Note: This was originally written as the program notes for this film when it was shown by the Austin Film Society at the Alamo Drafthouse on July 10. It can also be read on their website: https://www.austinfilm.org/essential-cinema/film-suite-habana-havana-suite.
“I have one place in the world that I live in, where I was born, and that’s Havana. If you ask me why, I wouldn’t know, but then, that’s why I make films.” – Fernando Pérez
Suite Habana opens with dawn beginning to break over Parque John Lennon. The beam from the lighthouse reflects off the bronzed surface of the statue the park is named for as a daytime counterpart relieves the night watchman. The statue is almost a metaphor for director Fernando Pérez’s conflicted relationship with his hometown.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the Beatles were not a band that was celebrated in Castro’s Cuba. In fact, the only way to listen to them was in secret. The official stance was that the music was “ideological diversionism”, and that was not smiled on in the early days of the revolution.
But in December of 2000 Castro had a change of heart. Due to his outspoken criticism of the United States policies during the Vietnam War, and his subsequent harassment by the FBI, the previously vilified musician had become viewed as a fellow “revolutionary”. Castro had a statue built to honor the murdered Beatle, and named the park, where the statue was placed, in his honor.
While some might find the park strange, or even a contradiction when compared with Castro’s policies of the past, it actually seems to match the country and city it is placed in. In a way, the contradiction makes it blend into Havana even more. And Fernando Pérez is exactly the same way. Why does a filmmaker who continues to make artistically and politically challenging films conflictingly live in a place where the government has such strict control over the art produced?
In some ways, this is the question he is answering in Suite Habana. By showing us the daily lives of some of Havana’s regular citizens, he is able to provide a glimpse into the mystery of what keeps him in the city. In explaining his thoughts behind the film, Pérez said, “When someone suggested that I do a documentary, I had thought of doing one day: The city wakes up, the city works, the city eats lunch, the city has fun at night. Havana is Habaneros—it’s the stories of its individuals.”
These individuals, and their stories, are what make Havana. Some of the individuals in this film are real life friends of Pérez, others he met while conducting research during preproduction. The railroad worker/saxophone player used to sell him yogurt on the blackmarket, and the doctor/clown just happened to have a brother who was preparing to leave the country. While we have seen Havana in Pérez’s earlier films, such as Life is to Whistle (or La Vida Es Silbar), he has said that he considers the Havana in Suite Habana to be the most representative out of all of his films, because it’s about the people. With all of these stories woven together, we begin to see the magical hold this city can have on someone.
This magical pull is further enhanced by Pérez’s decision to use elements of fiction in his documentary. In discussing this decision he said, “Making a documentary using real characters without inventing – everything’s like real life, but staging exists. As soon as you introduce a camera then it’s staged. I had two paths: to make the film without lighting as if it was a reportage, or to record a truly expressive staging. And that’s the path we chose.”
In this way Suite Habana follows in the footsteps of city films from the early twentieth century. The 1929 Russian documentary Man With a Movie Camera shows daily life in Soviet cities such as Odessa, but it also included shots, such as a woman getting dressed in the morning, that were obviously staged. And while the director, Dziga Vertov, belonged to a group that had sworn to destroy all non-documentary filmmaking, he saw how his message could be portrayed even stronger by emphasizing certain points through staging.
The other aspect of the film that prominently stands out, the lack of dialogue or a concrete narrative, can also be traced back to an early twentieth century film. The German documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis jumps from one location to another, exposing the viewer to factory workers, dog fights, a wedding, theater patrons, fireworks, and everything in between. While the film lacks a narrative, it does give you an undeniable sense of what Berlin felt like in 1927.
Pérez did not take Suite Habana to the extreme Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis went. We are allowed to follow his neighbors and acquaintances through their daily lives. We get a sense of what life in Havana is like for a cobbler and a child with Down’s Syndrome. The life that one character in this film experiences may be totally different from another, but they are all experiencing life in Havana. This is all real life to the people living it. Pérez said, “In my movies, Havana is not only a space, it’s also a way of living, of facing our contradictions, a way of being Cuban and being from Havana.” And perhaps, through these small glimpses into the different lives of individual Cubans, we are able to gain a small understanding of what keeps Pérez in Havana.
Just like the statue of John Lennon, which opens and closes this film, there is both a contradiction and an undeniable perfection about Pérez’s presence and impact in Havana. In an interview given about this film he said, “I think that a real utopia has to start with individuality. What is happiness to me is not necessarily for you. Someone once said, there are three truths: your truth, my truth and the truth. And I think that’s true.” We are lucky to get a tiny peek at Fernando Pérez’s truth in Suite Habana.