Last updated: 08:41 AM ET, Tue July 14 2015

'Forbidden Cuba' Satirizes the American Travel Experience in Cuba

Entertainment | David Cogswell | July 13, 2015

'Forbidden Cuba' Satirizes the American Travel Experience in Cuba

PHOTO: Filmmaker Art Jones in Cuba. (Courtesy of Great Jones Production)

When filmmaker Art Jones and his small film crew arrived in Cuba to shoot footage for the movie “Forbidden Cuba,” their arrival was overshadowed by a much more famous arrival: Hurricane Sandy. It may have been a sign of things to come. In any case, it was the opening to a hectic three-month shooting adventure.

The hurricane made their long-shot enterprise even more tenuous and risky than it already was.

“Director Art Jones and our intrepid film crew flew to Cuba on the day Hurricane Sandy roared into town, (then) battled the elements for hundreds of miles to find an open airport,” said Rich Schindler, a spokesman for Great Jones Productions in New York. “They finally got to Havana and shot ‘Forbidden Cuba’ on location across the island in the span of three intense weeks, overcoming lengthy border interrogations, confiscated film gear and hurricane-force winds and tornado-like setbacks.”

The story portrayed in the film is a metaphor for the larger story of the opening of travel to Cuba and the approaching American-Cuban cultural encounter.

“It is a story first of an American businessman who goes down to Cuba under the radar,” says Jones, “but quickly gets lost and gets so stripped of his gadgets and routines and everything he knows of his suburban New Jersey life that he is kind of forced to revisit what is valuable to him.

“He’s stripped to his core,” says Jones. “His cell phone doesn’t work. His credit cards don’t work. His laptop can’t get a connection to the mainframe back at headquarters. Cuba washes over him and takes him back to a more primal state, to a state where the stars are above, the ocean and simpler joys, including family and a strong friendship really start to mean something again. That’s the kind of awakening that I think a lot of Americans are looking for.”

Jones says the film is fiction but has a lot of documentary elements thrown it. It was scripted to tell a story, but as filming progressed, the director allowed many events that unfolded to be incorporated into the film.

“The idea was to use a scrip but as we travel to allow real people and unexpected events that cropped up while filming to make their way into the story,” Jones told TravelPulse. “So we have something that is a little more alive and evocative and certainly as filmmakers turned up more surprises and made the film that much more interesting.”  

The film result is a blend of a dramatic, theatrical film with an element of unpredicted, spontaneous events, an element of reality television thrown in based on what happened during the filming.

It was not Jones’ first trip to Cuba.

“I had been down there once before in 2000,” he said. “I traveled the island for a number of weeks, shot some great photos, but realized this is truly a special place that time had not changed, that offered a real sense of a simpler life and simpler joys, but also came with a lot of the frustrations and contradictions that Cuba offers."

“There is such spirit and warm people,” he said, “people with great imagination who really love visitors and were so interested in Americans and American travelers, but were also aware of the fact that the Cuban government and the U.S. government were at a real standstill with an embargo and 54 years of bad blood. That also makes it interesting and gives it a very different twist versus any other trip you can take in the world, aside from maybe North Korea, which is not a real destination these days.”

Though it is widely believed that Cuba is highly restrictive of travelers, Great Jones found few hindrances to their traveling and filming around Cuba.

“The real beauty of it is that you can make your way to Havana in a number of days and have a full experience,” says Jones, “particularly if you are willing to get off the beaten trail of the usual tours. If you have the gumption you can do some exploration, and that’s where things really start to open up, really getting to speak to people, going inside people’s homes, seeing their businesses, really seeing a new Cuba emerging. It’s coming slowly, but I think when we shot three years ago and even moreso now, there was a sense that change could be possible with the United States, and with Obama’s announcement last December that we would revisit that relationship. There couldn’t be better news for a new future."

“For us it was not so much the idea of a joyride and a nice vacation,” said Jones. “We realized we would be probably the first American feature film crew to be down there making a film since the 1950s and we would do our best to see not only Havana, but the rest of the country and to really go behind the scenes to capture footage and infuse the project with the real spirit and energy of the people that we encountered."

“We realized there was a great deal of risk involved because we didn’t shoot with permits,” said Jones. “We weren’t sure how the Cuban government would respond to some Americans moving around with cameras and the like. But in the end police were friendly. Any government folks we met seemed to smile about it, and in most cases we really moved under the radar.”

After the three-month shooting in Cuba, the film will now be completed in the U.S. and presented to film festivals. Jones and his production company, Great Jones Productions, set up a Kickstarter page to gather financial support for the final stages of the project.

Jones has made several films before, including "Dodgeball" (1995), "Going Nomad" (1998) and "Lustre" (2004), which have played on HBO and PBS and in theaters. The filmmaker’s most recent documentary, "The Blood in this Town," focuses on Rutland, Vermont, a struggling blue-collar town tying to revitalize its economy.

Jones says “Forbidden Cuba” is not just a movie, but is a movement.

It repeats the approach Jones has incorporated in previous films, which “fuses filmmaking with grassroots community-building to spur wider reach and social action,” according to a statement.

The movie portrays what the film crew discovered: there is nothing particularly scary about traveling to Cuba.

“Cuba is exotic,” says Jones. “It sounds dangerous. Is it the last bastion of communism? It’s not. There is an entrepreneurial spirit that would make that would make any American entrepreneur inspired. And you find that Cubans are incredibly imaginative, (with an) ingenuity that somehow allows them to live and thrive around this scarcity and many of the obstacles that they face. And that will change.”

If “Forbidden Cuba” can contribute to the change, Jones and company will be happy to have participated.

“We didn’t necessarily make a movie to do good,” says Jones. “I think the byproduct of creating something in the arts, and exchange through artists, is that a cultural exchange, a film like 'Forbidden Cuba' can only fuel the discussion, fuel the movement towards a new relationship. And the film out there in the pages of an article, or in a film festival like Sundance or the Berlin Film Festival, if that can open eyes, if that can get to people who are not aware and make them aware of the situation and … their support of ongoing change of the relationships, all the better.”

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