There are two different kinds of films here – neatly divided into before and after 1959 Cuban revolution.
Leading up to Castro’s ascendency, it’s all rapid-fire editing mashing up archival footage, newsreels, cartoons, super impositions, films, interviews and copious graphics. A style that wouldn’t be out of place on cable television.
It’s the sort of documentary filmmaking where somebody mentions the extraordinary distances some 1950s Cuban cars have travelled over the years and Temple immediately cuts to a childish animation of cars driving through space to the Moon and back.
Despite the hyped-up style, this early material is historically fascinating, particularly Jose Marti’s founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in the late 1800s; the “Sergeant’s Revolt” of 1933 led by Fulgencio Batista who eventually became President but due to his mulatto background was still refused entry to the Havana Yacht Club; his return from retirement in Florida in 1952 to lead an American-aided coup and take back power; the establishment of 1950s Havana as a Mafia controlled American playground of casinos, money-laundering, heroin, cocaine trafficking and prostitution, all serviced by an unbelievable 80 flights a day from the United States.
The after-the-revolution material is much calmer and more conventional filmmaking - gone are the stupid animations, crashing sound-cuts and brutal editing. The revolution’s successes in health care, education, housing, and employment are counter-balanced by the executions of opponents; political events (Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis); the network of informants reporting on counter-revolutionary thought and activity; the banning of rock ‘n roll and the austere morality that seemed to rise from the revolutionary government.
Temple spends considerable time on the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of billions in aid. Known as The Special Period, it was a time of economic hardship; the aging of the Castro supporters; an increasingly oppressive state and a deterioration in radical political beliefs, especially among the young.
Contemporary Habaneros, exhilarated by Obama’s lifting of sanctions are now despondent over Trump’s proclamations about “the bad deal with Cuba”; fearful of Trump Towers on the waterfront; fearful of their country becoming “a socialist theme park”; distressed that someone with a flash 1950s American car can drive tourists around Havana’s rotten roads and earn $US30 a day (more than a doctor can earn in two weeks); while watching the rise of a black market and the coming exploitation of their cheap housing and wondering whether this “playing with capitalism” will return Cuba to its 1950s fate as a seedy playground for the United States.
For a director whose reputation has been made in music videos and films, there’s ample use of salsa, jazz and hip hop in the background and occasional sequences with musicians whose work is disrupted for being counter-revolutionary (shutting off electrical power seems an effective way to stop them). But Cuban music is by no means the focus of this film. Despite the jarring use of filmic styles employed by Temple, it’s an often informative documentary about a people who can’t understand why their country has been forced to fight for independence, economic survival and self determination for so long.