WHEN A PERSON IS PASSIONATE, AN ENTIRE CONVERSATION BECOMES PALPABLE. YOU CAN FEEL THEIR EXCITEMENT RUN THROUGH YOUR VEINS LIKE ELECTRICITY IN THE JOLT OF A STATIC SHOCK. AT WHAT POINT DOES THAT PASSION EVOLVE INTO A REALITY? FOR SOME, THEY NEVER ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR DREAMS. FOR OTHERS, THERE IS NEVER A QUESTION OF HOW, ONLY A QUESTION OF WHEN.
THIS IS THE STORY OF DIRECTOR ASORI SOTO'S "WHEN".
They were three hours from Trinidad before the car broke down.
For the umpteenth time that trip, the 1980's Ford Econo Van was again on the side of a dirt road. Flanked by sky scraping sugarcane fields in every direction, director Asori Soto and his documentary film crew of 5 did what any other Cuban stranded in the middle of the road would do. They turned water to wine. They turned on the car radio, took out the bottles of rum they kept in constant rotation alongside their 4k camera gear and salsa danced barefoot in the dirt path until help arrived. For 8 weeks between December 2015 and February of this year, Asori and his team traveled by boat, horse, foot and their stuttering van across the length of the island to film, "CUBAN FOOD STORIES", the first feature length documentary about the authentic food, society and culture of Cuba.
"CUBAN FOOD STORIES" IS THE FIRST COMPREHENSIVE FEATURE LENGTH DOCUMENTARY ABOUT FOOD, SOCIETY AND CULTURE OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA"
Over 50 years of isolation from the US trade, financial and commercial embargo on Cuba have painted a desolate picture of the 770 mile long island. For most Americans, Cuba is an island of censorship and poverty, where the internet is barely above the speed of a dial up modem and the propensity for thought is confined to the subjugations of a communist government. Yet, Cuba is ranked 44th out of 187 countries in the UN Human Development index and boasts universal free college and health care. Last year, when President Obama entered talks with Cuban President Raul Castro to lift the embargo on Cuba, Asori knew it meant opening up the floodgates for American businesses, thought and influence into the country. He wanted to capture the essence of the Cubans before the Monsantos and Mcdonalds dotted their familiar florescent blueprints on the island. He wanted the world to see Cuba as more than an impoverished country barely staying afloat, but more than that, he wanted Cuba to recognize it's own worth.
"I WANT TO RAISE AWARENESS TO KEEP THE TRADITIONS ALIVE BEFORE MONSANTO AND SOCIETY COMES IN AND TRIES TO TAKE THEM AWAY. CUBA IS A BLANK SLATE RIGHT NOW"
From San Juan de los Remedios to Escambray to the mountains of Sierra Maestra, Asori and his crew ventured across the length of the island in 12 cities, capturing the cuisine of fishermen, coffee farmers and families from wealthy to poor. When Communism collapsed in the 1990's, Cuba entered the "Special Period" and hit an economic crisis. With the steady stream of supplies flowing in from the USSR coming to a halt, food started to disappear. Asori recalls dinners of white rice and hot dogs as a main staple. While many recipes were lost with the disappearance of these supplies, he thought of the Cubans who had always lived off the land on the outskirts of society. From the farmers who grew their own crops to the fishermen who lived off the sea, these people never had access to those imported supplies. Asori decided to tell the story of those century old recipes passed down from generation to generation, and so, the premise for "CUBAN FOOD STORIES" was born.
"IT'S A PART OF THE FUTURE OF CUBA. CUBANS HAVE HAD TROUBLE WITH FINDING FOOD FOR SO LONG. FOOD IS THEIR SALVATION."
Teaming up with one of the producers from the film festival favorite, "JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI", Asori set off on the journey with his life savings and a small team of trusted crew members. A researcher would travel one week ahead of the crew, looking for people to interview. Asori, his Director of Photography, sound mixer and assistant camera operator would come afterwards, finishing up interviews and shoots. They were on such a time constraint, they would sometimes meet a person for an interview only to immediately hop into that clunky blue truck and head into the next town. The trip, originally meant to last only 45 days, instead took two months.
Without internet, traveling runs a more textured path. Looking for lodging in Cuba requires landlines and going from door to door, asking friends and strangers alike for accommodations. There is no such thing as swiping on a smartphone to book a hotel room for Cubans. Traversing the island and it's 12 different cities would require over 5 different drivers (one of which, by chance turned out to be a distant cousin of Asori's), hiking, hitchhiking, motorbiking, horseback riding and rafting to get from destination to destination.
After the 1980's Ford Econo Van broke down on the way to Trinidad, a car passed by hours later and took them to Trinidad. Unfortunately, their lodging plans had fallen through and for the second time on that day, they were stranded. But Cubans are warm and friendly people. Asori and his crew found a restaurant to eat and told the waiter their predicament. After a handful of phone calls, he found them a room in his grandmother's house, where there was a lone bed. The crew of 5 slept in the room, sardine style on the floor with their E2 camera rigs, baggage and gear side by side.
