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Habanastation: Human Spirit in Friendship

April 22, 2012

A friend invited me to the opening film of the 13th Havana Film Festival New York on April 12.  I was not familiar with Habanastation but tagged along because I wanted to see a Cuban film described as “a fictional story about reality.”

Well, Habanastation warmed my heart beyond my wildest expectations. It is the first feature-length film by a young Cuban, Ian Padrón (born in 1976). His previous works include two noted documentaries: Dreaming in Blue, and Van Van Fever, which became a box office hit around the world. I believe that his documentary background prepared him to make a fictional story so moving, imbued with a strong sense of reality. The two young actors, Ernesto Escalona and Andy Fornaris, are delicious—such mature acting conveys the feeling that they were are not acting, that they are just having the time of their lives. If the young director is completely in sync with the two boys, he is equally tender and comfortable in his portrayal of animals.

The film’s narrative is simple: we follow two classmates, Mayito and Carlitos. Although they attend the same school, they are like oil and water, coming from homes that are worlds apart.  Mayito belongs to a privileged class, pampered by his father, a jazz pianist of international renown, and his mother, a snobbish and pretentious woman.  Carlitos lives with his grandmother; his mother is deceased and his father in jail. An accident brings the two boys together.

After the May 1st parade at the Revolutionary Square, Mayito gets on the wrong bus and is let out by the driver in La Timba, a slum in western Havana. He stumbles through the neighborhood, utterly lost and scared. Along comes Carlitos to find his rich, well-dressed classmate–clearly in the wrong place and hopelessly sticking out like a sore thumb.

The film gives a revealing depiction of present-day Cuba. It shows the enormous discrepancy between the rich and the poor in a society that is supposed to be classless. Instead, the gap is growing wider.

The very heart of the film is, however, the friendship that emerges between the two boys at the end of the day. If life is hard for Carlitos, the generosity of his spirit fills up the huge hole created by poverty. As poor as he is, Carlitos knows how to enrich his life with kindness, humor, and zest for living. It is awesome to watch Carlitos guiding Mayito around his turf with witty dialogue, radiant smile and biting humor. True, Carlitos is irresistible, but it is also to Mayito’s credit that he enters a world so alien to him with increasing appreciation of each new experience. He discovers that there are things in life other than PlayStation3, his father’s recent gift from a trip abroad. He is enticed into the pure glee of flying a kite and playing barefoot in pouring rain. The increasing warmth of Mayito’s heart enables Carlitos to tell the truth about his father–that he is in prison, falsely charged with murder.

The most memorable statement made by the director, Padrón, during Q&A: “If Cuba’s socialism has a lot of problems, that socialism also makes it possible for Mayito and Carlitos to attend the same school.”

I sought out the director and told him, “Habanastation is one of the most beautiful, powerful and inspiring films I’ve ever seen. I will pray that you will make many more films like that! I will be looking for them.” He was pleased by my remark, but he came dangerously close to losing me when he asked, “Are you are a Japanese?” With many people standing around to talk with him, I could not go into Korea’s colonial past with Japan. I was able to forgive him, grateful enough for the gift of his film that renewed my hope in friendships among people.

Riding home on a rattling A train, I prayed a silent prayer that there will be more friendships like that of Mayito and Carlitos among young people around the world. I am still riding along with two school boys on an unforgettable journey in which a relationship with a complexity of feelings emerges, yet the story’s simplicity is so deep and touching that I want to cry with blissful joy.

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