Sibling Harmony

One of the most popular recent documentaries on the subject of Cuba has been Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s “Los Hermanos” (The Brothers), which tracks the progress of two brothers, Aldo and Ilmar López-Gavilán, who are united by their musical interests, yet separated by their parallel lives in Cuba and the U.S. The subject of Cuban exile is a potent one in Cuban society; Jamel and Schneider’s film is unusual in its sympathy for showing both sides of the divide, being an American rather than a Cuban film, and for exploring the parallel trajectories of Cuban music, in both the classical tradition and jazz, for which the island is renowned.

Brian Beadie spoke to the film’s directors, Marcia and Ken ahead of its screening at HGFF, about the complexities of making a film about the subject as American filmmakers.

How did you acquire an interest in Cuba?

A family story originally brought us to Cuba, where Ken’s dad was given shelter as a refugee child from Nazi Germany, when the doors to the U. S. were closed to him. Our first Cuban film, “Havana Curveball”, follows the humbling lessons our son learned in his efforts to thank Cuba 60 years later by sending baseball gear to kids who share his love of the game. Since the diplomatic shift in December 2014, we’ve seen things begin to change. More American tourists. More money. W-fi. A palpable sense of possibility—and concern that core Cuban values would be threatened. When we toured Cuba with “Havana Curveball” in the spring of 2015, we were concerned about how Cubans would respond to this story of an idealistic and perhaps naive middle class teen from the U.S. Criss-crossing the island for two weeks on a bus of Cuban artists, thought leaders, and pop stars, we found instead open hearts, open minds, and the building of deep friendships with a broad range of Cubans. A year later, the death of Fidel and the ascent of Donald Trump changed the landscape of US-Cuba relations, and the prospects for the brothers. Today it is harder than ever for Cubans and Americans to cross borders. Americans still know little of one of their closest neighbours, likening Cuba to either an island paradise or socialist prison. We rarely hear the perspectives of Cubans themselves. The Cubans we know are deeply proud of their values, their artistic achievements, their way of life. They want change—and self-determination. 

How did you hear about the brothers?

On one of my (Ken’s) earliest journeys to the island, I attended opening night of the Havana Jazz Fest, and was so moved by the performance that I stayed afterwards to eat and drink with the musicians and their families. I met Aldo, the pianist in our film, and was very taken by him. In the coming years I saw other performances of his in Havana, and when I heard of his violinist brother in the New York area, we made it a priority to meet him. While presenting a short Cuban-themed film in New York, we met Ilmar and learned that Aldo would soon travel to the US for their first ever US tour—made possible only due to the political moment of Obama’s loosening of embargo-imposed restrictions.

What difficulties did you find – if any – with filming in Cuba?

Our biggest challenges arose from travel restrictions imposed by the US embargo on both Cubans travelling to the US and Americans travelling to Cuba. The regulations changed during the years we made the film, requiring us to be nimble and creative in our production planning.

The film touches on the issue of the U.S.’s embargo on Cuba – how has this affected the island, and how do you see that developing in the future?

The US embargo of Cuba, enacted in 1962, has extracted a huge toll on Cuba, its economy and its people. In Cuba it is called “el bloqueo,” the blockade, which is accurate, as other nations are punished by the US if they do not join the US embargo. Sadly, as long as Florida, home to the largest Cuban-American population, is “in play” in US presidential elections, we are unlikely to see a change in U.S. policy.

How much do Americans know about Cuba, and how do your films help them learn more? How do you present these issues to an American audience?

We have found that many Americans do not have a nuanced understanding of the historic and contemporary contexts of the US/Cuba story. Our film focuses on cultural exchange, family, and music. While the politics are there, they are embedded in the story, not foregrounded. Viewers can learn the rough outlines of the political and feel the costs on a personal level. 

Many things that function well in America (infrastructure, easy access to goods) do not work so well in Cuba. Conversely, some of America’s greatest challenges (universal access to healthcare, homelessness) are not problems in Cuba.

The film powerfully explores one of the central issues in contemporary Cuba – the divisions between those who’ve stayed on the island, and those who’ve moved to the U.S. What are your thoughts on this process?

This is another place where we see nuance. Many Americans feel that families and friends living on opposite sides of this geopolitical divide hate each other. In our film, each brother loves his own country, loves each other’s country, and loves each other. This is not uncommon. Of course, they made different choices—choices that reflect core values and aspirations. 

The film also explores the centrality of music in Cuban culture, and its power to transcend barriers. What are your thoughts on Cuban music, and how it relates to Cuban society or identity?

Cuba punches above its weight in art and sport. The island of 12 M has outsized influence on world music and dance, both of which are woven into Cuban identity. And while many American viewers will know about Cuban pop, jazz, and reggaeton, few know Cuban classical music. We are delighted to be able to introduce this music to US audiences. Where politics fail, culture often succeeds.

How has the film been received, and how have you helped it find an audience?

The film has had a good run in festivals, broadcast (both US and Europe), and in the music world. Our favourite screenings have been pairings in which the film is shown in a programme that includes a performance by the brothers. 

The festival, alas, can’t afford to bring the brothers over for a gig, but we’re sure it’ll find a receptive audience, as the closing film of this year’s Havana Glasgow Film Festival.

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