Monday, March 21, 2022

Havana Libre: “Underground” Surfing in Cuba

When your island nation is a prison-like police state, the authorities are not big on water sports. Unfortunately, for Cuba’s surfers, that means their sport is not officially recognized and therefore prohibited. Surfing to Miami would be quite a feat, but apparently the Cuban regime believes they could motivate their people to do it. Regardless, Cuban surfers just want to surf. From handcrafting their own boards to Kafkaesque attempts to petition the government sports agency for recognition, Cubans do their best to develop the sport in Corey McLean’s documentary, Havana Libre, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Perversely, the currents that make passage to Miami so treacherous, produce some pretty lame waves around Havana. The intrepid band of surfers McLean follows scout around the island’s coastline, looking for better action. Again, quite perversely, the waves around the forbidden no man’s land of Guantanamo look tantalizingly promising.

Still, they manage to sleuth out some passable beaches, where they record videos that go viral. As a result, Frank and his wife get invited to a conference in Hawaii. He even gets a shot at competing in an official Olympics-qualifying tournament. Naturally, INDER, the Cuban sports agency prohibits him from participating, even though the pursuit of Olympic glory is the agency’s top priority.

There is some picturesque footage of Havana and some nice surfing scenes, but
Libre was not intended to be another Endless Summer. We also get a keen sense of the crippling poverty brought on by Castro’s socialism and the ruthlessly controlling nature of its government, but this comes through inevitably but almost incidentally. McClean clearly framed the film with INDER and its masters in mind. Throughout the film, he tries to convince them to help the surfers help Cuba. That is all very reasonable and admirable, but viewers need to keep that in mind.

Libre is not an expose, but a film like this would not be necessary if Cuba were a functional society with a just governing system. Instead, we see the surfers stymied repeatedly by absurd roadblocks. It just shouldn’t be this hard to surf.

Havana Libre inadvertently offers a keen critique of the Cuban system. Even though INDER has a pool of talent eager to represent Cuba internationally, we hear they are instead grooming naval sailors and Olympic swimmers as potential Olympic surfers. Obviously, those would be people they could control, despite lacking passion and experience. This is what happens when governments have absolute control over labor and resources. As always, it is the Cuban people’s loss. McLean and company humanize and help us root for them (but not their oppressive government). Recommended for fans of surfing and real-life, real-people sports documentaries, Havana Libre releases tomorrow (3/22) on VOD.