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'Havana Motor Club' Looks at the Glory and Ingenuity Behind Cuba's Underground Drag Racing Scene

We met the director, one of the film's stars, and Cuba's top racing journalist for a candid conversation about the state of auto racing in Cuba.

A still from 'Havana Motor Club,' (2015)

Over next two weeks, we'll be covering the Tribeca Film Festival 2015. Check back as we serve up essays and interviews on the festival's films, stars, and directors, and give you access to everything, from the red carpet to the after-parties.

Although Havana Motor Club might be about Cuba's hard-to-fathom subculture of drag racers and their quest to hold the country's first official car race since the days following the 1959 Revolution, it encapsulates so much more. By touching on Cuba's recent reforms—allowing individuals to own property and small businesses, for example—the film also sheds light on how the ongoing liberalization impacts the everyday lives and passions of Cuban people.

"The hardest thing about living here is that there's no life for an honest man," one of the film's subjects suggests towards the middle of the film. He isn't lying. Another racer profiled in the film drives a 90s-era Porsche he built out of parts that were smuggled into Havana in a piecemeal fashion by a Cuban-American he knows in Miami. For Cubans who have long raced in the shadow of Fidel Castro's edict that the sport was "elitist," tarring its reputation and ensuring zero government support or infrastructure, the qualities of ingenuity and subterfuge have always been necessary to keep it going.

The film's world premier was last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, where I corralled director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt (who's also known for making the documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel) and one of the drag racers from the film. They made an interesting duo. Perlmutt is quick-witted and diminutive, while Piti is a tall, wide-bodied Cuban. Fittingly, Piti wore a brand new pair of black and neon Nikes that must not have been an easy to find in Cuba, at least until recently.

Trailer to 'Havana Motor Club' (2015)

Piti admitted right off the bat that he'd been "racing for most of his life, 22 of his 40 years." The two met while Perlmutt was working on a different documentary project in Cuba. They were introduced to one another by one of the key figures in the Cuban underground drag racing community. Unfortunately, the film Perlmutt had originally set out to make in Cuba didn't come together. "We could either go home and give our investors their money back, or find another project," the director recalled while having a sandwich in the Tribeca press lounge. Havana Motor Club became that new project.

Perlmutt, who is from racing-obsessed North Carolina, admits to not knowing much about the racing world until he met the subjects of his film. The movie follows five key members of the drag racing community in the six-week lead-up to what promises to be the biggest race in two generations.

Although racing of this sort is technically not illegal in Cuba—a series of television programs about Cuban underground racing are broadcast all over the country, it's not necessarily legal either. This leaves racers like Piti who participated in this documentary in a delicate situation, considering the island still known for violent repression. "I was happy to share my passion with him, to have him show who we are," Piti suggested, shrugging off the suggestion that it might have been a risk to appear in the film. "We were very upfront from the beginning about what we wanted to do."

A still from 'Havana Motor Club,' (2015)

The film also shows how difficult it is to stay in the racing game in Cuba. One racer ponders whether he will participate in the race or sell the motor from his vehicle—one that had been recovered on the ocean floor from a ship that was once used to shuttle Cubans away from the island—so that he can flee Cuba on a Florida-bound raft. Soon, the race itself is threatened. The government doesn't want it to happen because the Pope is coming to Cuba. Just as the race is supposed to go on, the racers no longer have the barricades they use to cordon off the street and the event seems to crumble. All hope seems to be lost, until a curious series of events, ones we might not believe had Perlmutt made them up, allow the race to go on several months later.

Still from 'Havana Motor Club' (2015)

Milton, a top Cuban underground-racing journalist (such things exist), was also in town for the Tribeca premiere and came to join us. He had a Cuban-flag pined to the lapel of the blazer he insisted on wearing over fleece, even though it was a warm spring day. In the film, he comes off as the sports biggest proponent. "They must keep fighting. They are warriors of time," he says in the film when discussing the men's struggle to legalize the sport.

Milton is the driving force behind A la Motor, a popular show about Cuban autosports. In our conversation, he suggested that things are changing for the underground sport. For a long time, auto racing was not even shown on TV. But now, thanks in part to his efforts, racing has a place in Cuban pop culture. Schools to train children in go-cart racing have also recently opened in Cuba. But government support remains muted. And legally procured parts, due to the easing of trade restrictions, are pricey compared to illegally smuggled parts.

Getting permission to shoot the documentary from the authorities in Cuba was far more complicated than Perlmutt initially imagined. He worked with a Cuban producer, Marcel Piedra, in order to travel around Havana. Cuban authorities are weary of foreigners walking around with cameras, believing they can be used to monitor their police. Work and location permits, as well as approval of the whole project, had to come down from the state film board. Perlmutt and his crew's gear was often confiscated at the airport and the process to get permits for cameras and sound-mixing gear took many months.

Still from 'Havana Motor Club' (2015)

"Something we were always told to do was dissemble everything as much as possible so that they don't know what it is," Perlmutt recalled during our conversation. "We did that with a lot of our gear, too. They do the same thing with their engines. It's really tricky." At some points, the filmmakers had to store their equipment in a young boy's room in Cancun while waiting for a permit. They shot much of the initial racing footage they got on the Canon 5D, a small DSLR still camera that allowed them to look like tourists. They received permission to make the film only a few days before the race was initially scheduled.

After Raúl Castro's reforms allowed for an officially government-sanctioned race months after the initial one was planned and foiled due to the Pope, Perlmutt's film piles on the anticipation and thrills in a way Days of Thunder never did. However, the drivers remain circumspect.

"Here nothing is for sure," one driver suggests in the most forlorn of fashions. They don't see why auto racing is in conflict with the ideals of the revolution. "Why can't the wealth created by auto racing be spread amongst all the people," another driver muses in the film, while acknowledging that, these days, "Capitalism calls all the shots in the world."

Still from 'Havana Motor Club' (2015)

Capitalism is certainly at the heart of how films travel throughout the world. This movie was financed in part by Impact Partners, a production company that makes "films that engage pressing social issues that have never reached larger audiences or had greater social impact than they do today." Although Perlmutt is seeking traditional American distribution, the film may ultimatly be available in Cuba in a much more significant way. In a place where movie tickets are the equivalent of ten American cents and the average citizen sees 26 movies in the theater a year, as opposed to six in the States, the filmmaker expects huge audiences once the doc reaches its native shores.

Still from 'Havana Motor Club' (2015)

"We've shown the film to the racers and their families in Cuba many times. Everyone loves it. There is nothing really sensitive about it," Perlmutt claimed. He suggested that the film may end up playing the Havana Film Festival before being broadcast nationally on Cuban television and playing in theaters throughout the country. For Piti, a cancer survivor currently in remission, he hopes the exposure can bring legitimacy to his life's pursuit, one that he sees as much less dangerous than boxing, another Cuban obsession.

"If they just give us all the abandoned airstrips to hold races on, it would be a beautiful thing," Piti mused. "It would be something to be proud of."

Havana Motor Club plays at Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday, April 21, and Saturday, April 25.

Brandon Harris is a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine. His directorial debut Redlegs has played over a dozen festivals worldwide and was a New York Times critic's pick upon its commercial release in May of 2012. Follow him on Twitter.