Wednesday, January 13, 2016

First Look ’16: This Is What It Is

They want to reclaim the term “revolution” from those who have misappropriated it. Of course, the Cuban government knows that means them. However, the Havana based hip hop duo Los Aldeanos is reluctant to be cast as a symbol of anti-government resistance. They walk a fine line as they build their street level fanbase despite heavy Communist censorship. Léa Rinaldi documents their rise and growing pains in This Is What It Is (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 edition of First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

For years, the French Rinaldi followed Aldo Roberto Rodríguez Baquero (“El Aldeano”) and Bian Oscar Rodríguez Gala (“El B”), returning frequently as a supposed tourist. Ironically, a tourist with camera is given free rein in hard-currency starved Cuba, but any sort of journalist will be tightly regulated and monitored. In fact, the extent to which the supposedly egalitarian society has sold its soul to European tourists is a frequent theme in Los Aldeanos’s raps.

Without question, many of their tracks take square aim at the Castro regime, but they also harshly criticize the gangster mentality and lack of personal responsibility that have contributed to the social pathologies surrounding them. Clearly, Los Aldeanos have engaged in a balancing act, talking truth to power without coming across overtly partisan.

This has often left them in a bizarre legal no man’s land. Early in Rinaldi’s film, the duo attends the opening of another documentary about them, noting the odd paradox that the film was not censored but their music is still prohibited. Likewise, they really do not see the logic when the government grants Los Aldeanos visas to perform internationally as part of their new-fangled cultural exchange overtures to the West, but still denies them the right to hold concerts in Cuba.

Obviously, the government is using them to some extent, but Rinaldi and Los Aldeanos are more concerned about the Miami expatriate community’s eagerness to embrace them as artistic dissenters. Not surprisingly, when they make a show of rejecting that role, many in the Cuban-American community turn on them, but what did they expect?

Frankly, it is hard to fully gather what sort of takeaway Rinaldi intended, but it is dashed difficult to maintain any illusions about the quality of life in Cuban from what she captures. Poverty is deep and widespread, while Euro tourism is problematically, perhaps even predatorily, exploitative. It is also fascinating to see the underground distribution network Los Aldeanos has developed. The film might just be more honest than Rinaldi expected, recording state censorship in action just when she was hoping to film their moment of triumph.

The English title is rather fitting. The censorship and poverty that make their way into Rinaldi frame are very much what Castro’s Cuba is all about. Los Aldeanos’s dark lyrics directly and evocatively reflect that reality. Unfortunately, they are not always the most charismatic screen presences, particularly El B, who often seems to dissolve into the background. It is impossible to secretly film this much of Cuba’s oppressed underclass and come away with a dull film, but Rinaldi frequently seems to be looking for irony in the wrong places. Flawed but still worth viewing with a critical eye, This Is What It Is screens Friday (1/15), as part of this year’s First Look at MoMI.