cuba's consul general is noddingalong to the beat with a giant grin on his face.It's near the end of a private screening of Spirits Of Havana, the new NFB-funded documentary about Toronto saxophonist Jane Bunnett and her ongoing love affair with Cuba and its music. In the film, Bunnett and her crew have arrived at a conservatory in Camaguey where they will teach jazz and repair instruments. The students greet them, singing loudly about "socialist art" and giving thanks to "the proletariat masses to whom we owe everything" in front of a photo of Fidel.
The force-fed lines get a chuckle from the family, friends and crew members stuffed into the John Spotton Theatre for the film's Toronto debut -- Spirits Of Havana should get a proper theatrical release this spring -- but our man nods seriously, caught up in the music, the message or both.
No wonder. It's pretty hard to shoot a bad film about Cuba. The country, in particular Havana, seems like a living movie, filled with crumbling buildings, cars held together with twine, a dozen bizarre characters down every tiny side street. Still, Spirits Of Havana is a beautiful film to look at and listen to.
The two-hour doc follows Bunnett and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, and a busful of Cuban musicians as they travel down the empty Autopista from one end of the country to the other, stopping in towns along the way to jam with the locals.
Bunnett remarks that travelling as a musician opens doors and creates relationships that would be impossible without an instrument, and she's right. Cubans are famously friendly, and Bunnett seems to be immediately welcomed into ensembles that have been together for 70 years, even getting the police to help quiet down a square while she records with astonishing Cuban/Haitian choral group Desandann.
Like her Cuban jazz records, the film will inevitably be compared to Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club empire, but there are crucial differences.
Bunnett's work is half as slick, and while both try to show how great the island's music is, the saxophonist does it without reducing the story to a string of cliches about old, forgotten musicians and a country that doesn't seem to appreciate its own talent. The consul general probably appreciates that.
What most of Bunnett's friends and family in the cramped screening room no doubt appreciate is that the film also reaffirms the degree of accommodation that goes into Bunnett's collaborations.
Purists might blow her off as simply another North American jazzbo swooping in and having her way with Cuban musicians, but during her session with legendary Afro-Cuban ensemble Los Munequitos de Matanzas, it's painfully obvious who's in charge. At one point, leader Jesùs Miro cuts off Bunnett's soloing and politely but firmly tells her when to come in and when to stop playing. The audience roars with laughter, but only after Bunnett herself chuckles onscreen at the complexities of the music.
After being knocked out by the music and the setting, though, I actually left the screening room a little shocked.
By their own estimate, Bunnett and Cramer have been working regularly in Cuba for almost 20 years -- they're there now, recording and working on a book -- yet neither of them is fluent in Spanish. It's astonishing.
Broken Spanglish conversations are scattered throughout Spirits Of Havana, but the barrier becomes most obvious when Bunnett heads into a hairstylist's for a trim before a concert. Lacking a translator, she ends up frantically thumbing through a Latin American Spanish dictionary trying to describe what she wants while stylists look on dumbstruck.
The fear is familiar.
During a trip to Havana in December, I thought about how cool it would be to get a haircut at the barbershop -- which was actually some old guy's front porch -- down the street from where we were staying. Not confident in my broken Spanish and for fear of coming back to a Canadian winter totally bald, though, I chickened out before I got to the chair.
Perhaps Bunnett should have done the same. She ends up leaving the shop with a bizarre bob and a gallon of gothic makeup around her eyes.
"What a disaster," Cramer groans. firstname.lastname@example.org