Sports nearly took center-stage at Tribeca (this year just as much as in years past) with a documentary like Cosima Spender’s PALIO being shown here as well as Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s HAVANA MOTOR CLUB, the latter which I’m discussing here.
More than a documentary about illegal car racing in Cuba, HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is a frank attempt at illuminating car racing as a metaphor for freedom of expression and unity. It is about a nation coming together and standing up for the reinstitution of car racing as a recognized national sport. Car racing which is perceived as a dangerous and elitist sport is also synonymous to ideals of Cuban identity: resistance, fastness and strength.
HAVANA MOTOR CLUB uses some documentary filmmaking tropes, most notably through the showing of archival footage and close-up shots during interviews.
Archival footage is essential to show the history of car racing through a variety of moving images dating to the fifties. We witness the rise and fall of car racing through the eyes of those who are fighting, at present, to reinstate it as a national sport. The history of racing retraced by the director includes its humble beginnings during the 1958 Grand Prix to its sudden end (the outcome of numerous casualties and a lack of security during grand races), and finally to the tedious attempts by the population to resurrect it.
HAVANA MOTOR CLUB also steps outside the conventions of documentary filmmaking in its ability to reference, whether purposely or not, techniques that we find in Hollywood action films like the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, i.e, use of slow-motion, the rapid crosscutting between race cars and the narrative co-opting of music to emphasize, in frequently cliched and déja vu scenes, moments of tension during the final stretches of the race. The use of music is rhythmically-suited to the topic and tone of the film and is accurately, and beautifully, fitting to Cuban culture; it gives a lyrical/poetic accompaniment to the moving images as it mirrors the Cuban population’s hope and tenacity for the reinstitution of car racing.
The use of close-up shots during interviews enables a connection between audience and screen: the struggle, the hope, the pain leaps off the screen human emotion is the focus of the camera lens. Most of the people we see on screen have a backstory which is fleshed out just enough for us to understand what is at stake for them.
Some, such as “The Tito” who decides to race despite experiencing vertigo, ignore the health hazards. Why? Because this upcoming race, this event, has been so long awaited and hoped-for that now that it is a reality finally, he wouldn’t dream of forsaking his chance to be a part of it.
Others put their jobs on the line, like the journalist who rushes to cover the illegal race even though he’s been forbidden to do so. Why? Because this race is more important than following the rules. These people don’t fear prison or repercussions. Car racing thus not only embodies the spirit of a whole nation but also its determination, and hope, for something to be proud of, that will represent them as a nation. Many of the interviewees struggle every day to make a living and feed their families but being able to race cars legally would make them feel invisible, unstoppable and part of the world: other nations would no longer ignore them.
Alix Becq is a contributing writer to Screen Comment. She is an accredited film critic at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.