Review: ‘Epicentro,’ starring Leonelis Arango Salas, Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, Oona Castilla Chaplin, Juan Padrón and Hans Helmut Ludwig

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured in from from left to right: Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar in “Epicentro” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Epicentro”

Directed by Hubert Sauper

Spanish and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Cuba, the documentary “Epicentro” features a group of Latino and white people from the working-class, middle-class and upper-class discussing Cuba’s past and present issues with colonialism and government rule.

Culture Clash: Most of the Cubans interviewed in the documentary have negative opinions of countries that have tried to take over and oppress the people of Cuba.

Culture Audience: “Epicentro” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind the type of documentaries that are more of a “snapshot” of a culture, rather than an in-depth investigation.

Leonelis Arango Salas in “Epicentro” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

The documentary “Epicentro” is exactly what it appears to be: director Huber Sauper went to Cuba for several days and interviewed Cuban residents and some tourists about what they think about Cuban history and Cuban culture. It’s not a definitive documentary on contemporary Cuba, but it’s a very good snapshot of the thoughts and feelings of a sampling of people who happened to be filmed for this documentary.

One of the aspects of “Epicentro” that is apparent from the beginning is that the documentary does not have the usual format of identifying interviewees by showing their names on the screen as they are being interviewed. The names of the documentary’s participants are listed in the end credits, but a lot of viewers who actually read the end credits might not know who is who, unless they paid attention to which of interviewees had their name called out to them by someone else.

By not identifying the interviewees by their names in the the typical documentary way, viewers will feel that a lot of the people they’re watching are anonymous. And that might annoy or intrigue people. It will annoy people who are curious to know that names of who’s speaking. It will intrigue people who don’t care to know the identities of the people speaking

For example, there’s a slightly drunk American tourist shown in a bar, as he rambles in a joking manner that planting an American flag somewhere doesn’t always mean that great things are going to happen there. He names the moon as example, by saying that the moon hasn’t been that great since the American flag was planted there. “We have to make the moon great again,” he snickers in an obvious nod to the “Make America Great Again” political slogan used by Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.

It’s a scene like this that will make people wonder: “Who is this guy? Why should we care what he thinks? Is he just some random tourist who’s just spouting gibberish in a drunken moment? And why is this in a documentary about Cuba, since what this guy is saying is really someone that anyone can spew after a few drinks at a bar?”

The more that “Epicentro” goes on, the more it becomes apparent that director Sauper doesn’t want viewers to think too much about the identities and personal backgrounds of the people interviewed in the documentary. The people who made it into the final cut of this film all have something to say, in one way or another, about colonialism and patriotism and how they lead to cultural conflicts when one country wants to rule over another.

Cuba has been a Communist/socialist country since 1959, and under the rule of the Communist Party of Cuba since 1965. The people of Cuba have experienced countries such and Spain, the United States and the former Soviet Union trying to dictate what type of government should rule in Cuba. And this political colonialism is still a very sore subject with Cubans.

In one of the first scenes in “Epicentro,” a man wearing a top hat and tuxedo is giving a video presentation to a roomful of about 50 Cuban children who are about 7 to 10 years old. In the video, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders are shown arriving in Cuba to establish a “brotherhood” with the Cuban people. The video also shows the American flag is unfurled establish freedom in Cuba. The children scoff at the video and say that it’s all a lie.

There are two Cuban girls (about 9 or 10 years old) who are close friends and whose interviewed segments are shown throughout the film: Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Palladito Zaldivar. They both have a strong sense of Cuban history, as they speak out against racist colonialism and talk about how the Spaniards had black slaves in Cuba. “No one should be treated as if they’re trash,” says one of the girls.

Salas, the more extroverted friend, who wants to be an actress and singer. Both girls also have an interest in dancing, as they are shown participating in a tango class with other kids their age. The girls’ family backgrounds aren’t really explained or shown, although it’s obvious that they are underprivileged, based on how they can’t afford certain things (like family vacations or certain toys) that other kids can take for granted. It’s mentioned that Salas’ father has been absent from her life for the past three years.

Salas is also being mentored in her showbiz goals by actress Oona Castilla Chaplin, who is shown in the movie giving Salas advice and showing the Charlie Chaplin movies “The Great Dictator” and “The Gold Rush” to a group of young kids. Oona also rehearses a “mother/daughter” argument with Salas, including them slapping and hitting each other. It looks so realistic that it almost seems like like it’s not a rehearsal but something that was unscripted.

