Isa carrying a weapon

These are selected notes from the Letters from Angola production blog. Find more production notes on the film's blog.

Florentino's Gift

March 15, 2010

Today we leave Havana. Our first stretch on the road will take us to the middle of the island, to the province of Villa Clara. We pack, say goodbye to the staff of the wonderful colonial palace that has been our home for the past week and get ready to hit the road, our luggage and equipment hardly fitting the van's storage compartment. It's very early in the morning and I am sitting in the hotel's hall, organizing papers and reviewing notes for the next shoot. And then Florentino just shows up with a plastic bag full of letters.

I had been looking for letters for a long time and was getting worried that the material that I was finding was scarce and not so interesting. The letters I was looking for, letters written by Cuban soldiers from Angola, are at least 20 years old and most got lost when couples broke up, when people moved or were just thrown away after decades without any use.

Florentino had not been in Angola and had no letters (he had been in Nicaragua and even wrote a book about it). But he had mentioned that his father had been in the war in Angola for two years and that he had some letters. He promised to get them to me before I left Havana. I almost forgot about it in the midst of many other inconsequent leads and failed contacts.

And here is Florentino in front of me, at 7 AM, with a bag full of letters. Like a hundred or so, mostly from his father to his mother, but also to his grandmother and to Florentino and his siblings. The letters are beautiful. They are old poetic objects that have survived three decades inside this plastic bag, pieces of written love and anguish that made it across the ocean, intimate testimonies carefully preserved during the course of an entire life.

The letters will travel with us across the island and back. They will be deciphered and typed, read by different voices in different settings, interpreted in diverse tones and emotions.

Weeks later, when I finally give them back to Florentino I tell him how beautiful they are, how lovingly his father refers to his mother as "mi negra linda," (my beautiful black woman). He tells me that it is still like this today – they are still together and call each other the exact same way.

In the Middle

March 18, 2010

We are in the exact middle of the island. We are also in the middle of our shooting schedule. In Placetas, two young party officials stop Ricardo while he is shooting in the street to demand explanations and inquire about permits. They are cute and seem to enjoy exercising their power. We provide good-enough explanations and they take off on a motorbike. In the bay of Caibarien we shoot a military boat without knowing this is a navy vehicle, no apparent military signs on this vessel – how could we know? An official in olive green overalls approaches us with an unfriendly disposition. The PA talks on the phone with the high-rank navy officer and the conversation ends well – problem solved, he wishes us a good stay in Caibarien.

The quick resolution of these small incidents is the product of hard and long work in the preceding months. But we never got an official permit to shoot and we remain at all times uncertain about our ability to complete the shooting plan. What we got was a support letter from our co-producing partners, Asociación Cubana del Audiovisual, an organization of film and video professionals in Cuba. The letter, that we keep preciously inside a plastic protective cover, states that the Ideological Committee of the Cuban Communist Party knows about and approves the project. I even know the name of the man in charge there, as well as his second and third officers. As a foreigner, I could not meet or talk directly to any of them but saying their names indicates that I am in good standing and can quickly dissipate problems that would otherwise grow into big ordeals. This ad hoc process that we have going on here is frail and uncertain …. We also sent letters to the local party structures, television centers and associations of war veterans. And we have the names and phone numbers of each one of them. Major delays can result from overlooking local bureaucrats and we made sure to cover this front. So far, this seems to be working.