December 16, 2015

Get Inside 'La Noche Buena': The First American Narrative Short Made in Cuba Since the Embargo

La Noche Buena by Alex Mallis
Making films is hard enough, but imagine crossing borders into embargoed territories, dealing with language barriers and dodging the U.S. Treasury.

Coming up on the one year anniversary of eased travel restrictions to Cuba, writer/director Alex Mallis releases La Noche Buena, a meditation on what it means to be a visitor in the first place.

Being a half-Cuban filmmaker based in New York, Alex Mallis has a unique perspective of the responsibility of being a guest in a foreign country. His heritage lead him to visit Cuba years ago, where the themes of La Noche Buena transpired. We chat with Alex about translating a personal experience into fiction, ducking the law, and the responsibilities of tourism.

NFS: I'm a freak for realism. I love just looking at the people milling about in the wide shots, in all of their unaware banality. This piece captured a place that I really hadn't seen before.

Alex: It's an uncommon place, it's a totally unique place. It's not third world, it's not first world. It defies expectations in many senses: the economic sense, the way the government is set up — it's actually a dictatorship — and the visual sense. The architecture of the city is Spanish Colonial but people like to say it's frozen in time, which is most visibly noticeable in the cars. Cuba has its own flavor and its own color and vibrancy — that was definitely something that attracted us to shooting there.

NFS: How long ago did the real event that inspired this story take place?

Alex: I grew up in New Hampshire — the opposite of Latino. I always felt very white, very removed from that culture that is half of me. So going to Cuba felt like that exploration, it's a shared phenomenon among a lot of Americans: coming to a point in your life where you become curious about where you came from. Often times when you go to a place for the first time you have this fairy tale image of what it might be like. But there's also the reality of every day life and the people who are there.

Shooting on the streets of Havana for La Noche Buena
DP Ed David with AC Alejandro García

One of the biggest challenges of going back was not only gripping to that false nostalgia, but also the assumptions and responsibility I felt I had subconsciously as an American with means. The means to afford to travel to a place like Cuba where [some] people make $30 / month. Just knowing that I could probably afford to just give a person $1,000 and I would be fine, and that's like giving them $100,000. You can change their life. And whether it's giving them $1,000 or just paying for a cab, these questions are tough: what responsibilities do you have as a guest in someone's country? How should you act, what should you give, and the toughest question is: what is being asked of you?

 The central question to translating any personal story into fiction is: how true to life are you going to keep it? There's so many moments packed into an experience, which ones are the most important?

NFS: How did you transpose the real event into something that would play as a story?

Alex: The central question to translating any personal story into fiction is: how true to life are you going to keep it? There's so many moments packed into an experience, which ones are the most important? Sometimes things that happen in real life don't serve a narrative, because really we're trying to boil it down to its essence. What is the idea that you're trying to do? The experience you had in real life may not be the most effective. It's a great foundation or jumping off point, and then you take that and throw it on the page. You have the liberty as a writer to change things, because you're making fiction.

NFS: How did you cast the film?

Alex: We cooperated with the Cuban Cinema Institute, and they got all the crew, permits and work visas, all the things that are required to shoot a narrative in a relatively closed country. For casting we worked with this matriarchal casting director — who is the casting director of Havana — all films go through this woman. She lives in this mansion in this beautiful spot in Havana, and she was the one through which we found our actors. It was really interesting, not only because we were seeing flat dialogue come to life through the mouth of an actual Cuban, but they all have stories that came from the themes of the film. It just reminded me that any time you're in a country dealing with tourists, these kinds of themes present themselves.

NFS: What was production like?

Alex: We wanted to do this right in the eyes of the Cubans. So we sent in our script, bios of cast and crew, submitted a budget. We had line producers, Cuban gaffers, Cuban sound guy, PAs, drivers, catering, we even have a Cuban police officer to shut down traffic because the cars were so fucking loud — and of course my amazing and talented NYC-based producer Marina Fernandez Ferri. So we were a real legit operation. We weren't hiding from anyone, we were shutting things down. We were all surprised at the level of professionalism. The gaffers we worked with in Cuba — despite the fact that they were working with three times refurbished Chinese lights — made them work so well. Super hardworking and efficient.

