Major Lazer's Cuba Documentary Isn't Another "Gringo on Vacation" Film
'Give Me Future' director Austin Peters discusses the challenges of shooting the globe-trotting trio's historic 2016 Havana concert.
Give Me Future
This post appeared originally on THUMP Canada.
In March 2016, Major Lazer traveled to Havana, Cuba, to perform a historic and unprecedented concert. Following then President Barack Obama's restoration of American-Cuban relations, the electronic trio were one of the first major US acts to perform in the communist country in this new era (British rockers the Rolling Stones would perform there shortly after). Despite having low expectations, 500,000 people turned out to see Diplo, Jillionaire, and Walshy Fire's free show outside the American embassy, which is captured in NYC-based director Austin Peters' new documentary Give Me Future.
The real stars of the film, however, are the Cuban people. It connects with the country's youth culture and its music scene, which teems with resourcefulness, energy, and collaboration in a land without virtually any internet connection. The doc also showcases the Cuban phenomenon of el paquete semanal (which translates to "the weekly package"), the weekly terabyte of online information—news, TV shows, music, films, and other data—curated by Havana native Dany Cabrera Garcia, and disseminated around the island via a vast physical sharing network of jump drives.
After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, we spoke to Peters at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival about the making of Give Me Future, and his shared vision with Diplo to make something other than a "gringo on vacation" film.
THUMP: How did you get connected with the project?
Austin Peters: The Major Lazer team had seen my video for CHVRCHES ["Empty Threat"] and really responded to it. Someone from Major Lazer's team called me up and said, "Hey do you want to go to Cuba with Major Lazer?" I was like, "Yeah, cool man, to shoot a music video?" and he was like, "We want to make a movie." So I had to come up with an idea for this film. My idea was you go to this kind of show for the experience. You don't go because you're seeing the best guitar player or singer in the world. You go to be with this big group of people experiencing the music and sharing in this experience together.
I thought we should make a movie that was about the audience as much as it would be about the people on stage.
What did Diplo think of that when you talked to him?
He was literally going through security in Mumbai airport. His tour manager put him in the phone and I was like, "Hey, it's Austin, this is what I think the movie is." You know, he's made a film before, he's gone to film school. So we talked about weird movies, we talked about Soy Cuba, this crazy Soviet Cuban propaganda film. He said, "Don't make this movie about me. I'm really boring. I don't want a "gringo on vacation" film. That sounds like the worst thing ever." And I said, "Me neither. I don't want this to be a fluff piece. You're cool, Major Lazer is cool, but Cuba is really interesting right now."
So that's where the focus on Cuban culture came into the film.
We wanted to make a movie that wasn't what you always hear about when you see Cuba, like baseball and cigars and old cars and the Castros. It's always represented in the same way, and in that moment, when everything was shifting and changing it felt important to do something else. You never hear what it's like to be a young person or an artist in Cuba. Or you only hear about Cuba in a geopolitical sense, a tourist sense, about how it's so beautiful.
One of the amazing things about Major Lazer is that they have a really strong team of collaborators. They were like, "Cool, let's make a concert film that's not about us—let's make it about something else." But what that might be was very unclear [back then].
Right, so how did you do your research?
A big part of what I do for my music videos is casting real people, non-actors. It's really easy to find the weird kids on Instagram, because that's where people who don't fit in go online. But in Cuba there's none of that because there's no internet. I couldn't be in my apartment in New York researching this place like I can with any other city in the world. So I thought, it's gonna be about young people—but who exactly, I'm not sure. So I said, "I need to go to Cuba right now!"
I got my team together and we were meeting all these people [in Cuba] and telling them what we needed, and they'd all say "Oh, you should meet this person," and that person would say, "Oh, you should really meet this person." We were shooting 16-hour days meeting people, and everyone's on island time, so they'd be 90 minutes late to a meeting. Then they show up and you realize, oh, this isn't right at all, this person isn't right for the film. There's so much footage that's not in the film, so many amazing characters and amazing scenes that broke my heart to take out of the film.
How did you find Dany Cabrera Garcia, the guy who organizes the paquete ?
I'd heard of the paquete, and I thought, this is fucking insane, who do I talk about this?
We got put in contact with him by Johnny Harris, a journalist from Vox who appears in the film, and [Dany] had to come meet us in the hotel to suss us out before he decided he wanted to be in the film. What he does is incredible. He's a genius.
But isn't it dangerous for him to be in the film?
That's the first question everyone asks: Why did you show his face? It's an interesting situation. It's really complicated and multifaceted. The paquete is so big. It's such an integral part of life in Cuba that it would be very hard for the government to remove it. It would be very controversial. He knows that, and if he wasn't doing it, someone else would. You know, he's like a Hydra. You kill one, three more pop up. And the other thing is that because of the embargo, there's no business with the US. There's no copyright.
Let's talk about the concert—there was no expectation it would attract that many people.
Leading up to the concert, we didn't know how many people were going. I remember thinking the day before, what if nobody shows up? What happens to the movie? How do we make it interesting? And of course as you see in the film, people had been there since 3 AM. I remember at one point standing next to one of the tour managers—Major Lazer had just come from Islamabad, Pakistan, and they go all over the world playing insane shows where people don't ever play shows. We were standing together looking at all the people, and he said kind of to himself, "I've never seen anything like this in my entire life."
When the film premiered at Sundance, the inauguration had just happened, and the day after someone put on the internet [photos of the crowds of] Major Lazer in Cuba and the Trump inauguration [laughs]. The people at the inauguration was such a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the people at the Major Lazer concert.
How do you shoot something where you can't even predict how many people are going to show up—and it ends up being half a million people?
It was crazy! There was no way to know for us to plan to shoot something like that. We placed cameras where I thought Major Lazer would be. We had the Steadicam on stage. We had another guy in a tower, we had a jib. We had our Cuban DP who was supposed to shoot this master-wide shot from the tower, but then of course when it started he went rogue and started shooting whatever he wanted to. We gave a bunch of kids point-and-shoot cameras that we'd bought from a CVS in New York, and told them to go shoot their experience.
The film does a good job of showing all the ripples of movement through the crowd, and how that infectious energy can become scary. Can you talk about that?
You can't put 500,000 people in one space anywhere in the world. That's illegal. It was like four Coachellas in one space. There were more people at that concert than there are people living in Miami. Everyone was pushing and we didn't know what kind of movie this was going to become. I thought, this is going to turn into Gimme Shelter [the 1970 Rolling Stones concert documentary captured numerous violent events and a death at the band's Altamont Free Concert] really quickly and that would suck.
Major Lazer paid for this show out of their own pocket because they wanted to be there. That's why they did a residency in Las Vegas, so they can pay for something like this, because it's meaningful. This is why you do music, to have this connection with people. When they saw that opening, they seized it.
How does it feel for the film to come out in a post-Trump era?
We premiered the film the day after the inauguration. There was a Women's March in Sundance, and my mom and my girlfriend were at it, and I was doing press. It was blizzarding and it was one of the weirdest days of my life. [During the film's premiere] the second Obama's voice came on in the first five minutes, everyone just erupted cheering in the audience, because you know it's nice to remember what that was like before it was like this.
It already feels historical in a way.
I hope that our movie represents the antithesis of the current US administration. That's what we tried to do. Our movie is about empathy, about people coming together, about unity. If you go anywhere in the world, kids are basically the same. They all want to hang out with friends, listen to music, have a good time, be healthy. They just want these really simple things.
Tina Hassannia is on Twitter.