Reviews

Buena Vista Social Club

In almost every number, Cuba is visually present. All are beautifully intercut to emphasize Cuba’s culture, its national identity, in the songs.


Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo, Ry Cooder, Rubén González
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: G
Release Date: 2010-01-12

Perhaps the greatest perk of living in an absurdly material-crazed consumer culture is that it’s very hard to lose track of music and movies you like. While years tick away and you’re off collecting new favorites, somebody, somewhere is working on a way to repackage, re-release, and ultimately, resell everything.

In this spirit, the good people at Lionsgate have come up with a “music-themed DVD line” they’re calling Music Makers, and Buena Vista Social Club, thankfully, is back. If not all of the four DVDs in the line are beloved classics (Beyond the Sea, we’re looking in your direction), fans of Wim Wenders’ 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary can rejoice, and the movie and, as importantly, the music, gets exposure to new audiences.

The film is as radiantly charismatic and endearing upon re-viewing as it was immediately following its initial release, and although many of the stars -- notably, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Rubén González -- didn’t survive the ‘00s, their screen presence feels like a joyous toast to life.

Opening on photos taken by Alberto Korda, the man who took the iconic shot of Che Guevara, and Korda’s description of images captured from the revolution through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Wenders instantly provides the movie with a social and historical context. Then, having established that context, Wenders moves forward, allowing the personalities of his subjects and the music they create to form his film.

Buena Vista Social Club is perfectly structured to provide viewers with both a feeling of intimacy with the performers and a sense of personal connection to the music. Wenders calls his work a “musicumentary” on the disc’s commentary and in its “production notes”, and as cloying a coinage as that is, he’s right that the movie is more than either a concert film or a documentary about a band. One by one, Cuba’s greatest musicians introduce themselves, usually telling a story about their childhood or how they came to become musicians, and then Wenders cuts into a number that highlights that musician’s performance.

By first presenting the performer’s backstory, Wenders offers an otherwise inexpressible account of what this music has meant to these people and this culture. The best example features Omara Portuondo recalling singing the same songs she sings with the Buena Vista Social Club when she was a little girl. Wenders cuts to Portuondo walking down a Havana sidestreet, crowded with people gawking either because she’s Omara Portuondo or because she’s being followed by a camera crew.

She’s singing “Veinte Años” as she walks along, and she catches the eye of a woman in pink, significantly younger than Portuondo. The woman begins to sing along, and they walk side-by-side, singing the song. Wenders cuts to the concert footage, Portuondo finishes the number with the accompaniment of the band and, to match its enjoyment of the music, the audience has an understanding of what Cuban folk music means.

Often, like with “Veinte Años”, the songs are presented through an amalgamation of footage shot on the streets of Havana, in somebody’s home, in the Egrem Studio, or in a packed concert hall in Amstardam, but it never feels like a performance is interrupted. Rather than wishing Wenders would go back to the previous setting, I found myself fully engaged wherever the movie went. In almost every number, Cuba is visually present. There are shots of waves misting the Malecón, of palm trees swaying in a tropical breeze, of cigar rollers focused on their labor. All are beautifully intercut to emphasize Cuba’s culture, its national identity, in the songs.

Wenders’ crew also catches some of the musicians in more candid moments, and the results are fantastic. Pio Leyva beats Manuel “Puntillita” Licea at Dominoes in the Egrem courtyard during a break in a recording session and boasts, “You may be number one at singing, but I’m the best around at Dominoes.” Later, when the duo face down a cardboard cutout of John Wayne on the sidewalk in New York, it’s impossible not to smile.

In addition to a five-track CD with music from its Music Makers line, Lionsgate has included a number of special features on the DVD, such as a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, some extra footage of Korda at his home, full performances (presented straight through, in the location where the sound was recorded) of two songs, an extra interview, and the original theatrical trailer (which, incidentally, is a great trailer).

There are also “About the Musicians” and “About the Filmmakers” pages, and a few screens’ worth of “production notes”, which offer a description of how the movie came to be. The disc lacks an interview with Ry Cooder in which he would presumably talk about his experience coming to Cuba and finding these artists, but the movie tells that story.

For anybody who would rather hear Wenders’ voice than Ibrahim Ferrer’s, he does provide a commentary track. His remarks are somewhat informative, but in a documentary like this one, they’re a tad unnecessary; while Ferrer talks about growing up as an orphan, Wenders says, “His life story is really amazing”. We know, Wim. You showed us.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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