It was especially challenging because our (incredible) DP, Ed David doesn't speak Spanish and the gaffers don't speak English. So there was a lot of hand gesturing. It's a naturalistic feeling film but everything is super lit. We had a big crew, like 25 people or so on some of the big days. Castro and his regime have always supported the arts, of course to spread propaganda, but when all industry has been nationalized to the point where there are state funded films, directors, gaffers, sound people. Now there's even rental houses and a new generation of young filmmakers thanks to the DSLR revolution.

Car Aesthetics are frozen in time in La Noche Buena

NFS: I imagine the crews are inexpensive?

Alex: It's super cheap to shoot in Cuba, but doing it legally requires approval from the Cuban government. You have to get your story approved through the Cinema institute. That's a giant pain in the ass that can take like a year. It's super opaque, email is not super common, there's no updates, it just doesn't work at the speed of New York. But once you get approved it's relatively cheap. The average day rate of crew there is somewhere between $30-$60 / day. But of course you have to get to Cuba, and flights are not super cheap. From Miami it's like $450 for a 90 minute flight.

When you make a film I think you have to decide what you want: Do you want accolade? Return on investment? Or eyeballs?

NFS: As a director shooting in a foreign place, what kind of things are you most sensitive to when you're looking at what to capture in the real world that's there?

Alex: So many of the themes of the film — responsibility, privilege, have and have-not — were being re-enacted every day on set just because we were the American filmmakers from New York and they were the Cuban filmmakers. And everyone was aware of it, that the theme we were exploring was playing out in real time as we were shooting. The real woman who the film was based on came to set to check it out. A bizarre moment came when she was leaving that day, we were saying goodbye and we walked to the corner and I said "Here's a couple bucks for a cab." And she said "No, I'm going to take the bus, it's okay." And we kinda looked at each other right before she walked away and we had this unspoken understanding that "Wow, we just did it again. The whole thing this film is about, we just did it again." It allowed us to have this moment of mutual understanding and respect. That was a real nice moment.

Shooting on a bus in Cuba for 'La Noche Buena'
Yerlin Perez and Jordy Romero sitting in front of their real-life counterparts: Juani and her son Raciel.

NFS: What are your plans for the film now?

Alex: We've been festivaling for about 6 months, we've had a great response. It's been awesome, it's been everything a festival run should be: It's been fun, we've met a lot of people, we lived the rockstar life for a brief moment. Next week we're going to the Havana International Film Festival. It's like the Sundance of the South, we don't hear much about it here because of the embargo. Short films are tough: what do you do with it after festivals? When you make a film I think you have to decide what you want: Do you want accolade? Return on investment? Or eyeballs? You kinda have to pick one and tailor your distribution strategy to that, and to a certain extent your production strategy. For me, I just want as many people to see it as possible. So the decision was obvious, we're gonna put it online for free.

NFS: Will you shoot again in Cuba despite all the challenges and the tricky legality?

Alex: It's such a logistical challenge to shoot in another country, it just seems like a miracle that anything works at all. A country that barely has internet, that is behind a U.S. embargo, what were we thinking? At the end of the day it's a minor miracle that we were able to pull it off at all. Everything comes with its own challenges, but this makes me really think now: "What can I make in my apartment?" [laughs]

I've gotten a lot of inquiries from filmmakers about how to shoot in Cuba and the first question I ask is: "Why Cuba?" Unless they can give me a really good answer, I'm trying to dissuade them. People are obsessed with this idea of getting to a place "before it changes" and to me that's the wrong approach. You write the story about the thing you can relate to and not the other way around. I'm all for making films in Cuba but there should be a reason. It's not easy to shoot in Cuba for all the reasons I named, but also — the process we went through was illegal. The biggest reason is that you have to get approval from the U.S. Treasury department. That was the one thing we didn't do. As it was and continues to be, there's 3 ways to go to Cuba: illegally through a third country, through the U.S. under a special license, or a general license which is what we did. It's all good to stick it to the man a little bit and do this anyways. We did get a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department that was a cautionary letter, a giant finger wagging. We got lucky, I guess.     

