Q&A with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt '07SOA

Alumni Artist

Q&A with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt '07SOA

Director of Documentary Film Havana Motor Club

Last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, we celebrated the premiere of Havana Motor Club, a documentary film by director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt ‘07SOA (Film Program). If you missed it last year, the film is currently available on iTunes and will be showing at select theatres in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York on April 8.

Havana Motor Club tells a personal story about Cuba’s vibrant community of underground drag racers and their quest to hold Cuba’s first official car race. It tackles  how Cuba’s recent reforms  — the  owning  of property, allowance of small businesses, and  greater exchange between Cubans, Cuban Americans, tourists, and  other foreigners — have  affected the  lives of these racers  and  their families. Through the experiences of these racers and their community, Havana Motor Club explores how Cuba is changing today and what its future holds in light of the Obama Administration’s recent move to normalize relations with the island nation.

Q&A with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt

Q) How did you choose the topic of racing in Cuba as the basis to make this documentary?

I’ve been working in Cuba on various film projects since 2008. Each project has centered on trying to capture the reforms that have been happening in Cuba since Raul Castro took over power from his brother Fidel. In January of 2012, while I was developing a script set in Havana, I was invited to an event at the “Amigos de Fangio” car club where they were celebrating the kidnapping of Argentine Formula One racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio. During the event, they announced that in just six weeks, Cuba would be holding its first official car race since shortly after the Revolution. I thought that focusing on the lives of Cuban underground drag racers who were preparing their classic American hot rods for this historic race would be an exciting way to explore change in Cuba, as well as Cuba’s dynamic relationship to the United States.

Q) What type of cars are featured in the film and did you find they were an extension of the drivers?

All of our racers drive 1950’s-era Fords and Chevy’s, very similar to many of the stock cars that were used in the early days of NASCAR racing. Most of these classics look like original models on the surface, but when you lift open their hoods, you'll discover a Frankenstein of parts from many different eras and regions, as well as home-made inventions. Because of the U.S. Embargo, Cubans can’t legally buy American parts for these vintage cars, so they must make due with parts from other companies, or create their own parts. These cars and their owners all demonstrate Cuban ingenuity in spite of the crippling U.S. Embargo. They also show the fierce and rebellious independence that the racers possess, as each of their cars is specifically tailored to their owner's style and taste.

One of our racers, Carlos, also drives a 1980’s-era Porsche that was smuggled in from the U.S. and is owned by a wealthy Cuban American based in Miami named Saul. Like their Porsche, Carlos and Saul represent the powerful influence the U.S. has in Cuba since Obama normalized relations, and how American dollars threaten to change the face of racing in Cuba today.

Q) How important is car culture to Cubans?

Cubans have always loved their classic American cars, which have been cruising down the streets ever since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In Havana, car clubs are not only devoted to these vintage cars, but also to other popular vehicles such as Russian Ladas, Fiats, “Polski’s,” and even Harley Davidsons. Practically speaking, classic cars are one of the cheapest ways for Cubans to get around Havana since most of them are used as a shared-taxi service that will go anywhere in the city for less than 50 cents. These taxis are mostly old clunkers that can barely function, but because there are so many of them on the streets of Havana, they form a “rolling” vintage car museum that helps give Havana its allure.

Many business-savvy Cubans have also learned that fixing these old cars up with paint jobs and polished chrome allow them to take tourists around town in style (and for a much larger amount of money than the shared-taxi services).  Other Cubans see them as their ticket out of poverty and maintain them in pristine condition for the day when they'll be able to sell them at a high price. And then of course there are the racers of Havana Motor Club who not only maintain their vintage cars, but also enhance them for drag racing.

Q) Can you describe the fine line between the passion as competitors and the bond of friendship between the drivers?

Several car clubs in Havana hang banners that read, “Rivals on the track, friends for life.” When it comes to racing, all of these guys are hyper-competitive with one another, but they've also formed a bond as rebellious underground drag racers who are all fighting to legitimize their sport.

Q) Where there other drivers that you followed that didn’t make the cut in the final version of the film?

There are hundreds of underground drag racers in Cuba, but only a handful who are skilled and resourceful enough to prep and race the classic American V8’s. We first decided to focus only on those racers, and as we got farther along in shooting, we ended up only focusing on the four most compelling racers who each represented a different perspective on the changes happening in Cuba today. As you'll see in the film, there are many other racers who make an appearance, but we felt they served better as supporting characters than our four main racers.

Q) Did you run into any government intervention while making the film?

One of the government's requirements to making this film was that we had to have a Cuban “producer” with us at all times. We were therefore assigned a young guy named Marcel who worked for the Cuban Film Commission known as “ICAIC.” At first we thought he was going to censor and restrict what we could film, but then we quickly discovered that he'd be one of our greatest assets in penetrating the secretive, tight-knit community of underground Cuban drag racers. Marcel happened to know all the racers already just from growing up, so having him as part of our team helped us gain the racers’ trust and confidence that we were not out to make a film that would exploit them or put them in any danger. And the added bonus with Marcel was that he had a car and knew Havana like the back of his hand.

Q) How will this film resonate with people who either live/lived in Cuba or have traveled there?

I’ve been traveling to Cuba since 2000 and have seen it change dramatically over the years. I wanted to capture this change in Havana Motor Club through the unique perspective of Cuban drag racers who form an underground community that most Cubans themselves didn't even know existed. I feel like this community represents a sub-culture that all Cubans and people who know Cuba well can relate to because these racers are all “children of the Revolution” who are trying to come to terms with what the future of Cuba holds for them.

Director’s statement

I was always told that Cuba is frozen in time - just look at the old cars! But after fifteen years of getting to know the country and its people, I have discovered a dynamic society that’s constantly evolving.  As Cuba goes through its most significant changes since the Revolution, the world wonders what the future holds for the island nation.  Havana Motor Club intends to capture this moment of change through the eyes of a group of Cuban drag racers and their community. Through their vibrant culture and passion for their cars, families, and country, I want to demystify a country with which Obama has just normalized relations.

I first started working as a filmmaker in Cuba in 2008 in order to develop a narrative feature set in Havana, for which I received a Sundance Institute/Sloan Foundation grant to write and direct.  While working on the script, I was asked by a Russian director to do a “making-of” documentary about his own experience making a film in Cuba. During that film’s production, I went to a car event where they announced the first official car race in Cuba in over fifty years. My crew and I decided to follow the racers who were preparing for this historic event, which was supposed to be held six weeks after the announcement. The race kept on getting postponed and ended up taking over a year to organize. During these postponements, I really got to know my characters and their communities. We shot over 300 hours of footage with them in order to capture not only their vibrant drag racing culture, but also how Cuba is changing today. This seven-year process that spanned three unrelated film projects allowed me to me get to know Havana in an intimate manner that we feel is reflected in Havana Motor Club.