Oona is the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and the great-granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. She is best known for playing Varang in the 2009 “Avatar” blockbuster movie and its sequels. What exactly was doing in Cuba and how did she end up involved with teaching kids about acting? “Epicentro” doesn’t say. It’s one of many examples of how the movie treats its subjects with a raw cinéma vérité style.

It’s as if the filmmakers took this approach to the people who are interviewed for the film: “We’re just passing through. We don’t need to know your life story. Just talk about what you want and we’ll film it.” “Epicentro” director Sauper took such a hands-off approach that when one young woman he interviews on the street can’t think of a word that knows, she ask him for helping in saying the word, but he can be heard off-camera saying that he doesn’t want to put words in her mouth.

The Cuban natives all express a sense of pride in their country, but they have mixed feelings about the United States. On the one hand, they love American culture. On the other hand, they have a real hatred for American politics and perceive the United States as a political bully to other countries. Donald Trump is mentioned often as someone who is intensely disliked by Cubans, no doubt because of his presidential administration’s embargo on Cuba. Even the little kids in the documentary don’t like Trump, who’s called “mean” and “racist” in the documentary. One of the little girls says, “Trump cares about nobody. He has no feelings.”

However, the Cubans in the documentary express a lot of admiration for American pop culture. An unidentified man says in the film: “Hollywood has won the cultural war.” An woman in her late 20s or early 30s says that her dream one day is to go to Disneyland. Why? She’s seen photos of Disneyland on Facebook and “everything looks beautiful … like in old fairytales. This is, for me, the American Dream.”

And the Cubans also express wistfulness or envy when it comes to all the new technology and freedom of speech that Americans get to have and take for granted. One woman interviewed on the street expresses some paranoia when a man who’s passing by asks her what she’s filming and what she’s discussing. She assures him that she’s saying nothing but good things about Cuba. When the man is out of hearing range, she half-jokingly says that if she’s not careful about what she says, she might get killed.

There’s also a lot of lingering and ongoing resentment that native Cubans have toward tourists. The documentary shows a Cuban man hanging out in a bar who says he grew up in a family who worked at a hotel and has this opinion of visitors who come to Cuba: “Tourists are human beings in their worst form … Tourism devours the future.” His perception of tourists is that they are usually loud, obnoxious and have a superior attitude toward Cubans.

The boundaries between the “haves” and “have nots” in Cuba are also defined by skin color, as the documentary shows that the dark-skinned people in Cuba tend to live in the worst poverty, while the wealthiest people in Cuba tend to be light-skinned Latinos or white. Meanwhile, the documentary shows that the tourists at luxury hotels in Cuba are almost always white. A taxi driver says on camera that the luxury hotels in Cuba were “created by the Mafia.”

There’s a scene in “Epicentro” when director Sauper (who does not appear on camera) breaks the wall of being an objective documentarian by staging some scenes for the movie. He brings Salas and one of her young male friends to the Parkhotel Central in Havana, so that they can swim in the pool. He also buys them dessert. The kids have never experienced this type of upscale hotel before, and it’s obvious that Sauper wanted to do something nice for them and put it in his documentary.

The young children who are interviewed (Sauper calls the children “little prophets” in the “Epicentro” production notes) have so much screen time in the documentary, that it’s obvious they were Sauper’s favorite people to film for the movie. There’s a scene in the movie where an American photographer is taking candid photos of a poor street kids (a boy who’s about 6 years old), who asks the photographer for something in return. The photographer gives him a pen, which the boy happily takes and starts playing with the pen as if it’s a toy.

The photographer comments on the poverty-stricken people in Cuba: “The conditions they have here are pretty tragic. But I guess under certain circumstances, you have no choice. It’s kind of crazy?”

There are also some random scenes in the movie. A man who appears to be in his 60s (who’s identified in the end credits as Hans Helmut Ludwig ) is shown tango dancing with a younger woman. Ludwig shows up later as a special guest instructor in the tango class of the young children.

Cuban animation director Juan Padrón is shown talking about how he did research on Roosevelt and the more he found out, the more he knew that the Rough Riders image was fake and a lot of the history that’s taught about Roosevelt’s relationship with Cuba was a myth. It’s widely perceived by the people in the documentary that the Spanish-American War in 1898 was under the guise of the U.S. trying to help liberate Cuba from Spain when the U.S. actually wanted to conquer Cuba.

