Setting the scene - immersing in Cuban culture at home through your TV
November 1, 2020
A Cuba holiday might not be feasible at the moment, but you can immerse in Cuban life through the magic of cinema and tele transport yourself to the Cuba of the present day, of past and present without leaving your room. This blog is about showing you the real Cuba, fictional Cuba, and dreamed up Cuba through a series of film recommendations, documentary suggestions and TV series.
Much of the world remains in quarantine and as we let go of our hopes of a summer holiday abroad in the coming months, we can still prepare for when that moment comes, and Cuba holidays are a possibility again. In the meantime, this quarantine gives us a gift in the form of time, time to experience Cuba from your sofa or living room, to soak up the sights, the culture and unravel social codes.
Now you have the chance to discover what makes this country so peculiar, what makes its people tick, how they communicate, what concerns them, what inspires them, what moves them and why. And this Cuban TV guide gives you the perfect introduction to it all making it come to life before your eyes.
So, here we go, these are the films, documentaries and TV series about Cuba, filmed in Cuba or inspired by Cuba that you definitely need to watch this quarantine.
Filmed in Cuba
For the most authentic Cuban immersion, the following suggestions of films, series and TV programmes have been shot in Cuba. A rarity in some cases as the majority of international films, especially U.S. productions have many difficulties to film in the island due to embargo restrictions.
American Movies set in Cuba
In terms of movies that we think will definitely inspire you to visit Cuba while helping you get a more real preliminary feel for the place, we have quite a selection. From recent Hollywood productions to older films full of Hollywood glamour. But we also have award-winning Cuban cult films, shot in Cuba, by Cuban directors and showing the reality of real Cubans through some of the finest Cuban actors of all times.
Fast and Furious 8th (2017)
The 8th instalment of The Fast and Furious saga, The Fate of the Furious, featured a very prominent race scene that made instant history. Marking the first time a high-speed race was shot in Havana and for an American film, no less! This made the film remarkable because as he explains in a series of behind-the-scenes videos shot in Havana, they had the privilege of being the first allowed to do this!
Right from the opening the setting is Cuba, where Vin Diesel (Dom) and Michelle Rodriguez (Letty) go for their honeymoon before being dragged into the film's first race scene, courtesy of Dom's Cuban cousin.
"The Cuban Mile", as the film shows, sees Galiano as the starting point. And features many photogenic streets of Havana with striking cuts, narrow alleys and amazing vistas from the sides, from above and from the drivers' perspectives. From El Capitolio to Paseo del Prado, Infanta and San Lazaro it shows you parts of Havana you'd love to discover yourself in a Cuba holiday. The race's finishing line is in the seaside Malecon avenue, the only Cuban road that's actually suitable for high-speed races. Just watching the first 15 minutes of the film, will put you in a Cuban mood and, no doubt make you want to drive one of those Cuban yank tanks yourself!
Papa Hemingway in Cuba (2015)
This Canadian-American biographical film follows the life of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. As seen through the eyes of a young journalist that becomes Hemingway's friend. The film made history as the first Hollywood film to be almost entirely shot in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. The movie's production team even got permission to shoot inside Finca Vigia, Hemingway's Cuban house. Which is nowadays a museum where all of Hemingway's belongings are intact. So the house looks as though as if the American author had just popped out.
Regardless of whether you like the storyline or plot there are some spectacular scenes of Cuba to take in. From cities to virginal beaches in which Hemingway loved to fish. It also allows you to explore a more personal and intimate side to the Nobel-winning American novelist. Especially his deep love affair with Cuba, an island that he chose to call home for a great part of his life.
Cuban films to truly understand Cuba, past and present
Cuban award-winning cult films
You don't have to limit yourself to getting acquainted with the real Cuba through American films. In fact, it's much better if you do it through the eyes of Cuban directors. Get to explore cinematic Cuban art through Cuban directors' eyes and through Cuban actors' very real displays of emotions.
Fresa y Chocolate (1993)
The first Cuban film to ever receive an Oscar nomination as "Best Foreign Language Film" in 1995. This groundbreaking masterpiece it set during Cuba's worst time of economic hardship. This period also known as "the special period” which followed the collapse of the Soviet UnioAnd saw hundreds of Cuban rafters try to escape the U.S. It explores the Cuban government's (then) hostile position towards homosexuals. The persecution of free thinkers regarded as anti-revolutionaries and society's prejudices against outcasts. It is a deeply insightful film into Cuban matters. Truly shows how political discourse ruled the lives of Cubans in several ways.
