Queens of the Revolution

We close out the Havana Glasgow Film Festival with Queens of the Revolution, and what a closer! Really interesting, really moving, really inspiring. It features the single most powerful drag performance I have ever seen.

Queens of the Revolution tells the story of queer liberation in Cuba, through the people of Mejunje, a queer cultural centre in Santa Clara. Mejunje means mixture, and was set up as a safe space for queer people to be as well as their allies. It was a hangout, for club nights, for music gigs, for drag performances, a place that could be used by the community for whatever they needed.

While every country’s path to queer liberation is different, most European countries were heavily influenced by Stonewall in the States, and you get queer rights movements developing alongside women’s lib and anti-racism organisation. Cuba’s history is a little different. They still struggled with oppression and formed grassroots resistance, but their timeline isn’t the same. Due to the Revolution, discussions about class and race were all happening simultaneously to that defining social event. And in its aftermath, there was a belief in the birth ‘the new man’, who lived for his community, who was not self-serving, who was a revolutionary. And that image was not gay and was not gender non-conforming.

The state repression of queer people in Cuba lasted right into the 90s. One guy talks about having been given a physical at his work, and being told he was HIV positive, and that just heralding his life being over. Because he lost his job, the government relocated him to a new settlement exclusively for HIV positive people. Which seems to have been set up as a temporary measure when they were still trying to find out how HIV spread but which quickly became a homophobic open-air prison. It was a ghetto, and if you left it, the only other place you could stay was jail. And he was there for 15 years. It’s unreal.

Mejunje helped him heal a lot. He says it’s the only place in the world he feels at peace. Everyone knows him there, everyone treats him with respect.

You have the Queen Mother, a trans elder, who was imprisoned repeatedly across decades. When she arrived in jail, being housed in a men’s prison, she was the only trans woman, so the other inmates dubbed her Queen of the Criminals. As more trans prisoners showed up, she took them under her wing, and got the name Queen Mother.

In some aspects, you have universal queer experiences, such as fear of rejection by family. Queen Mother was taken to psychiatrists repeatedly, for conversion therapy and other damaging interventions. Eventually she ran away from home, and when her father found her and attempted to take her back, she tried to kill herself. After that, her father decided to accept her rather than lose her, but it was an uneasy co-existence.

Nomi had a similar story, where her father refused to speak to her for 5 years, and then after 5 years said he accepted her as gay, but still wouldn’t accept her as trans. It’s clearly hard, but at least there does seem to be movement towards acceptance, even if it is painfully slow. Lola, on the other hand, says she was always accepted by her family, that she never was rejected. And while she’s experienced discrimination for being trans in jobs and education, she could always rely on her family for support.

For those without support Mejunje has been there. It was set up in 91, and its presence, the very fact that it’s not going anywhere, has opened Santa Clara up to the acceptance of queer people. Although a vital resource for the queer community, it is also a cultural centre for Santa Clara, so everyone is welcome. With it having such lively events, like drag performances, music and entertainment, it is part of the cultural life of the city and its residents.

You’d think with all the repression they face, the queer elders would be bitter, but, although the grief and trauma can be scalding, they remain dearly devoted to their homeland. They are proud Cubans, and lovers of the Revolution. But as people say over and over again in this film, revolution is eternal, it is continual, it is personal, it is one’s duty to work for the society they want to live in. For the Cuban queers in this film, Revolution wasn’t something that happened, it is something that is happening, it is how Cuba happens, with the daily decision of ordinary Cubans to strive to make the society they want to see, and they are working to make it a queer-inclusive society.

That outlook has a strong influence on how they view Cuban emigres, especially queers who fled persecution. You would expect that no one could understand more why you left than someone who suffered the same oppression alongside you, but there is a tinge of bitterness when talking about them. Because it is not viewed as some academic issue of loyalty to a nation state, but a very real and tangible sense of personal betrayal, that the community here was fighting for their rights, fighting for their very survival, and some people up and bailed. This is not on some intellectual level of political discourse, but a real heartfelt sense of being abandoned by friends, people you knew and were close to you, who knew just as well as you how bad it could get, and instead of staying in the fight and working to make things better, fucked off to somewhere where someone else had done all that work, so they could enjoy what they’d built there.

