking. The classic cars you see throughout the film were all supposedly owned by gangsters. But the interesting thing is that those cars might be 5 or 10 percent of the cars down there. As our money was dwindling, we got into lower- and lower-grade taxis, many of which were a pot hole away from being a bucket of bolts. You really see it in the doorknobs. As you get into one of these older cars, the door will creak and you slam it closed, but there’s no doorknob on the inside. They can’t get the parts. The blockade has really hurt people’s ability to get extra parts for their cars, so there were times when the taxi driver would say, “Hold on.” He’d stop the car, get around, open up the door for us, then close it back up for us. So one of the effects of the revolution, combined with the continuing  embargo, is the fact that they just can’t get the parts for the cars. In many other ways it’s hurting the average Cuban.

GA: Also the double economy. I believe that in the last ten years there are very strict restrictions on jobs and how much you can make in those jobs. They’re totally controlled. People cannot live on them. All these tourist connections bring in extra money, but they’re outside the legal system. We were told about a woman who works as a doctor all day, then drives a taxi all night and makes more than she made as a doctor. So the Cuban revolution is still trying to control the economy, but you have this second economy pushing out. Cubans that I used to speak with, especially my students in New York, used to say, “We’re poor, but we’re all poor.” You don’t see that anymore. They’re poor, but the people who have found a way to work around the economy through the tourist industry are much less poor. That part of the revolution seems like it might be fracturing a little bit, and I don’t know what will happen next.

Fidel was an incredibly well-educated person. He knew right away to keep the story of the revolution everyplace. On every block you see a story of the revolution, and people have enormous pride. Even if they don’t like Fidel anymore, even if they don’t like the revolution, they have pride. This was a small country that got rid of the American bondage, the American mafia, they got rid of the dictator, and they made their own country. There’s enormous pride there. Every street corner has something from the revolution, and I think it was very purposely orchestrated by the leadership. People suffered in the revolution—they suffer anyhow—but I think there’s a real purpose to keeping this mythology right in the front. It’s overwhelming when you’re there and see it all the time.


DT: I was especially moved by your footage of artifacts from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

JB: An amazing part of our experience was going to the Hotel Nacional, which is where a lot of the Cuban Missile Crisis was centered. Back when the original frictions were starting, the Cubans created a very significant set of trenches, or pits, in the landscape of this famous hotel. Our guide, who was in the film, was eighteen at the time. She was trained to go into this underground network, where they had portholes up through the ground. These spotters would move little metal plates around; her job was to spot any nuclear missiles coming in, and then alert the rest of the network that something was incoming. Now she’s in her seventies, but she was one of the ones who was very much a staunch supporter of what was happening.

GA: She still is.

JB: The Cuban revolution is part of her heart. You see right in your face what the missile crisis could have been. What could she have done if nuclear missiles had been coming in? We certainly related it to today and all the problems that are one button away in many different countries. To put a face to the nuclear missile crisis right there in front of you was very impactful.

GA: And the paranoia of the country, although that’s a bad word, because it’s realistic paranoia. They’ve been preparing forever for an American invasion for good reason—they had one. But I’ve been reading that during the recent floods, everybody went into these tunnels and trenches from the Cuban Missile Crisis and supposedly everybody was OK. They survived.

JB: The other part that was really interesting is the perception of the US by folks down there. You see it in one of the clips in our film, in a poster where the characters of the US presidents start initially with the dictator Batista and then go through Reagan and Bush, and the position that the US took of having a stricter policy in continuation of the sanctions.

You see it in the museums, where kids view a boat called the Grandma. They have a very famous story, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Fidel was banished from Cuba and went to Mexico, where he ended up with a band of guys who armed themselves lightly and got into a pleasure craft built for twenty people, called the Grandma. They got seventy people onto the boat. The Grandma made its way from Mexico and landed on a far part of Cuba, where they disbanded. Batista and his men knew they were coming and killed half of them, but the rest of them went into the countryside and spoke to the locals and developed the revolution. So the seat of the revolution is from grandma. How much of that story is true we don’t know, but it was certainly front and center when the Cuban story was being told.

After Fidel took charge of the country they were able to get the Grandma in a museum, which Cuban kids all visit. In addition to the Grandma there’s anti-US stuff all around about the CIA planting boll weevils to kill off the crops. Again, how much of it is fiction? We don’t know, but there were ways to show that the US at that point was trying to take over and get back into Cuba.

GA: I kept saying, “Did we do that?” There was a lot of nasty stuff. Pouring sugar on the crops, destroying this and that.


DT: In June 2017, Trump announced new restrictions on traveling to Cuba, though they haven’t yet been implemented. What effect do you think that will have on Cuba and the US?

JB: I think he’s trying to tip the scales more toward the tourist industry so that the tours, which are very expensive and controlled, may continue. As far as the People-to-People program, maybe it will be a little stricter, maybe it will be eliminated entirely. One day while we were walking through Havana, we just happened to meet a whole group of people from our salsa community in New York—everybody was going down there on the People-to-People program because it was much cheaper and you could intersperse into the countryside. I know people still want to go down, but if it’s limited to much more expensive, more restricted tours, they won’t go.

With the People-to-People program, there are twelve reasons you can go. We went under education, and we had prearranged to meet with people down there. Literacy was a very heavy part of our focus. We met up with people at the University of Havana, the international school of Havana. Without that kind of program in place it would have been much more difficult to go as we did.

DT: What surprised you most about Cuba?

JB: The daily struggle that Cubans who are not connected to the tourist industry have every day just to get protein.

GA: We had dinner with the father of one my students in New York, and he said he almost never ate fish. He’d never had shrimp in his life. We asked about people we’d seen fishing on the Malecon, and he said it’s illegal—if they’re caught, they can get arrested. There’s almost no public transportation. We had taxis, but it’s not an easy way to get around.

They survived before with different countries subsidizing them, but I don’t think they have anyone now. They had Russia, they had Venezuela, they had us and the Spanish before that, so they have to really build their economy. They don’t have a lot of resources, but they do have this very well-educated population. It has a potential future.

There’s also this leftover from the American mafia. At the museum at the Hotel Nacional, they take you around to these fancy bedrooms and say, “This is where Meyer Lansky stayed,” and they show you pictures. Or they’ll say, “This is the big diner where they brought all the mafia together” and sell pictures to the tourists. The guys who drive these classic car taxis say, “This car was driven by Lucky Luciano.” There’s an enormous investment in restoring these cars, but I don’t know where they get the money. The Cubans I know who have come to the States had to leave because their undercover economic activity that was getting them by started to become too obvious and they had to get out.


DT: What do you ultimately want to say with the film?

JB: The film has struck a chord because of its hopeful tone. I know it sounds like John Lennon “Imagine,” but there should be a way, like the People-to-People program,where people can just get to know each other better and not get swallowed up in politics. The only thing we know about them is the Communist angle, while all Cuban folks hear about is the CIA angle. Perhaps people can actually have an exchange of ideas and cultures through dance, education, or health care. Maybe the film will help people see that we’ve been in conflict for six decades and maybe it’s time to just understand each other. We’re not going to be able to change the ideologies on either side, but at least we can understand where they’re coming from. Our main message is to offer friendship in spite of prior hostilities, similar to the rose offered in Cuban visionary Jose Marti’s poem. That’s the hopeful tone of our film.


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