Bradbury's bitter memories of Cuba


Fond Memories of Cuba
A documentary by David Bradbury
Screening at Valhalla Cinema, Sydney. Opens at the Schonell Cinema, Brisbane, July 18; Nova Cinema, Melbourne, July 25; and the Electric Shadows Cinema, Canberra, late July.


At the request of Jim Mitsos, an 86-year-old socialist, film-maker David Bradbury set out on a three month journey across Cuba to discover the "reality of the Cuban Revolution". Before departing, Bradbury informs us that Mitsos, whose financial support made Fond Memories of Cuba possible, "hopes I'll bring back something inspiring". Bradbury failed dismally. Rather, the film is a testament to his disillusionment with socialism.

It was Bradbury's first trip to Cuba since the 1980s, when he produced award-winning films such as Nicaragua: No Pasaran, which dealt with the Sandinista revolution, and Chile: Hasta Cuondo?, on the Pinochet dictatorship.

In Fond Memories of Cuba, Bradbury and his son travel across Cuba from Havana to Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. Billed as the "Buena Vista Social Club without the gloss", the film is primarily a collage of interviews and vox pops interspersed with the stunning images and sounds of Cuba's rich culture, music and people.

Yet, despite Bradbury's claim that Fond Memories of Cuba is an attempt to allow the Cuban people to speak for themselves, Bradbury rarely allows this to happen.

After arriving in Havana, Bradbury introduces us to 80-year-old Amada and her husband Pedro, who live in a second story apartment in Havana. Every day, Pedro fetches water from the street tank provided by the Cuban government as their apartment has no working plumbing. In his narration, Bradbury tells us that Amada has been exhausted and worn down by the revolution, although Amada herself makes no such statement. Amada tells Bradbury that her and her husband don't have much but "such is life".

Trumpet player Pepin Estrada, a veteran of the 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks, is another of the characters portrayed by Bradbury as having been failed by the Cuban Revolution. Estrada tells of his suffering as a political prisoner at the hands of the Batista dictatorship. However, Bradbury makes little attempt to gather Estrada's thoughts on the revolution and its progress. Instead, the focus is on the hardship of life in contemporary Cuba.

Many moments in the film capture the sacrifices made by ordinary Cubans and their supporters. Harry Reade, a Sydney wharfie and communist who dedicated much of his life to the Cuban Revolution, arrived in Cuba following the revolution. He stayed for a decade, participating in the famous 1961 defeat of the US-backed contras at the Bay of Pigs.

One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Reade's ashes, carried back to Cuba by Bradbury, are scattered in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Park in Havana to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, played by Cuban saxophonist Francisco Sanchez. "Harry has finally returned", says Juan Padron, his former assistant.

Reade's and Mitsos' undying faith in the Cuban Revolution and its people is betrayed by Bradbury's impatience with the hardships faced by contemporary Cubans. While his film footage reveals the resilience and dignity of the Cuban people and their clear support for the social and political gains of the revolution, Bradbury frequently superimposes his own disillusionment at Cuba not being the utopia he wished it to be.

This is reflected in the leading questions he asks people on the street, seeking out criticisms of the revolution. One woman is asked if she thinks life is hard in Cuba. "Who isn't doing it tough?", she replies. "Times are hard but they are hard everywhere." However, she notes that in Cuba, the children and the people are healthy, happy and educated. "The revolution feeds us", she says.

This woman's views, like those of many Bradbury meets on the street, are dismissed and patronised.

The 40-year US blockade of Cuba barely rates a mention, and when it does Bradbury dismisses it. "Fidel tells everyone to blame everything on the blockade", Bradbury states.

"If the US didn't cruel [the revolution] then the powermongers inside Cuba did", he tells us. Yet nowhere in the film is there a shred of evidence presented that "powermongers" have usurped power or privileges from the Cuban people.

The only Cuban government representative sought out to be interviewed is former consul-general to Australia Marcelino Farjado Delgado, who now works in Havana. Delgado's openness, his US$20 per month salary and his car that frequently breaks down are not the hallmarks of a privileged bureaucracy hungry for power.

Bradbury films a heated street debate on political freedom in Cuba. When a couple of dissenters are roughly detained by police after being howled down by a crowd of supporters of Cuba's political system, Bradbury compares this "repression" with that of the Batista dictatorship which murdered 20,000 Cubans. He cites Amnesty International reports on Cuba as further evidence.

While Bradbury makes much of the prostitution, poverty, and food and medical shortages, he fails to mention the measures being taken by the revolutionary government to address and remedy these problems.

While in Cuba, Bradbury shot over 120 hours of footage. Yet at no time during the 77-minute film are the millions-strong marches in support of the revolution which take place regularly in Cuba mentioned. The activities of the mass revolutionary organisations, such as the Committees in Defence of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women and the Cuban Federation of Youth or workers' organisations, are not investigated.

Scenes of Bradbury reading George Orwell's Animal Farm, while sitting next to a statue of John Lennon, and a few Cuban Communist Party members dozing during one of Castro's long speeches are substitutes for any real political analysis of the Cuban Revolution.

Instead, Bradbury presents the views of a US senator and a US finance journalist, who asks us to imagine the triumph of the first McDonald's restaurant being established in Cuba.

Bradbury fails to understand that a revolution involves constant struggle and has no fixed completion date. The personal disappointments or discontents of some of those interviewed are portrayed by Bradbury as a condemnation of the entire revolution.

Fond Memories of Cuba ultimately fails, not because it shows some of the shortcomings of the revolution, but because the film is more about Bradbury than the Cuban people. His disillusionment is summed up in one interview he gave about the film, in which he admits to being "already disillusioned before I went to Cuba".

In an interview given to the Australian Financial Review, Bradbury stated that movies such as the Buena Vista Social Club "haven't done much to further our understanding" of Cuba. However, neither has Bradbury's film. Fond Memories of Cuba is a beautifully shot film, but offers little understanding of the complexity of Cuban social, political and economic life.

From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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