Still, if it was me, if my country locked me up for my sexuality, I might just say, Fuck this for a game of sodgies, I’m awa. For the queer elders in the film, it’s seen as cowardly, taking the easy way out. Personally, I think it’s a more than understandable choice to make.

There are so many personal stories in this. The people of Mejunje are so open, so raw. This is not a film that pulls its punches, showing the bad along with the good, and the trauma as well as the healing.

(Spoilers for the end of the film, maybe stop here if you’re already convinced to watch the movie.)

The film finishes on drag queen Crystal, on stage at Mejunje, talking about when they experienced a homophobic attack. A guy rushed Crystal and stabbed her half a dozen times in the neck and chest. She had to have 47 surgeries. She had over 200 stitches in her neck, and she thought that was the end of her singing, the end of her drag career, the end of her even being able to speak. And here she is now, back on stage, singing out and speaking up in her own voice, a survivor. And there she is, in her fancy outfit, her hairdo, and bling, and she starts to sing My Way. It’s a song which in recent years has been all too often co-opted by arseholes and narcissists (see Undergods as an example), but this is it delivered in the best spirit of the song. And as she sings, she takes off her rings, one by one, and drops her shrug. As the chorus swells she pulls the padding from her bra, and tugs off her wig. And as song hits its crescendo, she pulls down her top to reveal her torso covered in scars, the scars that were meant to stop her, the scars that could never stop her, as she stands before the audience shorn, naked, and vulnerable, and sings, “I did it MY WAY!”

Chills, tears and applause rippled through the audience in the cinema. It was an ending that just hit you full force in the chest. Such a great film.

If you like this…

On The Roof

A really lovely film about three friends kicking about on their roof. With that aimlessness that follows after leaving high school, it kinda reminds me a little of Ghost World. These pals spend their time talking shit and coming up with ideas of what to do with their future.

Victor Jose, nicknamed Vito, goes on about his supposed Sicilian ancestry. His grandmother told him his grandfather was a Sicilian who came to Cuba without a cent and built up an empire of businesses around their block. Although likely untrue, Victor has an entrepreneurial spirit, seeing opportunity everywhere, and never deadened by setback or disappointment. Over the course of the film he uses his resourceful Cuban attitude to build a makeshift pizza restaurant on the roof.

Anita’s already pregnant, which she seems surprisingly chill about. While she’s confident about being able to cope as a single parent, she’s wistful for nice things for the baby. She’s scrubbing up hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs, and it would just be nice to buy the baby new stuff.

Of the three of them, Yasmani is the most frustrated. Looking after his own pigeon coop, he struggles to see himself making it, being the first to find the flaws in Victor’s plans. He longs for the hot lassie on the terrace below, and gets snippy with the local grifter who comes by trying to sell clothes. He’s outward-looking, seeing with clarity what they don’t have. But he may be missing what he does have, including the quiet love of Anita.

The roof is basically just the close, but on top of the building. The kids use it to go from house to house, catching up on the news, helping neighbours, running errands. Everybody’s up there, hanging out washing, watering plants, or sunbathing. Victor, Anita and Yasma spend their time there bumming about, taking selfies, and practicing dancing.

While this film is about young adult rudderlessness, it’s not a film about impotence or hopelessness. The exact opposite, it is about resourcefulness, imagination, and the support of friends, family and neighbours. While the circumstances may be Cuban, the feelings are identifiable anywhere.

Well-shot and well-written, On The Roof is a film which excludes quiet camaraderie in the face of the difficult transition into adulthood. Really nice film.

If you like this…

Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time

Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time is a bittersweet documentary about the Cuban band Los Zafiros, meaning The Sapphires. Rising to fame in the 60s, their popularity endures to this day.

Los Zafiros starts with very humble beginnings. A bunch of kids in Havana got together to sing and play guitar. There wasn’t much of a plan to it, other than they enjoyed making music and were delighted when they started to get paid for it.

As their popularity grew, and record deals loomed, they settled on the name Los Zafiros. They became huge in Cuba, and soon their fame spread abroad, doing tours of Europe, the Soviet Union, and all over. They got caught up in the lifestyle of fast-living, heavy drinking, and women.

Although they broke up in the 70s, the music of Los Zafiros had a lasting legacy in Cuba. It was iconic for combining Latin styles like calypso and rumba, with African rhythms, and the doo-wop style of the US. The combination was seen to convey a distinctly Cuban identity.

