Writing about Young Rebels for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau declared that Cuban hip-hop is “a subject of less significance than the participants believe.” The insult of the rock critic’s supposition becomes clear when coupled with his opinion that the musical subject of The Buena Vista Social Club is of “undisputed cultural moment.” Cristgau equates success with import: Since no Cuban hip-hop artist has been fully co-opted by America and Europe like Ibrahim Ferrer and the Buena Vista Social Club were after the release of the Wim Wenders movie, what’s the use of rapping if you’re a young, brown, frustrated man or woman living in Cuba? Cristgau trivializes the Cuban hip-hop artist’s desire to carve out careers for themselves (“dubious” is the word he uses to lambaste their ambition), oblivious that their agenda isn’t money but to keep resistance to Castro alive.
There’s no doubt that the musicians interviewed in Young Rebels and, now, East of Havana stand little chance of cutting records if they lived in a capitalist society, but we must not look at these documentaries using a business model, though this may be a difficult thing to do in the case of East of Havana given the privilege that bankrolled the film’s production. Produced by Charlize Theron and directed by Emilia Menocal and Jauretsi Saizarbitoria, the latter with a long and impressive career in entertainment journalism and fashion, the film was not shot inexpensively, and it shows in an opening credit sequence and a three-dimensional photo montage of El Cartel’s members swimming on a beach that, taken out of a context, one might mistake for clips from an MTV show. Just as Young Rebels was suffocated by the academia of some of its subjects, Menocal and Saizarbitoria’s glossy camera can be uncomplimentary to its locale (in one scene it senselessly takes on the point of view of someone descending a winding staircase). Together, though, these films advance much-needed insights about life in Cuba.
Menocal and Saizaritoria, both Cuban, may not have been born on the island but their pride is unmistakable. Another director might have ditched the scene, but these filmmakers understand the implication of El Cartel member Magyori casually boasting while cleaning her house that she can make a whole meal using only one banana. These women understand that Cubans are nothing if not efficient and East of Havana, at its best, extols the Cuban hip-hop artist’s sense of community and insistence on being heard through the rhetoric of Castro’s revolution. Though devastating, the focus on a brother of one of El Cartel’s members living in New York is something of a diversion, but the film typically stays on point, illuminating just as David Turnley’s La Tropical did the heartache of an island where many people feel disconnected from the rest of the world and long to see the Africa of their ancestors. These revelations are part of the film’s very special significance.