ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Filming in Havana, Cuba, was never going to be easy.
Yet Sergio Navarretta never gave up hope.
Navarretta and his production crew filmed in Canada first and waited for time to be cleared in Cuba.
“We purposely left the Cuba scenes towards the end,” Navarretta says. “Having that as a location was always in the back of our minds.”
Navarretta was at the helm of the film, “The Cuban,” which stars Louis Gossett Jr.
The film was released on July 31 and is currently being streamed online at guildcinema.com.
“The Cuban” follows 19-year-old Mina Ayoub, who is a pre-med student and has given up her dream of becoming a singer.
Orphaned as a baby in Afghanistan, Mina’s grandfather sent her to Canada at the age of 8 to live with a lone aunt, Bano.
A former doctor herself, Bano wants nothing more than to see her own dreams fulfilled through her niece, and she pressures her to pursue a career in medicine. Although she dutifully complies, Mina’s heart isn’t in it, and she longs to return to a better time when, as a child, she and her grandfather would sing and play music together.
Mina works part time in a long-term care facility, where she meets Luis.
Luis is one of Mina’s most enigmatic patients – he spends his time in a wheelchair in a quiet corner of the room, retreated inside his own mind. He has no visitors, and Mina can relate to his solitude.
A poster of Benny Moré inspires Mina to hum a jazz tune that, to her surprise, ignites a spark inside him.
Luis reacts, reminisces, dances, reveals his incredible life as a famous musician in Cuba, and talks about the one great love who was left behind. As their friendship blossoms, Mina gradually comes into her own and even begins to enjoy life and friends and a new boyfriend. Through Luis, Mina remembers her grandfather back home, and reconnects with her own love of music.
“Mina is a perfect character in my eyes,” Navarretta says. “We can empathize with her journey, whether you are a new immigrant in the country or disenfranchised. You can relate to her challenges and struggles. Luis helps her come into her own and that’s who she really is.”
Navarretta says the film has two messages – to follow your dreams and to look at the relationships that we have with our elders.
“Louis has so much energy and passion and he passes on his experience to the next generation,” Navarretta says. “That’s something we need to value in society. We need to take a hard look at this and realize that we can learn from all people.”
Navarretta’s extensive search for a director of photography with the right artistic sensibility for the project led him to Mexican-Canadian cinematographer, Celiana Cárdenas.
“I didn’t just want someone who was a technical expert,” Navarretta explains. “I was searching for an artist. And Celiana, of course, is both.”
Navarretta and Cárdenas worked closely to develop the film’s visual language, and even sought vintage 1960s Cooke Panchro lenses to create the nostalgic look of the world inside Luis’ mind.
If the solid cast wasn’t enough, Navarretta was able to bring in the infectious beats of Afro Cuban Jazz.
In the film, music dissolves the boundaries of age, ethnicity, gender, culture and politics.
Navarretta says it bridges the present with the past and has the power to trigger memory and awaken long-forgotten emotions.
The film’s soundtrack was composed by multi Juno Award winner and Grammy nominated artist, Hilario Durán. Durán grew up and received his musical training in Havana, and has since gone on to work with legendary musicians such as Chucho Valdés, Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval.
The soundtrack was recorded prior to production, and features star musicians like Alexis Baro as well as vocals by Alberto Alberto and lead actor Ana Golja.
In addition to being featured in the movie, Durán’s soundtrack was used to create a joyful atmosphere on set.
According to Giacomo Gianniotti, “Sergio, our director, between takes always had Cuban jazz playing to keep the set alive which was fun.”
In spite of it being a difficult shoot with a gruelling schedule, the on-set experience was overwhelmingly positive. “Working with Sergio Navarretta,” says Shohreh Aghdashloo, “was one of the best experiences of my life. And you’ve got to realize, I’ve worked 41 years now.”