Alas, the band hadn’t long split up when singer Ignatio died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, only in his 30s. Then bandmate Kike died swiftly of an illness of the liver. In the 90s, El Chino also passed, and the remaining members live in Florida in the States.

But although time takes its toll, their music is still played and appreciated by generations of Cubans to this day. A great legacy to leave as part of the country’s cultural fabric.

If you like this…

Boccaccerias Habaneras

The last Arturo Sotto film of the festival, this one from 2014. It continues in his depiction of Cuba as full of shagging and domestic chaos.

I kinda thought with this one being a more recent film it wouldn’t have the same gapingly problematic nature as stuff from the 90s, especially in its treatment of women, but no. I don’t know if that’s Arturo or if that’s Cuba. Obviously it’s a comedy, so it’s gonna be a light-hearted take on sex, but even still, there’s plenty of scenes that are a big clanging yikes.

Anyway it’s an anthology of comical stories told through the framework of citizens of Havana trying to sell their story to a writer who will put them in a novel or film. There, he judges their worth and pays according to his estimation of their value. The writer is played by Arturo Sotto himself, the film’s writer and director, so as to make the obvious metaphor more obvious.

This first story is of a couple of harassed parents who try to keep their daughter’s wedding day from flying from the rails. Beset by increasing misfortune on the morning of the wedding, the chances of getting through the ceremony start to dim. A funny little farce, in which a every member of a the family is a horny hot disaster.

The second film is of two bungling crooks who attempt to flog a stolen antique trunk, not realising there’s a guy passed out in inside, inebriated. After being chased by the cops, and hoodwinked by hookers, and scammed by gangsters, they finally unload the trunk for barely any cash, and are stuffed when the buyer tries to leave the country, causing the sleeping occupant to be charged as an illegal stowaway.

The last film is of a femme fatale, who tells the story of how she blackmails a university student into sex after falsely accusing him of sexual harassment in the workplace. Yeah, I know. The writer likes this story best, pumps her, and sends her off with a Modigliani hanging on his wall. Ew.

I find the writer character insufferable, and this is maybe my least favourite of Arturo’s films. The comedy works in some of the stories better than others, but it just didn’t do much for me.

Mantis Nest

After the pandemonium of the other Arturo Sotto films shown today, Mantis Nest came as a bit of a surprise. A more or less straightforward murder mystery, with a love triangle and a noirish bent.

It’s bloody brilliant too. Really compelling, keeps you gripped.

Elena has, since childhood, inspired the love of two men, Tomas a humble worker and revolutionary, and Emilio who comes from a family of wealthy, middle-class American emigrees. Love and fortune keep them running into each other over the years, forcing Elena to choose and choose again.

The movie itself is set in contemporary Cuba when it was made in the 90s, and Elena’s story is told in flashback over the course of the film. Because… dun dun duh!… all three of them appear to have been murdered by their daughter Azucar. Or perhaps by Elena in a murder-suicide designed to put an end to their heartbreak once and for all.

Elena is clearly an allegory for Cuba, being torn between two vastly different men who love her dearly. The constant interruption of the war as a seperator of the couple(s) makes clear that this tug of war between the different ideologies is for possession of Elena, the island.

But Azucar also becomes a symbol of Cuba, taking after her mother, but the Cuba of the next generation, the kids born after the revolution and wars have been settled. Elena grows desperate to spare her daughter the torment that she has perpetually faced.

Stylistically smooth, with humour lifting the drama, the writing and performances make believable the idea that a woman could keep two warring lovers in close quarters, where hatred as well as love means they can’t leave, turn away, or accept defeat.

Also, I take back everything I said about the French being over-sexed, the Cubans have them beat. From watching this movie, you’d think that their biggest gripe against the Americans was how often that nuisance keeps them from fucking.

Thoroughly enjoyable movie, Cuban noir with the classic femme fatale.

Breton is a Baby

Breton is a Baby is directed by the same guy who did Vertical Love, and seeing the real Cuba in this documentary explains a lot about why that film is so mad.

Cuba is weird.

The director, Arturo Sotto, takes us on a tour of Cuba, and seeing it with his eyes, you understand why he is given to surrealism, because there is nowhere so surreal as Cuba.

When Sotto is commissioned to do a documentary with the remit and title of ‘The Cubans’, he is overwhelmed with the impossiblity of capturing the totality of Cuba’s people, a place where, as he puts, “the history always exceeded the geography”. So he throws it open to Cubans, and asks the public for their suggestions of what should be in it.