The documentary was also filmed at least partially in November 2016, because “Epicentro” includes the breaking news about the death of Fidel Castro and the country’s subsequent mourning and tributes to Castro. The people interviewed in the documentary don’t express feelings one way or the other about how their lives might change is under post-Fidel Castro leadership. However, they do think that another event in November 2016 (the U.S. presidential election) has had more of a negative effect on their everyday lives.

“Epicentro” is not the kind of people will enjoy if they’re looking for a documentary that has a tightly focused story. Numerous unidentified people are interviewed in the movie and are not revisited. And the only real consistency is that the documentary keeps coming back to showing Cuban children. It’s as if the message of the movie seems to be: “Listen to what these kids are saying because they are the future of Cuba.”

If people are curious about what a relatively small sample of Cubans are thinking and what life is like in Cuba since the Trump-administration embargo against Cuba, then “Epicentro” is worth a look. There’s a lot of raw “shaky cam” footage, but some of the outdoor cinematography is stunning. “Epicentro” isn’t so much a wide-ranging documentary as it is a compilation of random individuals in Cuba who share their thoughts for this movie. What they have to say is much more revealing about Cuba than filtered news or a political speech.

Kino Lorber released “Epicentro” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Los Últimos Frikis’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Los Últimos Frikis
Zeus in “Los Últimos Frikis”

“Los Últimos Frikis”

Directed by Nicholas Brennan

Spanish with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

If rock music can be described in family terms, heavy metal is often perceived as the trashy, “black sheep” stepchild. For the Cuban heavy metal band Zeus (which formed in Havana in 1997, during the Fidel Castro regime), getting respect has always been an uphill battle, made all the more difficult because of Cuba’s restrictive policies on rock music. The music primarily comes from Western, capitalist countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which dominate the shrinking market for heavy metal music. It’s another reason why Zeus is a metal underdog: Often disrespected in their own country, the members of Zeus also know that because they’re in a Cuban band, the odds are stacked against them that they’ll be accepted in other countries that have embraced U.S. and European metal bands.

Despite all of these obstacles, Zeus is still making music after all these years. The documentary “Los Últimos Frikis,” which translates in English to “The Last Freaks,” is primarily a chronicle of the band’s 25th anniversary tour of Cuba, with tour stops in the cities of Camaguey, Santa Clara, Guantanamo and Ciego de Avila. Before viewers get to see the tour, the movie (directed by Nicholas Brennan) introduces each band member in segments that show them at home with their families and playing music.

Lead singer Diony Arce is the expected charismatic focus of the band. In the movie, he discusses his turbulent childhood. Arce says that he was on his own since the age of 11, because his singer mother traveled a lot. As a child, he would live in hotels, sometimes for two or three years at a time. Learning to be self-sufficient at an early age helped shape his rebellious streak and his leadership skills. His first band was Venus, which broke up in the late 1980s, because of pressure from the Cuban government, which branded Venus as too radical. He was arrested and was in prison from 1990 to 1996.

Eduardo Longa Aguilar (drums), who confesses later in the film that he abuses drugs and alcohol, is seen near the beginning of the movie trying to convince a woman to sell him a soda on camera, because she’s afraid she’ll be arrested for it. Hansel Sala (guitar), who says that heavy metal has to be strong, is a family man who’s proud to show his son how to be a musician. Yamil Arias (bass) is a welder by day, and he says that Metallica’s 1988 album “…And Justice for All” was a big early influence for him. Ivan Muñoz (guitar) says that people listen to hard rock/heavy metal to reaffirm their frustrations in life.

Heavy metal’s popularity peaked in the 1980s, and it’s been on a steep decline ever since. It’s why the few hard rock/metal bands from that era that can still headline arenas around the world (for example, Metallica, Guns N’Roses, Judas Priest) are those that arguably made their best music in the ’80s. However, heavy metal fans who still support the music are extremely loyal, and they don’t care if heavy metal is considered an outdated genre or not.

The beginning of the documentary shows that the center of Zeus’ musical activities is Maximum Rock, a facility in Havana that houses a rehearsal studio and management company for rock bands. The Cuban government opened Maximum Rock in 2007, as the government became less restrictive about rock music. The audiences that Zeus plays to on this anniversary tour aren’t very large (about 200 people or less at each concert), because the cities they go to in the documentary are much smaller than Havana. And by today’s slick and high-tech production standards, the band’s outdoor concerts have the bare-bones look of a garage band performing at a backyard party.

