Sin La Habana dives into the life of an afro-Cuban couple willing to go through great lengths to escape the never-ending despotism in their beloved country.
The process of moving to a new place always brings some degree of excitement. It closes up one chapter in life and opens another. It is an opportunity to begin anew and to look forward to the future. While moving intentionally brings excitement and encouragement, moving unintentionally will often than not bring fear. What happens when you love your home, but for the sake of living, you are compelled to find a new place? Persecutions and tyrannical governments are all reasons that force many in society to seek a new homeland. Kaveh Nabatian’s Sin La Havana shines a spotlight on an afro-Cuban couple living in a communist-ran Cuban government that causes cultural and economic instability. The couple, Leonardo (Yonah Acosta) and Sara (Evelyn O’Farrill), attempt their best to escape a country that has nothing left to offer them.
Sin La Habana begins with a young and active man named Leonardo, a talented but hubris ballet dancer who fails to be cast in the performance of a lifetime that would eventually have been his ticket out of Cuba. His arrogance and disrespectful attitude leaves Leonardo and his girlfriend, Sara, very few options to escape the island and start a new life elsewhere. Sara, who has her own aspirations to further her career as a lawyer outside of La Habana, pressures Leonardo into a sham relationship with a Canadian-Iranian tourist named Nasim (Aki Yaghoubi), whom he had been teaching salsa. Reluctant about beginning that fraudulent connection with Nasim, Leonardo considers his career as a ballet dancer, Sara’s ambition as a lawyer, and their future together beyond Cuba – which ultimately leads him to agree to take advantage of Nasim’s Canadian citizenship. Although he is no longer under Cuba’s tyrannical grip, and he no longer faces the challenges he confronted in La Habana, Leonardo realizes that he must now endure new and complex trials, alone in his new world.
From music videos to television series to feature-length documentaries, director Kaveh Nabatian is no stranger to the camera nor music. Focusing his work on places such as Haiti and South Africa, Nabation continues to explore this region with Cuba, a country with similar culture, yet incredible diversity. He does not miss a beat when it comes to Cuban culture and customs, as these aspects have a great impact on film’s success and authenticity. The director takes advantage of his music background, which includes a Juno award-winning band named Bell Orchestre, and explores several songs that keep the audience engaged and overall energizes the scene. Nabation’s experience and his noteworthy ability to present this heartbreaking story, makes Sin La Habana a remarkable film.
A central point that Nabatian creates for the film is the struggle between “Patria o Vida” – the motherland or life. Although a common subject in Hollywood films, choosing between your country and your life can be heartbreaking, and many people have suffered through these difficulties. It is hard to support and be proud of a country that turns its back on you, leaving you with no help or support. With this in mind, Leonardo and Sara understand that there is nothing left for the in La Habana, leaving them with the extremely uneasy choice to abandon their beloved country and find opportunities elsewhere. Throughout the film, Nabatian demonstrates that Leonardo is unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer and Sara is not able to further her career as lawyer, giving them enough motivation to leave their current life behind. In a society that is so immersed in their rich culture, it is difficult to come to terms with the reality of breaking away from the country one grew up in.
Yonah Acosta, winner of several awards for his dance competitions, does a magnificent job at portraying our protagonist, Leonardo. There are several aspects that Nabatian incorporates into this character, one being Leonardo’s belief in witchcraft. Witchcraft has always played an important role in Cuban culture and in Sin La Habana, there are multiple scenes that show the significance of it. From the beginning, we see Leonardo taking part of what looks like a ceremony filled with chants, music, and trinkets. He is given a marble for him to take on his journey in life which will bring him peace, health, and serenity. The film explains that the marble represents his world and Leonardo has the power to bend it to his will – he is in control. He is so attached to Cuban culture, that he even practices witchcraft outside of his country, leaving many perplexed about his customs. Nonetheless, Leonardo believes that these “enchantments” influence his growth for the overall good in his life. Even towards the end of the film, when everything seems to be falling apart, he finds comfort in his marble, letting him know that everything will be okay.
Acosta’s costars, Evelyn O’Farrill and Aki Yaghoubi, both bring a unique perspective into Leonardo’s world. Sara, Leonardo’s girlfriend, is very career driven and worries about the stability of her future. In several instances, Sara feels that Leonardo is not doing enough for their future and forces him to try harder, which includes seducing a foreigner for her citizenship. This is the desperation taking control of their lives and forcing them to do the unthinkable. Later in the film, Leonardo meets Nasim, an innocent woman wanting to experience the Cuban culture. Nasim is too consumed by Leonardo’s charm to see his real intentions with her, but both of them enjoy the time they have together as both of them have had some recent life struggles to overcome. By the end of the film, both Sara and Nasim find what they have been looking for – a reason to move on with life. Although the “how” may not have turned out to be what they imagined, it still brought them to where they wanted to in life – with or without Leonardo at their side. And as Leonardo comes to realize, the grass might not always be greener on the other side.
Sin La Habana’s Leonardo and Sara represent countless people that are currently living in Cuba, hoping to find a way to escape. As difficult as that may be, people are willing to pursue drastic measures to flee from political persecution, harassment, and extreme economic hardships. Nabatian’s portrayal of this story is distressing and sorrowful, but he levels out the somber atmosphere in the film by exploring the vibrant culture of music and dance that Cubans initially fell in love with and the reason why they called it their home.
Sin La Habana had its International Premiere in competition at the 38th Miami Film Festival and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.