GEMS 2015: Havana Motor Club Presents the Untold Story of Underground Cuban Drag Racing

Scenes from Havana Motor Club.
Scenes from Havana Motor Club.
Luiz Maximiano

Despite the versatility of his subjects, documentary filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt acknowledges there's a common thread throughout each of his films. "My films explore compelling characters presented in an observational style. I'm interested in unraveling an event as it's happening, as a character is going for something they really want."

Perlmutt's subjects have run the gamut from fashion icons like Diana Vreeland and Valentino to an Al Jazeera journalist and a young student in Congo. In Havana Motor Club, presented this weekend during the GEMS Miami International Film Festival, Perlmutt tells the story of four underground Cuban drag racers on a mission to hold the first official race since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Laced with evolving political views about the situation in Cuba, and precipitating the forthcoming change in Cuban and American politics, Havana Motor Club presents an unusual narrative about the history of racing in Cuba, while unveiling the hallmarks of Cuban culture and identity through the lives of four Cuban mechanics.

The New York filmmaker landed on his story completely by chance, but his interest in Cuba blossomed early on in his career. "I was supposed to study abroad in Havana in 2000, but two weeks before my departure Elian Gonzalez happened, so they canceled all the visas," he said. "That made me very curious about this country that's so close to us, and yet so off limits." He began traveling to Cuba on his own, flying through Mexico to get to know the island. In 2008, Perlmutt received a grant from the Sundance Institute to write a script based in Cuba, which landed the filmmaker in Havana for about five months during 2008 and 2009.

He returned for a different project in 2011, which was ultimately shut down. But it put Perlmutt in the right place at the right time — he happened to attend a parade hosted by an organized racing club, Club Amigos de Fangio, in celebration of the 1958 capture of racecar driver Juan Manuel Fangio.

A historic turning point for the Cuban Revolution, Castro's rebels captured Fangio when the driver was in Havana for the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958, attracting worldwide attention to their cause and establishing the movement's intention against the Batista government. Fangio was released after 29 hours, and remained loyal to his captors' political struggle – even publicly stating that he forgave them since it was "for a good cause."

Fangio became a revolutionary icon since his capture convinced Cubans that Batista was losing control of his regime. "Car fans in Cuba were excited because in a way he was promoting their cars," Perlmutt said. "This guy was a car fan's Pele, and they were excited that someone major got behind the Revolution." But ironically enough, after assuming control in January 1959, the Castro regime canceled the '59 Cuban Grand Prix, and the event was never to be held again. Still, enthusiasts kept at the sport, forming a racing club, updating their classic cars with ingenious mechanics, and illicitly hosting races across Cuba.

Scenes from Havana Motor Club.
Scenes from Havana Motor Club.
Luiz Maximiano

At that fateful Club Amigos de Fangio celebration Perlmutt attended in 2011, the club announced they would hold their first official car race since 1959. "Since I was already there with a crew we decided to follow the story, getting to know the racers as they prepared and filming them in their communities," he said.

The film follows four underground drag racers on their quest to build the fastest car possible by scraping together limited resources and materials, while unraveling the varying ideologies warped in their daily lives. There's Piti, a cancer survivor who owes his life to the Revolution thanks to its free health care; Jote, who dissatisfied with the lack of progress in his life has tried to flee the island on five separate attempts – on one such occasion, he found a racing engine at the bottom of the sea thanks to GPS coordinates provided by a friend in the Coast Guard. There's a strong rivalry brewing between Ray, the island's most skilled mechanic, coming from a long line of venerated auto technicians; and Carlos, who has a benefactor in Miami that frequently ships newer car parts to ensure Carlos' victory, representing the rift that exists on the island between Cubans that benefit from relatives who fled.

While the race was held in January 2013 — long before last year's December 17 policy change announcement, Perlmutt and his team were editing the film when the news dropped. "To me, it's interesting because a lot of people thought it all happened at once, but we were filming as Raul started staging a bunch of reforms," said Perlmutt. "It's a film about historic races and rivalries, but we were lucky to capture these underlying changes."

Upcoming Events

Debuting at several film festivals across the country, the film is set for a theatrical release early next year. Currently developing a television series about the changes afoot for race culture in Cuba, Perlmutt feels fortunate to have captured this story at its beginning. "I've heard of people bringing in Maseratis, BMWs, and Mercedes from abroad now to race, so it's a different landscape among the racers," he notes. "That said, the series will feel like the early days of racing that people who watch Formula One long for today."

GEMS
Havana Motor Club screens Friday, October 23, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, October 24, at 1 p.m. at MDC's Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami. Tickets $13; gems2015.miamifilmfestival.com.

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