Images speak louder than words in Cuba, perhaps more so than in any other country. But the new documentary Patria o Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland, or Death wants little to do with the iconography of Che Guevara or rum-soaked Havana. Instead, the film is steeped in pictures of a country in ruin, of crumbling buildings and suffering mothers. "Cuba is a very visual and exhibitionist country," says one of the film’s subjects. "But propaganda hides the true reality of the moment."
And it’s that very trend in Cuban media that director Olatz López Garmendia hopes to upend with her new film. With Patria o Muerte, which premiered at the New York Film Festival in early October and airs tonight on HBO, she points her lens squarely at a part of Cuba she feels is underrepresented.
Prior to Fidel Castro’s death, recent headlines about Cuba have focused on its normalization of relations with the United States and the positive consequences that could bring. But over the course of its hourlong runtime, Patria o Muerte howls through the din with a stark presentation of life on the island. What follows is a series of interviews, sometimes heavy-handed in its relentless despondency but never disingenuous, that depicts the "true reality" of hopelessness in a nation historically closed off from the world.
Though born in Spain and raised in France, Garmendia says she always had an interest in the Caribbean island. Raised by exiled politicians, she learned to seek out the unseen and underserved parts of the country. It wasn’t until she visited Havana during the economic depression of the post-Soviet Special Period that she witnessed firsthand the disconnect between the beauty and exoticism she had seen in movies and the near-total collapse in front of her. "I had never seen anything like that before," she says. "There was no food. There were no cars. The city was falling apart."
Subsequent visits, notably one while filming and starring in 2000’s Before Night Falls (directed by former husband and Patria o Muerte executive producer Julian Schnabel), cemented the idea of Cuba as a country that needed its story told. But by the time she set out to work on her directorial debut, Garmendia had an approach that ended up never making it to the final product. "Actually for four years, I was looking for somebody who would tell me great things about the [Cuban] system," she says. "My idea was not to make a unilateral film. I didn’t want to tell one side of the story."
That vision evolved, however, as she came to understand how difficult it would be to work in a country where all media is controlled by the government. Even when her first filming trip was approved, Garmendia remembers feeling "supervised" and unable to shoot with any authenticity. It wasn’t until permission for her second trip was rejected (ostensibly because of then-Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the country) that she realized it was easier to work free of oversight—so she filmed anyway.
Working clandestinely gave her candid access to subjects she might not have otherwise met with in an official capacity. Patria o Muerte balances interviews with artists, singers, writers, and activists with those of regular people, such as Mercedes, a mother whose home had become so dangerous that the floor collapsed under her eight-year-old son’s feet. Those moments with ordinary citizens were both the easiest to find ("People who are having a hard time are always ready to talk to you, especially if they have something to denounce.") and the trickiest to pull off in cities with heightened surveillance. "There are cameras on every corner; there are secret police everywhere. You can’t just interview someone on the street," Garmendia says. "Sometimes it felt like I was kidnapping these people."
The Cuban government looms in every frame of the film, from shots of a decrepit Havana juxtaposed with a recording of a triumphant Fidel Castro speech to discreet interviews conducted in cramped and deteriorating living quarters. Over the four years of filming, Garmendia had to contend with multiple logistical nightmares; she eventually came to rely on friends and family traveling in and out of Cuba to get her illicit footage across borders.
Yet those roadblocks were a small price to pay in exchange for adding perspective to a misunderstood country’s history, one Garmendia grew up studying intimately. "My father was a big left sympathizer. He and many people had a nostalgic view of the Cuban Revolution, which, in that moment, was a dream for everybody," she says. "Not a lot of people saw what that utopia would become."
Patria o Muerte takes the task of filling in those gaps. Rather than perpetuating the mythology of revolution and Castro and Guevara, the film peels back that romantic veneer and reveals the oppression felt across Cuba. And though Garmendia concedes that her documentary became the type of one-sided portrayal she had set out to avoid, she also argues her subjects may represent a greater truth.
"I know people in Cuba who have some privilege, who may not have such a hard time," she says. "But that doesn’t mean they agree with the system either. They have better lives and maybe they just preferred not to talk on camera."
Garmendia doesn’t worry about what the Cuban government will think of her film ("I’m not planning to go there tomorrow.") nor does she harbor any false illusions that it will mark a watershed moment in media representation of Cuba. But she does believe change, however incremental, will come. The thawing relationship with the United States will likely play a big part in that, as tourists see the country for the first time. "As soon as you start talking to Cuban people, you see what’s going on," she says. "You would have to be blind not to see it."
Patria o Muerte essentially ends on that note, showing footage of President Obama’s speech regarding the reconciliation against shots of visitors arriving on the island. But the film functions as more than just an introduction to outsiders; it’s also a call to action for the Cuban people themselves, a reminder that change, however small, begins at home—even just by telling their truth.
"People in this country have lost the notion that they have rights," says an activist in one of the film’s most striking moments. "And they have no idea that they are the protagonists of the reality in which they live."