It's also an intellectually stimulating film. So those interested in philosophy linked to politics and political movements will truly enjoy it. There are plenty of Cuban quirks as added bonuses and you get a full immersion into Cuban's ingenuity and ability to make-do with very little. One of the starring roles is "Roco", an old 1950s fridge that continually breaks down and is the silent listener of the protagonist's cries and complaints.
The best part is that during a holiday in Cuba you can not only visit the film's actual location, which is the protagonist's house, but you can also dine here as this place was converted into Cuba's first ever internationally popular "paladar” (a.k.a. private restaurant) - La Guarida. This restaurant serves up authentic Cuban and internationl fare with a refined twist and its popularity has risen through the roof, so much so, that it was the chosen locale for Madonna's 58th birthday celebration in Havana. Sounds all too a bit surreal? Well, that's Cuba for you!
Habana Blues (2005)
This film tells the story of two young Cuban musicians, the challenges they face, shortages, poverty and the moral dilemmas around which their story revolves. Rife with criticism of Cuban society, politics, the film also explores the themes of authenticity and self-worth in a backdrop of very raw Cuban life, it puts the spectator in direct contact with Cuban homes' most intimate aspects, scarcities, hopes and dreams. It also delves on the authenticity of art, original art versus commercial art, nationalism versus globalism and communism versus capitalism, all recurring themes in the film.
Screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival it was highly acclaimed and received favourable reviews. To this day it continues one of the most popular films showing the reality of modern Cuba. It received one Goya Award for "Best Original Score" and another Goya for "Best Editing". It was also the winner for "Best Screenplay" at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Also a winner of a "Caracol Award" at Havana's Film Festival 2005. The film's soundtrack also receives the award of "Best Score" at the Spanish Music Awards 2006.
Old Cuban classic cars, massive potholes, Havana rooftops, power shortages, rock n' roll, rap and Cuban fusion music. All combined to tell one of the most authentic stories ever told about Cuba and Cuban life. It's pure, honest and rough around the edges. Some of the difficult decisions Cubans face when choosing whether to stay or flee.
Independent Cuban films
These are less known Cuban films that have nevertheless enjoyed popularity and portray authentic aspects of Cuban life with a fictional backstory and often, historical twists.
Una rosa de Francia (2005)
Set in pre-revolutionary Cuba and starring emerging Cuban actress Ana de Armas, Cuba's most international actress (Knives Out, Blade Runner and coming soon the latest 007 instalment, No Time To Die), this film explores the decadence of the 40s and 50s in Cuba, a time when the Cuban revolution was bubbling under the surface and corruption was rife at all levels of society.
The backstory is that of a man who smuggles people out of Cuba to the United States. Who is also linked to one of Havana's most prestigious brothels, one with a French accent. In the midst of these turbulent times and the build-up to a revolution, a love story unravels between an errand boy and a young and beautiful country Cuban girl. This last one being groomed for prostitution.
It was entirely filmed on location in Cuba, so all that you see is Cuba as it remains today with some ambienced streets and little tweaks to make it look like the 1950s. But if you know anything about Cuba, you'll also know that you need to do very little changes to Havana to make it look like yesteryear, as some parts remain virtually unchanged and remain much as they were decades ago. And yes, there's lots and lots of beautiful classic cars gleaming against the sun, some Cuban mambo music. It's a sensual, with slow-pace film, it has nice photography and pretty shots.
Series - Cuban fiction at its best
Four Seasons in Havana - Cuban film noir
This short series consisting of four one-hour episodes gives a refreshing look into modern Cuban life with a fictional backstory full of insight into peculiarities of daily Cuban life. Based on one of the stories told in the books of Cuba's best-known international writer in recent times, Leonardo Padura, Four Seasons in Havana (Cuatro Estaciones) is fresh with comedy, satire and crime thrillers action with a very unique Cuban setting that makes it all the more irresistible.
Film photography is stunning and very evocative, that alone is a treat for the eyes, and the story that unfolds makes it more entertaining and intriguing to watch. It delves into Cuba's far less-known underground scene, into humble neighbourhoods and "solares” and also more grandiose but decaying mansions. In the first episode there is one stunning scene where the series' protagonist, an unorthodox Cuban policeman looks over Havana Bay. But this is not the only scene, the series include plenty of sweeping shots of Havana. From birds' eye views and rooftop frames to shots that glide over long, seemingly never-ending avenues in municipalities like Santo Suarez.
It is a real, fresh and modern Cuban treat in all aspects of Cuban life, we highly recommend. Suspense, romance and a good dose of reality. It aired on Netflix in 2016, though there might be regional restrictions. And, yes, classic cars feature prominently (how could they not?).
