The temptations of allowing a promotional video to seep inside a genuine non-fiction study nearly overtake “East of Havana” and its look at a bubbling hip-hop culture in Cuba. Like several previous docs on Cuban musicians, dancers and other artists in less-than-ideal conditions, Jauretsi Saizarbitoria’s and Emilia Menocal’s film serves as a metaphor about artistic freedom and wiliness. But it also suggests a distinctly stylish Cubano rap. Pic will energetically represent on the world fest circuit, and should lay down some solid theatrical and vid tracks.
Instead of a broader overview of the nature of Cuban hip-hop, “Havana” takes the particular examples of three artists, members of a loose but loyal group of performers called “El Cartel” based in the working-class burg of Alamar. Given their obvious talent, Soandry (nickname for Soandres Del Rio Ferrer), Mikki Flow (or Michel Hermida) and Magyori Martinez Veitia could all be major stars if Cuba had a healthy, open music industry, and they all come across as more reflective and thoughtful than the vast majority of North American rap stars.
Pic is bookended by an account of the efforts to stage the 2004 edition of the island’s only hip-hop festival, launched in 1998. Although it first appears that the approaching Hurricane Charley is the fest’s main threat, it later emerges that Cuban authorities have used the cleanup in Charley’s aftermath as an excuse to cancel the annual affair. Mikki, a key organizing force and the film’s most incisive spokesperson, says the hip-hop underground will arrange a fest in some other form.
The pic never tracks what Mikki and “El Cartel” come up with. Rather, it is emotionally attached to the story of Soandry and his exiled brother Vladimir Abad, who now lives Stateside and hasn’t seen his parents in years. As with most doc accounts of life in Cuba, the personal costs of familial separation are never far from any conversation.
The doc is far weaker in laying out the music’s history, but Mikki does explain that the roots of Cuban rap stem from the so-called “special period” of the 1990s, when Cuba suffered from a cutoff of aid from the former USSR and Cubans had to learn new modes of survival. “It was,” says Mikki, “the catalyst for our movement,” and it does seem to more relevantly express realities and desires than the older forms of Cuban salsa and jazz.
Pic looks almost too cool and dazzling for its own good — Christophe Lanzenberg’s video cinematography pops with bright, postcard colors — contributing to an impression that it’s functioning as a publicity vehicle for the artists as much or more so than as a true doc. The music hits the ears like a sonic splash, and the “El Cartel” style happily disturbs standard hip-hop patterns with salsa inflections and sophisticated rhythms.