Transit Havana (2016): Written by Alex Bakker and directed by Daniel Abma. Starring: Malu Cano Valladeres, Giselle Odette Diogenes Dominguez Rodriguez, and Juani Santos Perez. Running Time: 86 minutes.
Transit Havana is a film that’s supposed to be about the experience of trans-peoples in the city of Havana, but quite often, it unintentionally morphs into a fascinating tableau piece about daily life in Cuba under the Castros. Much like last year’s Taxi, it’s a remarkable glimpse into a country and culture Americans rarely get to see. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I find it difficult to separate my identity as an American from my feelings towards the film itself, since what often piqued my curiosity the most were the parts that had less to do with the transwoman ostensibly at its core. This is exacerbated somewhat by the film’s own relative lack of focus.
The core of the documentary is a small group of trans-people, including the first known trans-man (who still lives), in Cuban history. Most of the film consists of simple, slice-of-life glimpses of their daily routines, what sort of jobs they have, and what particular personal challenges they’ve had to encounter in trying to manage their transition.
Like many other countries struggling over trans-rights, Cuba is a deeply religious nation, with the Catholic Church serving as a major bedrock of the culture, and one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film illuminates this, when one of the women in question fights with her mother (who has, apparently, never stopped referring to her as “her son”) over her identity, what the priest has to say about it, and whether or not she really is and/or wants to be a woman. Indeed, the constant struggle between personal progressivism and socially-religious conservatism is an obvious point of similarity between Cuban and American culture, political differences notwithstanding.
Another side focus of the film is the active role Mariela Castro, a niece of Fidel Castro, plays in the trans-rights movement. She takes a prominent place in rights marches, regularly gives interviews on the topic, engages the services of European doctors for full sex change operations, and is the head of Cenesex, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, a governing body that largely dedicates itself to promoting awareness of LGBT issues.
Here’s where my Americanness comes into play- it is simply fascinating to me to see a relative of Fidel Castro so prominently featuring in such a progressive cause. It’s also equally fascinating to hear every third sentence she says in interviews bookended with some variant of “because socialism is the salvation of humanity, of course.” You can tell this is a rehearsed statement she has made countless times before.
Another bit potent with meaning covers initial reactions of everyone to the announcement of the recent US-Cuba rapprochement. I know I was psyched when I first heard about it, and it’s interest to see that, from the other side, I was not the only person to respond positively. It’s clear that what all these people want more than anything is simply a better and more secure life for themselves and their loved ones, be it from a Socialist Utopia or no.
More often than not, the trans-issues within the film almost feel like an afterthought. They are there, but their moments of power or insight into the nature of the fight for trans-rights in Cuba are scattered, and overshadowed by the moments where the director seemingly decided to just sit the camera down and observe regular Cubans going about the city, often in rather baffling slow-mo. Little is explained about the relationships its subjects have with each other, what groups they are involved in, etc. etc. Which I found to be a shame, because a better focus and more info provided to us about the people we were seeing could have made the film more impactful than it is.
The best documentaries introduce us to the stories, or at least parts of the stories, of individual lives of particular uniqueness or interest, and there are plenty of people of interest to be found here. Telling their stories of pain, struggle, and self-discovery is particularly important in these seemingly regressive times. I just wish they could have been in a movie that slightly better does their tales justice.