Radical prizewinning documaker David Bradbury wears his heart on his sleeve in this personal record of a recent visit to Cuba. As the title suggests, Bradbury’s warm feelings toward the Cuban people and his admiration for many aspects of the Cuban Revolution are made quite clear in his film, as is his anger at the CIA and the continuing American embargo of the Communist island nation; but he’s not at all uncritical of what he sees in Cuba today. Pic is getting a theatrical release in Australia, where Bradbury’s work is well regarded, and should perform decently in ancillary just about everywhere.
Dedicated to “the spirit of the Cuban people,” “Fond Memories” was made possible by a gift to Bradbury by octogenarian Greek-Australian Jim Mitsos, a retired millionaire and avowed socialist, who recently donated $500,000 to a children’s hospital in Havana. Mitsos, a fan of Bradbury’s films about Nicaragua and Chile, paid the filmmaker’s expenses, asking him to “be my eyes” and to report on how things are going in Castro’s country. “I think he hopes I’ll bring back something inspiring,” says Bradbury, at the outset. “I hope he won’t be disappointed.”
Bradbury has a second mission: To deliver the ashes of recently deceased Harry Reade, an Aussie socialist and animator who made cartoon films in Cuba after the revolution and who requested his remains be scattered in the Rosenberg Memorial Park in Havana.
Bradbury encounters a variety of Cubans during his stay on the island: An elderly couple who live in a rent free apartment that has no plumbing say they may not have privileges, but they eat every day; a broadcaster, whose wife and children have gone to live in Miami, escorts Bradbury on a drive into the country, where foreigners are suspect because sugar cane growers still fear “terrorists” (read the CIA) may poison their crops; a Finnish-born trumpet player married to a Cuban woman plays with a local band; an old musician who once worked with Louis Armstrong and now lives in a retirement home muses about the old days; a documentary filmmaker expresses frustration because his latest work, about racism in Cuba, was seized by the authorities during the Havana Film Festival, and a dissident who calls for freedom of speech and free elections is arrested.
While revolutionary ardor still burns in the breasts of many Cubans, and Che Guevara is still revered, 40 years of the economic blockade has taken its toll. “The great days are gone,” says one man, while another notes that there is no legal outlet for expressing frustration with the system. Bradbury compares contempo footage of Castro’s cops beating up dissidents with footage from 1959, in which Batista’s men were doing the same thing.
Now, Cubans are returning to the church and snoozing through Castro’s interminable speeches. And irony abounds: Castro unveils a statue to John Lennon, though Beatles songs were banned in the ’60s. “We need to know what’s happening outside,” complains one intellectual, though there are still clearly a great many devout Castro loyalists, mainly among the older generation.
With no reason given, Bradbury is not allowed to enter the hospital to which his patron, Jim, donated all that money.
The smoothly produced film, full of music (some of it familiar from “Buena Vista Social Club”) and familiar images of aging American cars and waves crashing over the sea wall in downtown Havana, is, in the end, a sad one. The letters Bradbury writes to his patron are a mixture of admiration, frustration and melancholy. The Revolution is old and tired, and the future of the Cuban people remains uncertain.