I was highly suspect of Una Noche. The movie shot in Cuba about the day three teenagers decide to leave the island on a raft was first recommended by a Cuban filmmaker. When he told me the director was British I let out an audible "Oof!" Ricardo laughed, recognizing my disdain, "It's good... She's very talented."
"But did she get it? Did she get Cuba?" I pressed. He assured me that she did but I still didn't believe him. I had sat through too many ridiculous representations of Cuba on film that had nothing to do with actual Cuba and everything to with the way the auteur wanted to see Cuba. But when another Cuban friend invited me to the NY premier at Tribeca Film Festival, my curiosity got the best of me.
We had chosen seats in the back of the packed theater, I wanted to be able to leave as soon as the movie was over. Lucy Mulloy, the writer and director was introduced. She welcomed everybody and mentioned that one of the three actors was in attendance. When asked where the other two were, her big expressive eyes darted right and left as she answered, "Well, we know they arrived in Miami, but they didn't make their flight to New York". I leaned over to my sister and I whispered, "I bet my life they asked for asylum in Miami." My sister nodded and I sat back comfortably in my seat. The fact that it had become a live action M.C. Escher painting gave me a new expectation. The lights went down and I took a deep breath.
Immediately, I was blown away. Starting with just the cinematography. You have to be a moron to take a bad picture in Havana but a genius to take a great one. Even in its destroyed state, Cuba is stunning and unfortunately it's become exploitative 'ruin porn' for the masses. But Mulloy was clearly telling this story from the inside out. I felt like I was watching an old, battered woman look in the mirror at the exact moment she catches that one feature that has survived, making her feel beautiful. Honestly just that would have been enough to make me happy and still, the film went deeper.
With Havana as the back drop along with clueless and/or predatory tourists that stroll the island like if it was some kind of human petting zoo/sadistic adult resort, the three protagonists desperately struggle through the institutionalized brutal and dehumanizing negotiations most Cubans are forced to partake in without losing the tenderness that exists between friends and family that risk it all to help each other get through the day. I recognized all of it from my many trips to Havana. I could have been watching a documentary. And the best part was that Mulloy didn't bother with the tired U.S. vs. Cuba political debate. She dealt with the reality of the Revolution by ignoring its propaganda and pointing a camera on the society it created. Unapologetically and according to its own practices.
As the movie ended and the house lights came up on the stunned audience, I hurried to dry my teary face. My sister leaned over to me and whispered 'If our grandparents weren't already dead, this movie would have killed them." And I let out the kind of laugh that you let out so that you don't break down in public. A very Cuban laugh. Mulloy not only 'got' Cuba. She was a big enough person and artist to let it speak for itself.
Since seeing Una Noche, I've also been back to Havana and found that things were even worse than what I had seen on screen. While delivering medical supplies to a Children's Cancer support group that the Cuban government has deemed anti-Revolutionary, I noticed they had an Una Noche movie postcard. I asked if they had seen the film. Carmen, who up to that point in our conversation had all the nervous physical ticks of somebody that is persecuted by a totalitarian regime suddenly became very calm. "Si. Si I loved it. Bueno, it was devastating, but it made me feel..." I waited for her to find the word. As her eyes welled up she quietly and calmly said. 'Grateful. I'm grateful to know that our truth is finally out there for the world to see." I smiled and agreed.
I don't know if films have the power to change the hearts and minds of people they way they once did. But I know that Una Noche is making those in Cuba that are the most disenfranchised and vulnerable feel like the world may finally see what is really happening to them and it's also giving those of us outside of Cuba a powerful tool to once and for all shatter the myths the Revolutionary leaders have so carefully cultivated through pop culture. And for that, I am grateful. Grateful that Lucy Mulloy 'got' Cuba.
Spike Lee presents UNA NOCHE which is being released by IFC and opens in theaters August 23rd in New York and Miami with ten more cities to follow. It will also be available on iTunes starting August 25th.