Home from Havana

“There it is. This is the house I was born in and grew up in. It's still standing. It's painted but this is not the house I knew,” affirms 68-year-old Silvia Morini in the documentary Our House in Havana. Director Stephen Olsson's film (screened as part of the Cuban Cinema Series Saturday at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus) traces the Cuban exile's journey from her home in the United States to her house in present-day Havana and its transforming effects upon her. The subtle distinction between the words “home” and “house” are not lost on the viewer as Morini, who left the island 37 years ago, stands at the site of her childhood abode, peering through iron gates that enclose the property. The opulent estate is now a government foreign exchange bank, where a guard forbids her from entering the premises.

Director/producer Olsson got the opportunity to make Our House in Havana after making several long-distance phone calls to persuade Morini. The initially reluctant subject finally agreed to participate in the project based on one condition: The camera could follow her and nothing more. Her desire to be unhindered as she explored Havana took precedence. She claims at the movie's beginning: “I want to see Havana for myself. I want to judge for myself. I don't know if what I'm gonna say or think will be the right thing, but it will be right for me.”

What she witnesses in Cuba certainly gives Morini pause. The daughter of a prosperous sugar plantation owner who led a life in which yacht clubs, lavish dances, and pricey, imported clothing figured prominently, she begins her trip naíve about her halcyon days of yore, but her encounters with the places and people of her past leave her unable to ignore the racial and class divisions that prevailed in 1950s Cuba. Her recollections are framed against archival footage of Havana high society and the early moments of the Cuban revolution. In one scene Morini reminisces about the ballroom where her coming-out party took place. In the next scene, the man whose job it was to keep the ballroom's floor shiny holds forth. At another moment Morini speaks fondly of the family home. Then a field hand who had been employed on one of her father's plantations comments. His big break came when Morini's parents hired him as a butler at their mansion in the Miramar neighborhood.

After Morini's disheartening visit to her homeland, her thoughts are a surprise to all. The once-staunch supporter of the U.S. embargo against Cuba undergoes a complete change of heart and begins to actively lobby to lift the trade ban. At one point she phones right-wing Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and asks: “What are we going to do to about this blockade? It's not working.” Well aware that now most of her friends might denounce her as a communist, Morini accepts that fate because she has become, in her own words, “more human.”