Long before the Pope's visit filled the world's television screens with pictures of Havana, local audiences were imagining contemporary Cuba in the darkness of the MDCC Wolfson Campus auditorium. Since 1993 the Wolfson Cuban Cinema Series, organized by Alejandro Rios, has presented films and videos portraying Cuban life from every possible point of view.
Steve Fagin's TropiCola, to be screened Saturday, combines gritty black-and-white images of Havana street action with color scenes filmed in the starkly lit style of telenovelas. Fagin, a professor in the visual arts department at UC San Diego, says he wanted to show "a kitchen-sink slice of life" in Havana. "I wanted there to be a recognition factor both in Havana and Miami of, 'Yes, that's what Cuba feels like,'" says the director, who has not yet shown the film to Cuban audiences.
The loose narrative spotlights the multigenerational members of two families -- one black, one white -- and their ongoing dialogue about money, sex, relationships, food, disillusionment with or defense of the revolution, and most of all, whether to stay in Cuba or leave. Miami is often mentioned.
Fagin, who has also made films in the Philippines and Ecuador, calls TropiCola a case study of a society in transition. The true-to-life characters are played by actors well-known in Cuba, including Mario Balmaseda, Adria Santana, and Tito Junco. The filmmaker, who speaks limited Spanish himself, wanted the dialogue to sound like Cubans talking to each other on a porch. Working in collaboration with the actors and the film's producer, Nina Menendez, a San Francisco resident who lived in Cuba for ten years (her brother is the Havana-based rock musician Pablo Menendez), he succeeded.
The film's confessional vignettes are reminiscent of scenes from John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus Seven, but more than analyzing their personal lives, the characters in TropiCola probe the psyche of Cuba itself. At more than 90 minutes, this discourse can drag. Still, several outstanding scenes override any rough spots -- one emotional segment featuring three prostitutes in a bar is particularly memorable.
While TropiCola allows Cuban exiles to view Miami from a different perspective, non-Spanish speakers will enjoy the film too. English subtitles, by Menendez with Sebastian Landau, are outstanding. Converting Spanish street language into equivalent American slang, they provide an understanding of the metaphorical richness and humor of current Cuban vernacular. The film also features a soundtrack of hit tunes by popular Cuban dance bands Fagin refers to as "the Greek chorus of contemporary Cuba."