It wouldn’t be a heavy metal tour documentary without a “This Is Spinal Tap” moment, and Zeus has two of them in the film. When they get to the concert site in Ciego de Avila, to the band members’ horror, they find out that Zeus has been booked for a reggaetón festival. Reggaetón is Cuba’s most popular music genre for young people, and the members of Zeus openly express their disdain for reggaetón, which they consider to be mindless garbage. Arce has somewhat of a meltdown and refuses to let the band play at the festival.

Another “Spinal Tap” moment happens in Camaguey (the last stop on the tour), where the band says Zeus is very popular. But when they get there, they’re crushed to find out that nothing has been set up for the concert, and the performance has to be cancelled. It’s a humiliating scene, and at one point, Arce tells the camera operator to stop filming. In other words, the tour ended with a whimper, not a bang.

It’s mentioned in the movie that concert promoters in Cuba will make sure that reggaetón shows are high-priced and well-organized, but rock concerts are handled in the opposite way. However, you also have to wonder what kind of incompetent management Zeus has for these embarrassing things to have happened to them on such an important tour for the band. That question is never answered in the documentary, since there are no managers or agents shown at all in the movie, which gives the impression that maybe Zeus is self-managed. If that’s the case, then Arce, as the leader of the band, has to take some responsibility for these screw-ups, but he never does. At one point in the movie, he gripes: “This country has made a complete fool out of me.”

Back at home in Havana after the tour ends, Zeus is shown in a career limbo, as the band members lament how hard it is to keep the band going when heavy metal is constantly disrespected and they can’t make enough money as rock musicians to pay their bills. It’s a struggle that hard rock/metal musicians all over the world are facing, especially those who’ve never had a catalogue of big hits to fall back on to bring in the nostalgia crowds.

There’s a huge jump in the timeline toward the end of the film, which shows that Maximum Rock has been shut down, and the building is in disrepair. The band is also coping with disillusionment and wondering if it’s worth it to keep the group going. “Los Últimos Frikis” director Nicholas Brennan obviously filmed this documentary over several years.

The movie is compelling because it’s about a heavy metal band that’s been able to survive for decades in a restrictive, Communist country. In an era where bands rely on social media to promote themselves, it’s interesting to see Zeus operate as a band in a country where Internet access doesn’t come as easily as it does in other nations. In that sense, much of what’s seen of Zeus looks like a time warp back to the pre-Internet days when heavy metal was at its most popular.

To its credit, the film avoids heavy metal clichés of portraying the band members as dumb partiers. (And considering that the band members have settled into middle-age, they would look kind of ridiculous if they acted like frat boys on tour.) However, the movie would have benefited from better editing to make it a more cohesive story. For example, the ending of the movie feels very tacked-on and too rushed.

But kudos to the filmmakers for getting Dave Lombardo (Slayer’s on-again/off-again drummer, who’s of Cuban heritage) to compose the documentary’s music. Lombardo is also an executive producer of the film. His participation adds an extra layer to the kinship that the Zeus members have for each other and their loyal fans. It’s a connection that comes through loud and clear in the film, and which has stayed with them even during their toughest times.

UPDATE: Topic will release “Los Últimos Frikis” on Vimeo on Demand on September 2, 2021, and on the Topic streaming service on September 16, 2021.

Oceania Cruises makes historic sailing to Cuba

March 9, 2017

Oceania Cruises
Oceania Cruises’ 1,250-guest Marina sails past El Morro Castle into Havana Harbor on March 9, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Oceania Cruises)

On March 9, 2017, Oceania Cruises  made cruise history by becoming the first major North American cruise brand to sail to Cuba. The 1,250-guest Marina began a 14-day sailing that departed from Miami on March 7, and will continue on to Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama Colombia, and the Cayman Islands. Oceania Cruises has two more sailings to Cuba scheduled this March and six scheduled for this autumn. According to an Oceania press release, passengers on the historic cruise to Cuba included Oceania co-founder/CEO Bob Binder and Frank Del Rio, Cuban-born founder of Oceania Cruises and CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. Once docked, Del Rio addressed international media regarding the inaugural voyage.

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