Man. Seriously. Even the stuff they reject, or not so much reject but don’t have time for, is bizarre as fuck. The famous revolutionary goat killed by police for spreading socialist material, by wearing slogans on its horns, and is now preserved in its own museum display to recognise its martyrdom. The legendary cow known as White Udder, whose milk production was so renowned they built a statue of her, and folk in the town hung up pictures of her in their house. The forensic anthropologist who has brought a mummified body home and gave it a glass coffin in the back room of his home, something he denies vehemently is the reason his wife left him. Dude, that house is so haunted.

So what follows is a road trip, taking you across Cuba, and meeting its people. Like the giant painting on the side of a mountain in Vilanes. And the dude who works there as a tour guide and has trained his massive ox to snore and hold its breath. Like the auld yin clamouring into a coffin with a wee window and being lowered into the ground for the annual celebration of the Burial of Pachencho in the village of Santiago de las Vegas. And being ritually resurrected by a mouthful of rum to the face. Like the city that was built around a nuclear power plant, and now it’s closed down, the nuclear physicists and engineers have become farmers in the shadows of the abandoned high flats. Like the Haitian-Cubans who hold voudou ceremonies, and the Pentecostal Cubans who hold church services, one being ridden by the lwa and one being ridden by the Holy Spirit. Like the adventures of the bell from Manzanillo, whose ring declared the start of the revolution, and that got kidnapped and handed to the old president before it was liberated and returned home. Like the young guy in the mountain who basically invented electricity for his neighbourhood. With no infrastructure, he decided to set up a bike and dynamo to power his radio, which became a wooden waterwheel tipped with tin cans, and eventually became a self-invented hydropower for 20-odd homes in this village in the mountains where there isn’t a mains plug for miles. Like the indigenous village on the mountaintop, still passing on the old ways to the few hundred people left.

Suddenly Sotto’s films don’t seem so barmy. Honestly such a strange and interesting road trip.

Cuba is weird.

If you like this…

Vertical Love

This film is *b*o*n*k*e*r*s*.

Do you remember films from the 90s that you loved as a kid, and when you rewatch them as an adult, you’re like, this is problematic as fuck? Of course you did, that describes every movie from the 90s. I’m thinking of something like Overboard, which I laughed my head off at as a kid, and then as an adult was like, the plot of this is about a man who uses a woman’s brain damage from a head injury to have sex with her and use her as his personal maid out of spite. Like, what the fuck? Vertical Love is like that. You’ll have a great time as long as you just don’t think about it too much.

The meet-cute between the two characters is when a low-level orderly poses as a psychiatric doctor to a suicidal patient because he finds her very fuckable. Yeah.

Estela is a willful architecture student in Havana. Havana in the 90s had major housing problems, with there not being enough quality housing to go around, so multiple generations were effectively living in one room shacks. This situation is pretty much what is being lampooned in Vertical Love, with there being no privacy for a shag, especially for young people dealing with parental disapproval.

Estala has a dream house she wants to build, but is caught up in red tape, and gets so frustrated at the government office she slits her wrist. If this sounds unhinged, just understand that in the world of this film, this merely shows a passionate nature.

Ernesto is an absolute dog. A part-time projectionist, and part-time orderly, he is meant to be in a relationship with this woman Lucia, who he treats like dogshit throughout the film. He uses her for food and board, cheats on her and gaslights her, and goes back to her back and forth giving her hope. He uses his job at the hospital to fuck attractive patients (which is like, wow), egged on by his mate who is a doctor, and seems to live vicariously through his conquests. The doc fixes him up with Estela, giving him his white coat so Ernesto can bag her.

Ernesto tries to convince Estela that she is far too fuckable to kill herself. Her family, consisting of her father, uncle and grandfather invite home for the dinner the valiant doctor trying to save her life.

Estela is a horny virgin trapped under the roof of her strict father, who is determined to defend her chastity. Her uncle is a priest, eager to uphold the Church’s values. And her grandpa… well her grandpa is a creepy, randy perv, who seems only to have not went after Estela himself due to confinement to a wheelchair. He spends the film constantly asking to see Estela in the scud. (Bonkers!)