Your Comment

19 Comments

so you go thru all that and shoot 1/2 the film in a restaurant ? IMO no very good use of locations... the entire dinner scene was painfully long and could of been cut in 1/2. the eyes looking at each other made no sense. you kept expecting *something* important to happen, but it didn't. I loved all the exteriors, very cool to see. Should of used far more of them.

December 16, 2015 at 11:43AM

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Steve Oakley
DP • Audio Mixer • Colorist • VFX Artist
476

I don't think you read the same interview i read... did you hear the challenges this guy went through to get this film shot? Have you ever shot anything outside your country where no one speaks your language? Chill out dude!

December 16, 2015 at 2:19PM

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Wentworth Kelly
DP/Colorist/Drone Op
2788

The story IS the scene at the restaurant, and something is happening, but you are not seeing it. A situation you are not gonna find in any other part of the world, probably.
For exteriors, you can search on Youtube. Like "Bourdain".

December 16, 2015 at 2:58PM

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Carlos Luis Pujol
Director of Photography
218

I have to reply to your comment my friend, I'm sorry but you didn't pay attention to the story and yes..sometimes people who doesn't know about our History cant understand it, it might b a little bit long for you the scene in the restaurant but it is indeed key for the short, me as a Cuban felt the shame of the lady when the foreigner paid (something you cant understand bec you hadn't been in that embarrassing situation)..I felt the same confusion of the guy when she was explaining the way we live and the way we got pay and even our normal salaries..so yeah, I can understand that you think is boring but let me tell you..as a DOP you should have another vision ..maybe dig in the story or read about the current Cuban situation perhaps?..dunno bro but just leave that comment without at least see further it doesn't make sense!..anyways, just for you know, that little short its the most true and real material I had seen around about our reality!..nothing about romantic ideas just straight reality about our lives and day by day. No hard feelings brother, just pointing at the right direction.

December 16, 2015 at 6:11PM

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I was the DP on this film. It was probably the most amazing film experiences of my career. Our crew in Cuba was absolutely amazing. The gaffer and key grip, and AC - Nassar and the sound mixer were amazing, beautiful people who MOVED FASTER than lightning. James Cameron worked with them and said to them that they were the fastest grip and lighting team he ever worked with. They could fix anything. We brought a few lights - mostly just rifa lights and I think a boom pole and the red one mx camera with leica r lenses. All the gear they had was left by other foreign productions. They worked for 20 years and said we were the first US film crew to shoot there. But that doesn't make that much sense if they worked with James Cameron. Oh well.

We did shoot exteriors a bunch. We had a whole day of exteriors but I think like many of those who commented here - the main important scene is the restaurant.

I miss the place greatly. Our sound mixer who was Cuban and German, said that whenever he goes away his heart misses Cuba. I wish I could say the same about Bushwick :)

December 17, 2015 at 12:53PM, Edited December 17, 12:54PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1590

Despite my pain, the short depicts accurately the awkwardness with the money and the poor people's pride in Cuba. It's something startling for many foreigners, even for nationals that has been outside Cuba and return.
Good Short, and thanks for your honest effort.

[Edit] I just watched the small video segment from the audition, and right there, RIGHT THERE, is what the short film is talking about, in blunt language.

December 16, 2015 at 2:55PM, Edited December 16, 3:08PM

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Carlos Luis Pujol
Director of Photography
218

exactly :)

December 16, 2015 at 4:14PM

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Alex Mallis
Director / DP / Editor
330

Thanks for the great interview and post, Micah!

