Film Reviews

Show Some Love

When it comes to defining love (romantic, brotherly, erotic, platonic), no one has come up with a term to describe the complex emotions that arise when love and survival become dangerously intertwined. This is the challenge for filmmaker joshua bee alafia's new work Cubamor, which attempts to understand love in an impoverished, contemporary Cuba where one must compromise integrity and dignity on a daily basis just to survive. The New York-based filmmaker's relationship with Cuba began in 1993 when he traveled there to take a course in folklore music. He befriended Cuban sculptor Abel Robaina, who eventually co-wrote the script for Cubamor with him. Alafia wanted to tell a story about someone who goes to Cuba, cheats on his fiancée, and is punished by Oshún (the river goddess in Santería of love and sexuality). This idea becomes the story of Lazaro (played by alafia), who falls in love with his godfather's granddaughter Maria (Wendy Ferrer Reyes).

The movie's other plotline depicts an idealistic American woman, Zoe (Natasha Yannacanedo), who visits Cuba on a mission of solidarity and falls in love with Renato (Jorge B. Espinoza Sardinas), a reggae singer and street hustler. Movies like Who in the Hell Is Juliette? give a glimpse into the world of jineteras (women who hook up with foreign tourists for food, clothes, dollars, or perhaps a way off the island), but Cubamor is one of the first to show this world from a male perspective.

While filming alafia found out that in Cuba making a movie can be as complicated and risky as making love. He went there with a shoestring budget, a three-person crew, and an American actress. Ten weeks later he had the raw material for his first feature film. What happened in the process could be the subject of another film. First off, alafia couldn't get permission from Cuban authorities to do Cubamor. That's when he met producer Narah Valdez, who had the clever idea of having the Cubamor crew work under the same papers as another film that was being made at the same time, Black, a Cuban production about black Cubans. "The irony is that we were trying to show the everyday lives of blacks in Cuba and we're making our movie alongside this highly sensationalized and stereotypical depiction of blacks," laughs alafia. "I mean it was like something from the '30s."

Outwitting Cuban bureaucracy was just the beginning of a string of challenges and mishaps: One of the crew members fell in love with an actress and completely disappeared. The lead actress got sick and missed several crucial days of filming. Alafia ran out of film and money, and finally was jailed for overstaying his visa. "Narah Valdez turned out to be a real hero in this whole thing," alafia recounts. "I thought I had lost everything and she showed up at the airport with my bags and 40 hours of film footage. I'm amazed I got it out of Cuba."

Since making the film, alafia has returned to Cuba several times, but he has never been allowed to show the film publicly. Insiders have told him it's too "black." "I've gone around Havana showing the film to people in their living rooms. They're always surprised to see their reality on film." Despite the fact that the island's population is over 60 percent black or mixed race, there are still very few black Cubans in television and film. "With Cubamor I wanted to tell stories that haven't been told and present images that haven't been seen," says alafia. "I also wanted to counteract the negative propaganda surrounding African spiritual tradition by showing some of the beauty of it."

Alafia's cinéma vérité technique and his background in making documentaries give Cubamor a gritty sense of immediacy, but the film isn't lacking in the surreal imagery that's part of everyday life in Cuba. In the end, it's obvious that alafia's experiences in Cuba inform the final product as much as his craft and imagination do. "In the process of making this film I think learned, as much as any outsider can, what it's like to be Cuban. I felt hunger. I ran out of money and had to live on the generosity of people, eating in friends' homes, walking miles and miles, waiting for hours in lines," explains alafia. "Until then I had a very skewed reality because of the dollars in my pocket and the American flag on my passport. Once the dollars were gone -- all I had to live on were relationships. That's all Cubans have are their relationships."

Presented by Artemis, Cubamor makes its South Florida debut at 9:00 p.m. Saturday, November 1, at Little Havana's PS 742 as part of the first Surreal Saturday of the season. After the screening, the vocal group Tres en Uno will perform. Photographer Yamila Lomba's work will also be on exhibit at PS 742, 1165 SW 6th St; cost is $7.42, $5 students; 305-324-0585. For more information on joshua bee alafia's work, see his Website at

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Mia Leonin