Her dodgy old grampa reads Playboy while lying in bed between his two adult sons, and is the first to alert Estela’s father to the sound of hanky-panky in the next room, where Estela seems to be sleeping in a giant pink crib. (What the fuck?) He demands to be carried to see what’s going on.

While Ernesto manages to charm Estela’s family at first, he tells a bawdy joke, earning the disfavour of her father, and when he is caught trying to deflower his virginal daughter later, they are both cast out the house.

Estela clocks Ernesto’s deception pretty promptly, picking up on clues like him suggesting that next time she needs to cut up her vein rather than across, which is not advice normally dispensed by mental health care professionals. However, because she’s wired to a Mars Bar herself, she finds his entirely scoundrel behaviour charming. Thus begins the first half of this film where they try to find a room to shag in.

A sort of sex farce, it has them being chased out of various places by interfering busybodies and chances of fate, each more ludicrous than the next.

An insane movie, and that’s all without mentioning the conjoined twins, the full-length nude softcore porn scenes, and the escaped lion.

Bonkers, bonkers, chocolate conkers.

Cuba’s Life Task: Combating Climate Change

Really interesting documentary about the Cuban government’s push for tackling climate change. They formed Tarea Vida, or Life Task, as a strategic plan for dealing with climate change in both the short and long term in 2017.

Unlike in most places where the populace is desperately crying out for their government to do something, Cuba’s dynamic is reversed. Climate change was taken seriously by the government there, perhaps because its unique political outlook recognised that environmental destruction was an obvious consequence of capitalist exploitation. Perhaps because it has highly educated population who are more likely to be scientifically literate. Perhaps because, as a country, it punches drastically above its weight in terms of its scientists, especially in biological sciences. Perhaps because there is less of a sense of scientists forming part of an elite, remote from the general population, and therefore more likely to retain public faith and credibility. Whatever the reason, convincing the state that action needed to be taken on climate change was not the struggle it has been elsewhere.

In fact this film shows how the government is leading on this issue, and part of their work is ensuring that everyone in society understands how this will impact them directly. This is not viewed as a scientific issue which requires a technological response. It is viewed as a life-and-death issue, which requires a social response. The attitude of the state is that what is at stake is nothing less than the existence of the island itself, and human life on it.

The challenge is on how to filter down that political will into action on the ground. A big task considering it impacts on virtually every aspect of life. The first step is awareness, understanding what climate change is, and how it is responsible for some of the events which are happening now. So there are school programs, incorporating teaching about the natural world and how climate change influences it. But also after-school groups where kids work on projects to do with the environment, whether that is as simple as a litter pick, or something more involved like a school garden.

It also has to involve the world of work, every sector of the economy, and food production. Weirdly, the absolute shitshow Cuba’s economy became after the fall of the Soviet Union actually has some positive legacy in that area, because people have been encouraged to cultivate urban gardens for food self-sufficiency since the 90s. So it’s really a matter of getting their environmental impact down to as close to zero as possible.

Cuba’s contribution to global emissions is less than 1%, but the impetus there to reduce their emissions is huge. Because despite being the minority of the problem, they are feeling the effects of climate change already. The coastline is eroding and the sea level is rising. As a long, skinny island with a high percentage of their surface area in contact with the coast, this literally means seeing the island disappear. Entire communities, villages, settlements, are just going underwater every year.

And that’s the challenge, because although there is government willingness to build new homes inland and move people away from the coast, there is a reluctance in parts of the population to go. We meet one fisherman who says, when it floods, he just takes the front and back door off, and moves his furniture upstairs. He says if there is one brick left standing after the flood, he will rebuild. He ain’t going nowhere.

And that’s what you’re seeing, people are already adapting to the effects of climate change. Life Task isn’t just focused on prevention, as Cuba’s aware that if they cut emissions to zero, and the rest of the world continues to produce them, then, in the words of one scientist, “we’ll all still die”. Plus damage has already been done, even without it being an irreversible change. So many of the projects and provisions are focused on how to we protect ourselves from unpredictable weather effects and rising sea levels, that are already having an impact upon people.

So there is some good news, even with this first phase taking place during the Covid pandemic and increased American sanctions. Farmers are diversifying their crops and taking measures to deal with the floods and droughts brought about by rainfall instability. Since the revolution, Cuba has doubled the area of forests on the island, helping prevent soil erosion. Things are moving in the right direction.