"I really want to show the societal distinctions by showcasing the food. By showing the grand meals of Havana in the popping metropolitan districts, side by the fisherman who is fishing in the sea and eats on a wooden twig table and bench, we can see the social construction. Cuba is still very, very poor and run down. Most people don't have the luxuries that we do. Once you step out of Havana, you will engage the real Cuba. The people are the very best"
They made their way through the dirt covered roads in that dusty blue jalopy. In the peeling streets of Havana, alongside the bus loads of Canadian tourists, they visited the El Defrente restaurant, run by Jose, an artist and chef who was experimenting with hybrid cocktails and modern dishes. In Gibara, they joined the local fishermen who caught and cooked Crab Polenta, a dish made of the local Blue Crab. There, old ladies taught the children to cook and the men taught them to fish. In Vinales, Pinar Del Rio they met and had dinner with a local coffee farmer who made them dinner with produce grown from his own lands. They drank coffee from Emmanuel, his 12 year old son who had learned to farm and cultivate his own crops. This was the part of Cuba that Asori wanted to keep alive in his documentary. These were the people that he wanted to share. CUBAN FOOD STORIES is more than a food documentary, it's the preservation of a soon to be fleeting culture. It's shifting the conversation from "Poor Cuba" to "Embrace Cuba" and showcasing the beauty and people that society forgot.
"VERY POOR, RUN DOWN, BUT YOU CAN FEEL THE BONES ARE THERE TO FLOURISH AGAIN"
In Cuba, the farming is still organic. When the USSR stopped sending over supplies, Cuba no longer had the chemicals or hormones to grow crops. At the time, over 80 percent of Cuban food was imported. As the Cubans entered their "Special Period", their food began to dissipate and people began to starve. The government gave farmland to anyone who would grow, and farmlands began to blossom out of necessity. They had to figure out how to grow organically to survive. Today, Cubans like Asori are worried what the agricultural changes will be once the gates open. They are worried what will happen to Cuba after the Embargo is lifted.
"They don't realize the value. I want to show these farmers that it is beautiful what they are doing. This is beautiful."
Growing up in Havana, Cuba, Asori always had an interest in filmmaking and traveling. His grandmother was a traveler, and had done a lot of sightseeing around the country while it was still in it's heyday. Before the Embargo, Cuba flourished. Ford had a major factory there, and car models were released a year before the US. As Fidel Castro took over, the gates began to shutter and traveling was no longer allowed abroad. Locals became so poor, that traveling within their own country was a rarity. Today, the Cubans don't travel much within their own country. This film is meant to unite the Cubans and show them their own country.
As a teen, Asori traveled to Europe, following in the footsteps of a Cuban artist to document his trip. As an adult, he shot and produced his own film and made it out to the US. As he grew older, and made his life in the US, Asori continued to work and produce, shooting a documentary about coffee around the world and even launching his own organic non GMO Barbeque sauce. It's always been in his path to work and create, but, CUBAN FOOD STORIES was different. It was a project that he always knew he would make. When the the talks started last year between the US and Cuba, he knew it was the time to finally take action.
"THERE ARE TWO CUBAS RIGHT NOW. CUBANS FOR TOURISTS AND CUBANS FOR CUBANS"
"WE CROSSED 12 CITIES FROM ONE END OF THE COUNTRY TO THE OTHER - SAN JUAN DE LOS REMEDIOS, TRINIDAD, ESCAMBRAY MOUNTAINS, VINALES, PINAR DEL RIO, HAVANA, CIENFUEGOS, CAMAGUEY, GIBARA, SIERRA MAESTRA, SANTIAGO DE CUBA AND BARACOA"
" I WANT PEOPLE TO CHANGE THEIR MINDS ABOUT CUBA AND ADVENTURE OUTSIDE OF HAVANA. I REALIZED AT THE END HOW IMPORTANT IT WAS FOR THEM (CUBANS) TO DISCOVER CUBA. "
CUBAN FOOD STORIES tells the story of a country on the precipice of change. For Asori, the importance of this passion project wasn't just keeping the food and recipes alive, but to using food as a means of connecting a culture. It's a way of keeping those beautiful cultural intricacies learned by struggle and acknowledging it's beauty. This is a coming of age story, and Cuba is just beginning to fully blossom.
To help tell the story, please donate to Asori's CUBAN FOOD STORIES Kickstarter. Investing his life savings for the production, Asori has shot all the footage and now they are looking for donations for the post production. Watch the Kickstarter video to donate. They are more than halfway to the goal for color, edit, sound and distribution.
To donate to the Kickstarter campaign, click here.