Films inspired by Cuba
The following film has Cuba at its core and main theme. Although the main setting where the action takes place was not shot in Cuba. Due to embargo regulations rules and limitations.
Before Night Falls (2000)
Filmed partly in Mexico and partly in New York. This award-winning film is based on the biographical novel of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Also political dissident, poet and openly homosexual,who died of HIV in New York. His story is told through his eyes. From his poverty-stricken childhood in the Cuban countryside (Holguin) to his move to the city (Havana) along with the limitations he faces. Both as a homosexual and as a free thinker and writer who dares criticise the Cuban regime.
His character is masterfully played by Javier Bardem. Who does an excellent job of it, down to getting the Cuban accent right, both in English and Spanish. The film also stars Olivier Martinez and Johnny Depp. Who has a brief cameo role and puts on another excellent performance.
It tells the story of Cuban repression during the early years of the revolution. How homosexuality was not only fiercely looked down upon but also, to a certain extent, punished. The film will help you understand Cuban deeply-rooted homophobia in the 80s and 90s as well as intellectual repression. Nowadays is very different in Cuba regarding how people see homosexuality. So by watching this film (and then going on holiday to Cuba). You'll be able to see how it has gone a very long way in a relatively short span of time in terms of safeguarding LGBT rights.
This shift in perception has been ironically pushed by the same government that once was so critical of it. A big influencer that made these changes possible was Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro. Who is director of the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX). She pushed for movements to normalise homosexuality and give homosexuals a voice in Cuban society.
Before Night Falls earned Javier Bardem an Oscar nomination in 2001 for "Best Actor" and received other international awards. Sadly, due to restrictions it was not filmed in Cuba. But portrayals and scenography are very well done.
The following are a suggestion of documentaries to better understand Cuban culture, history, politics and social nuances. They offer raw and real portrayals of Cuba and Cubans in various ways.
Exploring culture and Cuban daily life
Buena Vista Social Club
The 1999 documentary that shot the Buena Vista Social Club to fame, and also the one that created it. The one responsible for uniting this group of endearing elderly Cuban musicians to later catapult them to fame. Also led them to experience a celebrity status later in life. It is an award-winning delight to watch with an equally attractive and evocative soundtrack. It's Cuba at its purest, told through its music and its music roots. The documentary was nominated for an Academy Award for "Best Documentary (Feature)". Actually won "Best Documentary" at the European Film Awards as well as many other awards.
Another film about the Buena Vista Social Club called "Buena Vista Social Club: Adios" screened in 2017. It tells the group members' story and how their lives changed after becoming a global phenomenon. But if we had to choose, we'd recommend you watch the original documentary. At least do so before watching the second one!
Suite Habana (or Havana Suite)
This original documentary by Cuban director Fernando Perez gives the viewer a rare silent insight into the lives of 13 different real Cuban people. Going about their daily lives; from a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome to a 79-year-old peanut vendor. There is no dialogue at all in the documentary. Meaning this is one of the most unique documentaries and most unusual approaches in Cuban cinemas. But it gives more depth and reality to it. Only using background noises, sound and music to provoke a deeper emotional effect. The documentary won numerous awards in several international film festivals and was described by Variety as:
"A lyrical, meticulously crafted and unexpectedly melancholy homage to the battered but resilient inhabitants of a battered but resilient city."
Bye Bye Havana
This 2005 documentary is a wonderful juxtaposition of capitalist commercialism and vintage anti-communist propaganda. With an immersion in the streets of Cuba and Havana's inhabitants. From the youngest to the oldest, their routines, what they do for a living, how they perceive the world. It presents a vibrant portrayal of the lives of Cubans and the day-to-day difficulties they face. You can watch it on Vimeo for free!
Nature and more
If you want to immerse in Cuba's natural beauty and intact natural treasures, there are great documentaries out there. But one of the most recent and spectacular ones (which we highly recommend) is Wild Cuba: A Caribbean Journey. A BBC documentary by Colin Stafford-Johnson. It has two parts and gives you the perfect introduction to Cuba's wildest riches.
If you want an upbeat, music-infused cultural but also historical and social Cuban immersion. With lots of breezy highlights spanning a variety of topics. Joanna Lumley's fun, light-hearted and incredibly photogenic Cuba journey, is a great one to watch too.
Cuba on Netflix
If you're still thirsty for audio-visual Cuban content you can find more of Cuba in Netflix. And we'll help you find the best Cuba-related shows, TVs, films and series on Netflix. Don´t miss our next blog post coming soon!