It’s heartening to actually see real progress happening at a national level. And while this whole film is about the challenges, it is also about not declaring defeat just because the odds are against you.

Sustainability Stories: Cuba

Really interesting collection of shorts from Cuba Platform and Claudia Claremi’s The Woodland.

The Woodland is this really beautiful short film, showing a grandpa out walking with his young granddaughter in the woods of Cuba. He encourages her curiosity and engagement with the forest, its trees, shrubs and plants. She plays with the ferns that drop their leaves when touched, giving each one a bop and saying, “Bedtime!” It is so sweet. The grandfather tells her all about the huge variety of trees and plants, their medicinal uses, their natures and their resilience. He describes himself as a resilient tree, for all that has befallen him in his long lifetime, yet here he is standing. He describes the difference between good and bad trees, those whose properties are healing rather than poisonous. He fills his granddaughter with all his wisdom and knowledge, seeing in her the intelligence and compassion which will put it to good use, and carry it on to the future. He says he thinks she will grow up to be a good tree.

Cuba Platform’s collection of short films focus on different people’s implementation of environmentally conscious practices into their own lives. The first looks at Velo Cuba, a bike shop run by women, who promote and encourage cycling as sustainable travel. They sell bikes on a sliding scale according to means, and offer free kids classes, teaching local kids how to cycle. They offer bike rentals and do repairs. Everything is geared around showing how cycling can be the best solution, both environmentally and financially.

The second looks at a woman who got into recycling paper. Almost by accident, she was looking for a job that would allow her to stay close to home after the birth of her first child, and she ended up making paper products, like piƱatas and pokes and what have you. When a client suggested she use recycled paper, she had to educate herself on the whole process. But she got really into it, building her own workshop in her back yard, and ended up focusing solely on that. It was really interesting to see the process. I’d never seen how you make recycled paper by hand before, but it’s less daunting than you’d expect. A process more about patience than fancy equipment. She effectively puts soaking wet paper scraps in a blender with the glue from boiled rice. Then empties it into a basin and sifts the mulch onto a thin frame. Then comes the tricky part, flattening and squeezing out the water, for which she uses cloth and a vice press. Once it’s sufficiently dry, she hangs it up from the workshop rafters to return to that crisp paper you recognise. It’s been so successful she’s been able to hire her retired aunt and uncle to help her cope with demand. She looks really pleased, obviously getting a real sense of satisfaction from what she does.

The third looks at a carwash run with recycled water. Think of how much water is used in carwashing. This carwash uses filtered rainwater as well as recycled water to reduce the amount of water consumed. They also recycle oil, ensuring that car oil doesn’t just end up being poured down a drain and ending up in the sea. 1 litre of oil can pollute 100 litres of ocean water, so it all makes a difference in keeping Cuba’s seas healthy.

The fourth film is about an academic who decides to put into practice what he’s been researching about agriculture. He becomes a farmer, starting from scratch. He learns everything he knows about it from his 70-year-old neighbour, who shares with him a wealth of practical knowledge. The auld yin even knows the best place to dig a well, and helps him chip it out with a pickaxe over the course of 7 months. I mean, it really does put you to shame to see this older guy, still lithe and wiry at 70, smash through rock with a pickaxe, while you watch it thinking about how stiff you’ll be getting out this chair. Like, this guy’s from a generation made of sterner stuff. He looks like the kinda guy who, if a young yin jumped him, they’d just wake up with no memory of even being hit. Even elderly, pure muscle.

The last film is about a couple who open an organic urban farm together. They talk about their journey to bring a successful yield, how their early days were full of trial and error. Sometimes it seems that no sooner do you have a solution to one problem, then another turns up. They had to figure out solutions to pests, weeds and moulds, all of whom were plaguing their first crops. But as time went on, a mixture of old knowledge and inspired solutions help them on their way to their now booming venture.

All these stories share the resourcefulness of the Cuban people, fixing problems and finding solutions with what is to hand. It is also about the conscientious conduct of ordinary people who have a sense of responsibility towards their communities today and the generations in the future. I loved the way it felt like we were maybe just turning a corner in Havana and stopping to hear the story of the person working there. A slice of life with environmental themes.

Fifth List

Fifth List is a documentary about fishing regulation in Cuba. No, wait, stay! I promise this film about fishing regulations is interesting!

