An American in Cuba is a full-length verite-style documentary film about a young American woman who experiences the realities of every day life in Cuba. It follows the main character (Megan Meadows) during a two-week volunteer teaching program which sparks the uncovering of flagrant truths and perceptions while talking with Cubans from all walks of life.
The film urges viewers to go beyond Cuba’s run-down appearance and open their eyes to a profound understanding of the complexity and spontaneity of every day Cuban life. It aims to appreciate a land that is uniquely preserved and untouched by modern-day capitalism, and to learn to embrace its contradictions and idiosyncrasies.
It explores the dancing and singing that are the sadness and joy of every day Cuban life, as it analyzes the reasons behind this duality. Similarly, it seeks to understand the reasons why some yearn to leave while others could never bare to say goodbye to their motherland.
Not only does An American in Cuba serve as a gateway that propels average Americans into a better understanding of an often misunderstood society, but it also encourages them to question their own worldview as they learn about what Cuba has to offer the world.
Megan had always wanted to go to Cuba. A desire of discovering a land so unknown to most Americans had lingered in her soul for as long as she could remember. Though she didn’t know that much about the society itself, the element of mystery was what most intrigued her. Somewhat fearful of what she would encounter, she decided it was finally time to take a leap of faith and uncover the land’s hidden jewels.
Cemented in a kind of time capsule, Cuba is a history lesson unlike many others. Originally discovered and colonized by the Spanish in the 15th Century, its European flavour began to morph in the 18th Century with the arrival of African slaves who would express their joy and pain through dance and song as worship to their gods. The artful blending of these types of manifestations is what has given Cuba the unique cultural identity with which it is now associated. While there may be signs of evolution on this front, Megan begins to realize that Cubans today dance and sing their joys and sorrows away in the same way as the first African slaves, indicating the presence of a certain stagnation in its society.
This phenomenon is but one of the many facets that comprise the multi-layered Cuban universe. Having so abruptly ended its alliance with the United States in the 1950s, it hastily began to fight a battle to prevail in a world that was becoming increasingly dependent upon the American economy. Even though they briefly utilized the help of the Soviets, the country’s Socialist ideas of self-sufficiency urged its people to develop creative ways to reuse and recycle in order to survive. As Megan travels throughout Cuba, she immediately gains admiration of the kind of ingenuity required of people who live with minimal commercial goods.
As important as these facts are to better comprehending Cuba’s antecedents, Megan desires to discover if they continue to contribute to what makes Cubans tick. She yearns to know if it is only its old cars and architectural structures that are trapped in time or if the society itself is as well. She longs to understand how some Cuban girls can trot the streets sporting Dolce & Gabbana when they live in a Socialist country that supposedly favours equality. She wonders how it is possible for some people to feel great pride for their country and its government while others feel tremendous shame and anger.
Simply put: she sets out to understand the mystery that has been Cuba for most of her life and for many of the citizens of the world.
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Mule’- Mule’ is an 18-year old English student at the University of Havana. She is young, vibrant, and analytical. Her mother works closely with Fidel Castro as his translator. The reality of her every day life is somewhat twisted and confused because neither she, nor her mother, reaps any of the benefits typically associated to such a crucial line of work. She struggles to understand the hypocrisy of working for a Cuban leader who enjoys luxuries but neglects to adequately compensate those who provide him with essential services, such as her mother. While she is deeply patriotic, this contradiction, among many others, creates an inner struggle that makes it challenging for her to remain loyal to her country’s leaders and political views.
Sewler- Sewler is a 29-year old “jinetero” (hustler) who roams the streets searching for creative ways to make ends meet and find meaning for his life. Physically unattractive to many, he has unique charm that enables him to smoothly seduce female tourists into ‘hiring’ his companionship in exchange for a variety of favours. His mind is brilliant and itches to be challenged in a country with a political system that, in his opinion, does not advocate personal growth and individuality. Tired of feeling repressed, he has relinquished his career as an architect to earn more money befriending tourists and selling jewelry on the streets of Havana. Determined to give meaning to his life, Sewler’s ultimate goal is to flee Cuba and feel valued rather than forever live like the caged animal he thinks he presently is.
Idania- 51 Idania is a feisty yet nurturing Cuban tour guide who thrives on becoming acquainted with new tourists and showing them ‘her’ Cuba. She is proud, boastful, and passionate about sharing her country’s achievements, successes, and societal contributions. At first glance, she seems content with her life, but over time, it becomes apparent that her conflicted feelings toward the so-called “enemy” (The United State of America) are slowly consuming her. Though she supports the political reasons for which these two countries clash, she is unable to understand why there cannot be solidarity between each of its citizens. She feels emotionally drained and helpless due to the sudden departure of her two children who have left Cuba to pursue a “better life” within ‘enemy’ lines. Though she calls Megan her ‘enemiga’ (enemy) because she is American, a friendship of understanding and compassion quickly begins to flourish between them.
Jose and Emila- Jose’ and Emila are an elderly couple in their 80's who run a modest casa particular (bed and breakfast) with love and care. They open Megan’s eyes to the way Cuban society was before Fidel Castro took power in the 1950’s by sharing with her an array of personal stories. Like many of their generation, they experienced the sorrow of having their freedom stripped from them, alongside many of their most prized possessions. Their children having left Cuba to settle in the United States, they fill their emotional void with the love and trust they share with each of their guests. Jose’ and Emila’s experiences facilitate Megan’s understanding of the reasons behind an unclear and divided view of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.