Ten Things I Learned About Making a Film in Cuba
For the last two years, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt has been directing a documentary called Havana Motor Club, which explores Cuba’s underground drag-racing community and their quest to hold the first official car race in Cuba since the Revolution. He learned quite a bit about filming in the country, and in the final days of his Kickstarter campaign to raise post-production funds, is sharing with us what you need to know if you want to shoot there (some of which can apply to other countries you might shoot in).
This is a guest post from Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt.
1. Go with the Flow -- You Never Know What Film You’re Going to Make Until It’s Made
I first started working in Cuba five years ago in order to develop a narrative film, for which I received a Sundance Institute/Sloan Foundation grant to write and direct. While working on the script in Havana, I was asked by a Russian director to do a “making-of” documentary about his own experience making a film in Cuba. While I was shooting that film, I went to a car event where they announced the first official car race in Cuba in over fifty years. My crew and I decided to follow the racers who were preparing for this historic event, which was supposed to be held six weeks after the announcement. The race kept on getting postponed and ended up taking over a year to organize. During these postponements, I really got to know my characters and their communities. We shot over 300 hours of footage with them in order to capture not only their vibrant drag racing culture, but also how Cuba is changing today. This five-year process that spanned three unrelated film projects allowed me to me get to know Havana in an intimate manner that we feel is reflected in HAVANA MOTOR CLUB.
2. Get Your Paperwork Sorted out Well in Advance of Your Shoot (and Ideally Before You Arrive in Havana)
I’ve made films on several different continents, but I’ve never had so much difficulty in securing permits and licenses as I did in Cuba, a country that is off-limits to Americans without a special license. I traveled to Cuba under a general license that permitted me to do research on “the effect of recent reforms in Cuba” there. Each film project -- all related to reforms in Cuba -- was going to serve as the “dissemination” of my research, thus making me legal there from a U.S. perspective.
Getting permission from Cuba ended up being far more complicated. First, it took a couple of months to sort out a permit for getting our equipment in, particularly our wireless mics, which Cuban authorities believe can be used to monitor their police. We ended up having to store most of our equipment in a little boy’s room in Cancun while waiting for our permit. We also had to secure work and location permits, as well as get the project itself approved by the state film board. While waiting for all of these permits, we used a Canon 5D to capture the lead-up to the race. The camera was small enough so that we could get away with appearing like tourists.
We finally got permission to make the film a few days before the race was scheduled. We traveled to Cancun to pick all our equipment up and then came back to Cuba just in time for the race (which was then postponed!). If your project topic is not urgent, I recommend taking a trip to Havana months in advance to get all of your permits in place before you begin shooting.
3. Work and Rent Local
Cuba is flourishing with well-trained and highly talented filmmakers who can fill any role on your film production. Plus they know the ins and outs of shooting in their country. Use them as much as you can! Same goes for equipment. You can find most of the equipment you need in and around Havana, and many crewmembers have their own equipment. We’ve managed to rent cameras, mics, dolleys, cranes, and even a drone in Cuba. With that said, DO YOUR HOMEWORK and make sure to get trustworthy recommendations for both crewmembers and equipment. Get deal memos signed before you start working with anyone, and test out any equipment you plan to rent. We once had a faulty car rig that almost cost us our camera. Bring your own expendables (batteries, gaff tape, etc.) as they’re very expensive and rare in Cuba. If you decide to bring in any of your own equipment, make sure you have the right paperwork to get it OUT of the country (which can be just as tricky as getting it in). We’ve had a camera stuck in Cuba for two years!
4. Stay and Eat Local
My international crew and I always stay with a family in a “casa particular,” which is literally someone’s house. It’s CHEAP ($20-$30/person/night), SAFE (there’s always someone there), and a great way to get to know Cuba from Cubans themselves. There are thousands of casa particulares all over Havana, so take your time in choosing one that’s right for you and your crew (check out some of the online reviews or ask friends). Sometimes you can even get your own house/apartment for the same price.
