BIG SKY DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! I have always found surfing to be an almost mystical activity. It’s the closest thing that we as mere humans ever will get to walking on water. I love watching surfing videos because they’re beautiful. Havana Libre has plenty of gorgeous shots of surfers, but it is more than a straightforward sports documentary mainly because there’s a lot more at stake than just who wins the competition.
In Cuba, when director Corey McLean was filming the documentary, surfing was essentially illegal, though this law was not strictly enforced. In Cuba, there is a saying, “Sport is the right of the people!” So why is surfing illegal? Because it isn’t considered a sport by the right authority. The group that legally legitimizes sports is called INDER, which in English roughly translates to The Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation.
In Havana Libre, we meet several surfers trying to advance the sport to the level of respect it deserves. This became much more important once surfing became an Olympic sport. Cubans love the Olympics, and it is considered a magnificent achievement to get there. Yaliagni “Yaya” Guerrero Prieto and Frank Gonzalez Guerra are two of the main constituents of Havana’s surfing community. Guerra builds and repairs boards, and Prieto is an organizer. She constantly tries to contact INDER to try and get surfing legitimized.
“…several surfers trying to…get surfing legitimized.”
Her efforts fail, but when she makes a video of the group’s surfing trip across Cuba and uploads it online, it gets over a million views in 84 different countries. Due to this video, Prieto and Guerra are allowed to go to a surfing competition in Hawaii. Another member of the group, Yoan Pablo La Rosa, gets his visa denied. Which is something that Cuba is notorious for when it comes to traveling to the United States. In case y’all don’t remember, we’re not besties with Cuba.
While not an avid fan of surfing, I do have an interest, and Havana Libre gave me a rekindled admiration of the sport and its practitioners. The film once again proves that everything in this life can be political. It also tells us that you have to fight for what you believe in. Corey McLean does a great job of bringing us into the world of Cuban surfers. You care about what happens to these people and hope that they succeed. Obviously, that is the mark of good storytelling. I think that fans of surfing and surfers themselves will love this documentary. It’s also great for people who don’t care about surfing at all. It’s a human story about fighting adversity, whatever the cost, which is an idea I’d think more people would do well to espouse.
I could and want to tell you everything that happens in Havana Libre and how everyone ends up, but you wouldn’t have any reason to watch it. Just know that it is a magnificent, beautifully shot film. The people we join on the journey are heroes to their communities. They make real change, and while it might not be on a grandiose scale, it’s still important to this group, and often the “little things” are always the most important.
Havana Libre screened at the 2021 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
"…you care about what happens to these people and hope that they succeed."