May 2015: a multigenerational Cuban family is in the living room right in front of the TV, quarreling in an indistinct yet heated argument. An elderly woman interrupts at the highest point and points to the TV screen, where the news about the introduction of a new US – Cuba ferry line is being announced. This is a symbol of a new direction in the political course of the state, and at this very moment the film is setting its own direction as well, following in detail the absurd existence of the Cuban capital. From this second on, the city begins to live in the hectic anticipation of the ferry arrival, a historical moment of allowing “the capitalism” in, formerly depicted as the ultimate evil by the official state ideology during the entire lifespan of most of the film’s characters.
The title speaks for itself – a collection of sketch stories connected through time and space portrays the nuances of Havana in BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES. There are three directors in charge of the camera, each contributing in a unique way, as the Spanish filmmaker Juan Caunedo Domínguez worked on the film concept together with his Cuban colleagues – animator Vladimir García Herrera and visual arts specialist Raúl Escobar Delgado. In their interviews, the team mentions they envisioned a film of many voices and many faces, never shying away from eclecticism but rather trying to embrace it at its fullest.
The film is under no illusion that life could ever run smoothly for Habaneros. The tour into their daily routine starts with a walk in the long concrete corridor of an imposing monument construction, scenting of communist heritage. Obstacles come up right away: the elevator doesn’t work, the taxi car won’t start, the driver tricks out more money than he should, but one should always stay calm. And in any case, are there really other ways to earn money in this city rather than getting involved with some monkey business? It is a reality that everyone seems to quickly get used to – swindle foreigners, sell drugs or come up with an original idea, like that bunch of young entrepreneurs. Theirs is the perfect business plan for the developing Cuban society: fooling a neighbourhood into paying for garbage disposition. “But they do like the garbage!”, skeptically remarks one of the aspiring stakeholders. “Some years ago you couldn’t imagine any iPhones here, but here they are, and everyone is getting used to them.” Such answers sound reasonable and perfectly illustrate the film’s attempts to paint the most popular attitude towards a bumpy period of transition, when iPhones appear before proper neighbourhood conveniences.
The time is ripe for a change, and in fact it has been for a while: Raul Castro took over the formal rule of the country in 2008, and since then Cuba’s domestic policy has started the process of adapting the country to contemporary international reality at the sunset of Fidel’s era. This did not result in freedom of speech for the Cubans, but at least it gave the people an opportunity to legally connect to the Internet and to start their own businesses. BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES keeps the record of this new emerging Cuba, where contemporaneity grows on soil that has been preserved in aspic for many decades. And yet the country doesn’t have too much power yet. Moreover, being too far away in the future is of no help – an American tourist travelling a good hundred years back in time will not have any special privilege once he steps out to the city.
There aren’t many opportunities in Cuban public space to talk about changes in a critical way. The film is rooted in the country’s popular culture, which is constantly evoked through the over-presence of reggaeton music or by exploiting stereotypical anecdotal characters. It does not dig deep into the problems of society in any discernible way, despite the many hints – poverty, corruption, colonial heritage. The lack of instruments for discussion leads to quite an honest expression: a straightforward attempt to fix the absurd looks so unrealistic that it goes away from reality and into a superhero-cartoon sequence, ending up excluded from the “normal”.
BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES is packed with witty puns, the objects of its mocking all easily recognizable as familiar by audiences from post-communist countries. The many subplots framed by comical details create a somewhat chaotic experience, which contributes to another important feeling lingering around the film – the anxiety about an undefined future. Still, it is clear that even though the chaos might not be avoidable, humor remains the handiest tool in dealing with what the country is yet to discover.