I also hire someone to cook for my crew and me, which saves us a lot of time and money. You can get delicious meals 3x a day for $2-$4/meal/person. There are some great restaurants, but they’re expensive and most of them are very slow (which you don’t want if you’re shooting). I wouldn’t recommend trying to cook on your own, as you’ll spend the whole day searching for even the most basic ingredients. I tried to cook the first time I was living there, and once it took me five days to find an egg. I ended up losing 20 pounds on that trip!
5. Hire a Driver
As shown in our film, Cuba is filled with old American cars that are now used as taxis for both tourists and Cubans. They’re really the best and cheapest way to get around town. Try to find a driver of one of these cars who you can hire for the entirety of your shoot. You can normally offer them a cheap daily rate that will include gas. Plus you’ll never have to worry about getting lost or having to park. And in our case, our drivers ended up being field producers as well since they knew so much about our characters and their drag-racing community.
6. Spend as Much Time as Possible with Your Characters
I like to get to know my characters as much as I can before and while I’m shooting with them. Even if you don’t plan on shooting a lot of material, try to make it a full time job to be with them as much as they're comfortable with so that they get used to having you follow them around with a camera all the time. You can always just keep the camera on your lap. Let their world become your world while making the film, and you’ll be surprised by how different your vision of the story will become from what you thought it would be like. On a practical level, spending as much time with your characters as possible will ensure that you don’t miss any major (or minor) events, particularly since most things happen on their own schedule in Cuba. And always respect their wishes if they don’t want to be filmed or need some alone time.
7. Take a Break from Your Smart Phone
Internet is slow as molasses in Cuba and your American phone numbers won’t work there because of the embargo. Although you can rent local lines (and should do so for your production), take a break from your phones as much as you can. Cuba is one of the last places on earth where you have the option to disconnect, and IT FEELS EXHILARATING!! Plus you’ll be more attuned to your characters and their environment.
8. Convert All Your Dollars into Another Currency (or Bring an ATM Card from Another Country)
You can exchange dollars to pesos in Cuba, but you lose 10% if you do so (which is a lot if you’re bringing a large amount of production cash with you). I normally bring in either Euros or Canadian dollars, neither of which carry the 10% penalty. Also note that one person can only carry $10,000 in cash on him/her at a time, so if you’re bringing more, make sure to split it among whomever is traveling with you. And if you know someone with a foreign bank account, see if you can deposit your production funds in their account and take their ATM card with you. You can withdraw money from dozens of ATMs all over Cuba for a nominal fee, and it saves you from having to deal with a lot of cash at hand.
9. When in Cuba...
Most Cubans love Americans and will open their doors and arms to you, but always remember that you’re a guest in their country. Bring small gifts to give your new friends, colleagues, and subjects there. Be respectful of your cultural differences. Learn about the history of Cuba to get a context of where Cuba is today. Pick up as much Spanish as you can. Read the local paper, watch the news, and listen to what people say on the streets. Soak in the culture as much as you can! And try to build in a few extra days of R&R for AFTER your shoot. You’ll need it…
10. Stay in Touch with Your New Cuban Family
Once you leave, keep in touch with your Cuban friends, colleagues, and subjects. Thanks to many new phone services, it’s cheap and easy for you (and free for them!). I promise you’ll want to return to Cuba the minute you leave, so it’s best to stay connected to your new Cuban family so that they’ll invite you back soon!
Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, who co-directed and edited DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2012). He directed and produced LUMO (POV, 2007), a documentary that won a Student Academy Award and was broadcast on PBS. He served as the co-producer and additional editor of CONTROL ROOM (Magnolia Pictures, 2004), and the associate editor of VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR (Acolyte Films, 2008). He wrote, directed and produced LES VULNERABLES (Perlmutt Productions, 2007), the closing night short of the New York FF and a grand jury prize-winner at AFI Dallas. He also edited and field-produced MAN V. VOLCANO (Market Road Films, 2011) for National Geographic Explorer.