Buena Vista Social Club: A journey through memories

Ati Metwaly, Sunday 23 Nov 2014

Screened as part of a Wim Wenders retrospective, Buena Vista Social Club captures the reawakening of dreams. It is one of many homages the filmmaker has paid to renowned international artists

Buena Vista Social Club
Still from Buena Vista Social Club

Today I represent the past,
I can't be satisfied.
If we could reach
the things we want,
you would love me the same way
you loved me twenty years ago.

The lyrics come from Veinte años, one of the captivating boleros and a known hit included in the Buena Vista Social Club studio album released in 1997 as part of American guitarist Ry Cooder and British world music producer Nick Gold's reaching out to a group of forgotten Cuban musicians.

The album came a few decades after the closing of the social club in Havana, a stage to many Afro-Cuban talents and traditional veteran musicians who attracted hundreds of fans with their emotional journeys through salsa, boleros and many other regional riches.

The album became an international hit and the group performed in Amsterdam in April 1998 and then at the Carnegie Hall in the same year. Their success inspired Wim Wenders to creating a documentary that would revisit their history and musical wealth.

Screened during the 7th Panorama of the European Film, Buena Vista Social Club (1999) comes as part of a Wim Wenders retrospective — one of the icons of German cinema, a filmmaker who received the Golden Lion, Palme d'Or, Swiss Leopard of Honour, Honorary Golden Bear and several other awards and high recognition.

Hailed internationally, Wenders has a number of documentaries to his name, in many of which he revisits the lives of renowned artists, from the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in Tokyo-Ga (1985) and fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) to the Cologne rock group BAP in Ode to Cologne: A Rock 'N' Roll Film (2002) and a documentary about blues musicians titled The Soul of a Man (2003).

Buena Vista Social Club (1999), however, is not only a documentary that captures the musical phenomena that pervaded Cuba in the 1930s to 1950s, but also pays respect to the history of over 20 musicians who once were the shining stars of the Havana community. The documentary is a voyage through memories and lives that were very different before the curtain was pulled down on the Havana musicians' hub, as part of closing down gambling outlets and entertainment clubs by President Manuel Urrutia Lleó (in office January 1959 to July 1959), followed by the constraints imposed by the Cold War.

No doubt the main credit for reaching out to the long-forgotten musicians goes to Ry Cooder. Yet, as much as the great American guitarist remains central to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista's flairs, in Wenders' documentary Cooder retreats from the spotlight and leaves the stage completely to the Cuban musicians. Accompanied by Wenders' camera, and without imposing any acknowledgement to himself, Cooder revisits over 20 humble lives of the aged musicians and singers. The viewer follows the interviews that resulted, interspersed with their Amsterdam performance and a dream come true with their arrival to Manhattan's Carnegie Hall.

In Buena Vista Social Club we witness the reawakening of dreams and the revival of hopes as, 50 years after their creativity was interrupted, the Cuban musicians, once again, put their passion to practice. Though Wenders' protagonists might differ in their backgrounds and life experiences, they are unified by a music that represents their youth and their sense of life. They become central colours on a canvas where nostalgia is intertwined with images of the sea, the narrow streets of Marianao neighbourhood, buildings whose restoration is long overdue, and the surreal time capsule that is Havana's traffic, where imported cars are unavailable and the shapes, makes and designs of the 1950s still prevail. The real beauty, however, emerges from the wonderful contrasts that Wenders creates, continuously juxtaposing financial misery and the wealth of the musicians' souls.

Despite poverty, the iconic grandfathers of Afro-Cuban rhythms rediscover their joy in music. Ingrained in the social reality of the country, their trapped voices are brought by Wenders to the fore. By capturing the engaging characters, pure and so humane, and exploring their creative generosity, the documentary unveils to the beat of the music it presents, interweaving lives and spirit of a group of musical masters.

At first, the documentary may seem a simple and linear presentation of consecutive characters, permeated with warm and colourful images characteristic to the city it portrays. Yet the film's importance transverses the cinematography itself and becomes an apology and bright yet nostalgic testimony to a generation of Cuban musicians and people of passion.

At the time of shooting, several characters interviewed in the documentary were in their 70s or even late 80s. For many it was their last public appearance. Today, 15 years later, they are no longer with us, yet continue to live through the music they believed in and shared — music immortalised first by Cooder and Gold, and then by Wenders.

Buena Vista Social Club was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (2000) and the BAFTA Awards (2000). It won Best Documentary at the European Film Awards (1999), the Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (1999) as well as over 15 awards and recognitions in festivals held across the US, Norway, Russia and Germany.

Buena Vista Social Club will be screened on Sunday, 23 November, at 3.30pm in Galaxy Cinema and on Monday, 24 November, at 10.30am in the same cinema.

Check the Panorama of the European Film programme and our recommendations.

Ahram Online is official media sponsor of the Panorama of the European Film


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