Cuba has a pretty unique economic system in the modern world, for obvious historical reasons. Being so different from the one I’ve grown up with in Scotland, it can seem a bit mystifying. By focusing just on fishing, you get a window into the complex relationship between state and private capitalism.

The majority of fishing takes place for the state, but recent changes in government policy mean fisherman can sign up to the ‘fifth list’ which registers them for commercial fishing. I think though I’m still thinking of commercial fishing like what that phrase means in Scotland, conjuring up a business with a trawler, or fleet of trawlers, bring home daily massive catches, for processing and sale on an open market, both domestically and abroad. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about guys going out on something that is basically a rowboat with a vespa engine in it, and in some cases just hook and line fishing.

The state still owns all the capital, so the fisherman don’t technically own their boats, they are allocated a boat by the government. It may be theirs for life, but it never really belongs to them. Like when folk describe themselves as owning their own house when the mortgage means the bank technically owns their house until the day you pay your last penny on it.

If they want to repair their own boats, they have to put in paperwork requesting permission to repair it, and state exactly what they’re going to do. So if it starts making a funny noise, and you apply to tune up the engine, but get in there and find three or four things need fixed, you’ve got to reapply before you can make those changes. Which sounds like an arseache from here, I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be when it means the difference of you going to work that day or not.

Also, you don’t just come home with a bunch of fish and think, I’ll sell half to Captain Birdseye and half to Findus. All commercially caught fish also go back to the state, but like, it’s commercial wing. The best I can figure it, it’s like the difference between the BBC and BBC America, where one of them is allowed to sell ad time for profit. I mean, this film can tell you about how regulation of commercial fishing is going, it can’t explain to you how the entire economy works in Cuba. That would be a much longer film.

The fifth list was a way for the government to bring the black market in fishing into the open economy. People might always catch a little more than they were supposed to, and sell it on the sly to neighbours or whatever. A black market, even one as innocuous as fish, has a lot of corrupting effects, so it was seen as better to give it a legitimate outlet, even if that might have be problematic as well as a logistic nightmare. (Kinda like the WoW token created by Blizzard, if your frame of reference is less Krugman and more Gul’dan.)

Trouble is, it’s like inventing a private sector for an industry in the 21st century when you already have a fully realised economy that doesn’t really fit with what you are creating. So like, Cuba already has multiple policies on environmental protection, overfishing, and balancing fishing with coastal tourism. So you’re creating an industry after the regulations already exist. And without perhaps the infrastructure to get all this extra catch to where it needs to go promptly to stop that whole local black market thing taking hold.

Also, we all recognise here that if you have something that is driven by making money, you then need oversight to ensure it is complying with regulation. Cuba doesn’t really have that, because reigning in unethical practices in private business is just something they have no real experience in. Because work, as standard, is normally organised by the community or local administrative authorities, everything is geared around open communal activity. Private self-advancement is the exception, and they don’t really seem prepped for how that changes the way people view work and the opportunities it affords to get away with all kinds of shit. Just as an example, what’s the employment law around dismissal of pregnant employees? Who regulates health and safety compliance on a boat employing workers aimed at commercial activity? Like, Cuba doesn’t have that, all that infrastructure for chasing up shitty behaviour.

And right now the big emphasis in Cuba is on tackling climate change. So you have the creation of national parks which include waterways and coastlines. Fishing is not permitted there, or within the areas allocated for tourist use. Yet there isn’t something basic, like an off-season, ensuring fishing is prohibited during breeding season. So on one level you have quite detailed policies on climate change impacts for the industry, and on the other hand you don’t have even some of the basics to protect its sustainability in place. It’s all very patchwork.

And that’s what this film covers, (see, told you it was interesting) the range of opinion among fisherman about what the fifth list should look like and what it should do, which regulations would be welcome in protecting the industry for the livelihood of communities and future generations and which are needless red tape. Some are fully on board with being environmentally compliant, but feel like their expertise, or awareness of how problems play out on the ground, isn’t being brought into consideration, and used to inform policy. Some feel like the state has not fully explained its reasoning behind its environmental policies, or the concept of climate change, and that leaves them aggrieved that the regulations seem arbitrary and punitive.

How Cuba develops the fifth list, and gets them on board with the protection of their own industry and own fishing grounds is a huge challenge. Honestly, really interesting film. One of those documentaries that makes you realise how much more you have to learn.