December 16, 2015 at 4:14PM

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Alex Mallis
Director / DP / Editor
330

My pleasure. Just be sure to invite me to Cuba next time you shoot there, lol

December 16, 2015 at 6:29PM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

Nice to see all the place i saw during four years !
Viana, Luis, Ruben y Jorge en la peli ! Excelente.
Next time call me if you want to make an other movie !!!!

December 17, 2015 at 12:48AM, Edited December 17, 12:48AM

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Martin Flament
Director of Photography
170

It's the most annoying Westerner's belief and approach to throw money at everyone just because they can, something that has spoiled so many places. When people become dependent on it, that's quickly moving to the forefront in any (at least initial) relationship between a foreigner and a local.

Like, why should a bus be worse than a cab unless someone is living in a really remote place?

December 17, 2015 at 3:33PM, Edited December 17, 3:33PM

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zetty
Filmmaker
834

The director likes to refer to the Cuban government as a regime and Cuba: "it's actually a dictatorship".

This is far from reality and just plain stupid. He then goes on to describe how amazing the place, people and crew were. If its a dictatorship, how could this be possible? Apparently only capitalism can create art, freedom and film? Total bullshit attitude.

The film is supposed to be about privilege? The director sounds like he's up his own backside. By his own admission apparently coming from a 'white' town somewhere.

Why use this language to describe Cuba - as if the US is some kind of system/empire/imperialism with which he can stand in his ivory tower and look down on what Cuba is achieving every year it fights to build its socialist way.

Never forget - the US is blockading Cuba's economy (YES even today) and tried to invade it in the 60s (bay of pigs- playa giron) - why? What did Cuba do to deserve this? Why would the US blockade a country - wouldn't this harm 'freedom'?

In fact Cuba is a society far more advanced than the US.

And yes before you jump to attack me - Ive been to Cuba, know Cubans and studied the system for about 8 years.

December 18, 2015 at 9:09AM

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Tony B
Director | Editor
74

Aww, Tony B, this is easy:

When you can't think by yourself
When the future no longer holds anything for you and you feel the need to escape wether leaving the country, enclosing yourself mentally or killing yourself
When there is a house IN EVERY BLOCK OF THE COUNTRY that informs the government of their movements and holds them accountable for their digression and/or hate of communism ideology
When the average wage is the lowest in the world (25 per month) and you can't dream nothing more than a restaurant of 16 chairs,
When a big dream is being a baseball player and leave the country, or any other professional activity that will allow you to take a plane and leave, doesn't matter to where, Haiti or Siberia
When a foreigner has more rights than you, a national living in your birth country
When you have to go as a hard duty to all those marches supporting the "Revolution" because if you don't, you, or some or your people in your family, will face lost of job, the acceptance of college won't get through...
When you can't choose your president
When that president/party has been in the same position for six decades
When the government mobs and destroy the homes of those who think differently and have the courage to show
When you incarcerate/harass/beat pacific protests of women mourning their husbands in prison for the crime of wanting a change
When you commit genocide with people wanting to leave the country
When you start your "Revolution" passing by arms 5000 people from the previous government, without trial, and televising them
When your "Revolution" is based in Taking away (nationalize) all private property to big and small business (could be an industry or just a mom and pop cafe), and making all people poor the same
When you have an international drug smuggling ring at government level partnering Noriega and FARC but you get caught and the only way to avoid an american invasion is court martialing and killing your most brilliant general, making him take all the blame
When your unconditional allies are North Korea, FARC, Iran, USSR and every dictatorship that exist over the face of the earth
When the country has 11 million people but a 5th of the population left the country, and another unknown millions want to do the same
When you own all Media, and the only news that get into the country about the outside world are the bad news and tragedies
When thousands and thousands of Cubans can't get back to their own country because the government considers that their committed treason at the moment they decided to leave
For this, and much much more, Tony B, in Cuba there is a Dictatorship.
I don't know what country you were in, and how "You studied the system", but is totally different when you are a foreigner than when you are a mere national. You are a privileged.
IF you know history, the embargo started as a center measure of the nationalizations of American property that the cuban regime took, and never paid back a dime. Also, you should know, because you "studied the system", USA and Cuba never stopped to have a regulated trade, but in cash, no credit, for the simple reason that Cuban Government never pays back.
I lived 32 years over there, and I think I speak for millions.

However, to those reading this, i still think is a great country for visiting, and those who can, should go. Despite everything, we are a bunch of heartwarming people.

December 21, 2015 at 5:19PM, Edited December 21, 5:26PM

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Carlos Luis Pujol
Director of Photography
218

Excellent... enjoyed the depiction of the kindness and attention of the young man toward the woman and her son. The lighting, the mood, the pace of curious conversation between two strangers just made his blunder much more forgivable. I love that you supported the epic kindness shown from the heart rather than our culture of crass, narcissistic behavior so often portrayed.

December 20, 2015 at 12:45PM

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James David Phenicie
Director, photographer, producer
81

Wow, everything the main charachter did or said in this short was so awkward, it was embarrasing to watch. Could anyone actually be that clueless in real life? If this is reality, it's not a reality that I recognize or would want to witness.

In 1970 I spent a couple of weeks in Guadalajara on a vacation after I graduated from college. My total budget was $80 including transportation from LA to Guadalajara by bus and train. At a coffee bar, I met 4 vacationing young female school teachers from Chihuahua and 3 local men who had met the girls the night before. I became the fourth man in the group and hung out with them for the remainder of my vacation. It was the best vacation of my life.

Conditions in Guadalajara at the time were similar to what was shown in this short. At 22 pesos to the dollar, a nice hotel room was $4 a night, a steak dinner with beers was a dollar, and a fresh hero sandwich from a street vendor was 8 cents.
I only knew a few words of Spanish but was able to fit in and have a great time eating and drinking and driving around the countryside to places like the waterfall at Lake Chapala about 25 miles south of the city, in the two cars belonging to the local men.
What would have made a much better short was if the main character had accepted the lady's hospitality and had a great party at her house before leaving, experiencing local life, and redeeming his awkward, up tight actions of the previous night. If he was worried about her paying for it, he could have left her with a hundred dollars as a gift from his mother.

In Guadalajara, there was a Woolworths, and American tourists would have a crappy Woolworth's lunch there, paying US prices for food, about 10x what local restaurants provided at 1/10 the cost. People who don't want to get immersed in local cultures come off as "Ugly Americans" and this seems to be exactly what was portrayed.

December 23, 2015 at 2:27PM

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bobspez
Retired unix sys admin
173

The video of her audition is a film onto itself. She is really captivating and the story she is telling works on so many levels. It's political without taking about politics. And as for the film, she is wonderful in it. She is in fact the best part of the film. She is simultaneously nuanced and emotional. Not an easy feat to pull off.

I liked the film. I loved her in it. You should be grateful to have found her and you should be commended for realizing what you found and casting her.

January 29, 2016 at 2:35PM

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jfc
Director/Writer
238

I watched this video for 4 minutes then i shared it on facebook before i finished watching it. It's not just a good Short film, Its depicts realism in that truly uncomfortable manor that places you into the scene. and that's what i loved.

I felt this film captured the essence of the audition video, Where it hits close to home. and shows the ignorance many of us have been guilty of while having the best intentions, when believing somebody who has less than us, Needs our help, Or when a person who has more than us, believes we need theirs when we are fine making due with what we have..

i love this short. and I thank you and your entire cast and crew for making this happen,

February 15, 2016 at 12:21PM, Edited February 15, 12:21PM

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thanks for the thoughtful comment, darren. means a lot :)

March 18, 2016 at 10:29AM

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Alex Mallis
Director / DP / Editor
330

The photography is great. I'm disappointed that no one has asked what camera and film stock was used yet. Can anyone answer that? :)

February 7, 2018 at 9:19AM

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STANLEY SARINGO
Filmmaker
79