“Lazaro and the Shark” Shows Cuba Under the Surface

by Ei Sin

Professor Ted Henken, from Baruch College’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, as a sociologist, attempts to have a critical approach to life in Cuba—in his words, “Cuba with all the warts”—and tries not to turn it into a nostalgia, which a lot of people do by promoting an image of what they imagine then trying to implement it in their artistic, political agenda, or vision. William Sabourin O’Reilly was born in Havana, Cuba, but moved to New Orleans, Louisiana 24 years ago. He has been a filmmaker for 20 years, passionate in telling stories about politics and culture. Shortly after he moved to New Orleans, their paths crossed. They have been friends ever since, and led us to this documentary, Lazaro and the Shark, which screened from February 6th-10th at the Mishkin Gallery, as part of the exhibition Carnival on Film: Procession as Politics (February 6th-24th), with a conversation with O’Reilly and Henken on February 7th.  

Still from William Sabourin O’Reilly, Lazaro and the Shark: Cuba Under the Surface, 2022. Courtesy the artist.

Henken got a hold of the initial stages of the documentary when O’Reilly sent him a short video on DVD about drumming and the power of the drums in Santiago, Cuba. He used it to show his students “the sounds and sights of Cuba.” But over a year and half ago, O’Reilly sent him a rough cut of the documentary and Henken was immediately drawn to it: “Even though it was a documentary, it was framed around four characters. The two main ones are Lazaro and the Shark, almost giving it a novelistic, feature film quality. It was very easy to follow and understand because it is character driven. Of course, these are real people, but William didn’t write the script, he simply told the stories of these people with their collaboration.”

But it started in 2006 when Tomas Montoya Gonzalez, the executive producer, had the original idea to make this documentary. Gonzalez introduced O’Reilly to different people in Cuba and started interviewing them. “At the start of every documentary, you just shoot– there wasn’t a storyline. People respond and you start weaving,” O’Reilly said. Lazaro, the protagonist in the documentary, who was initially the fixer of the crew, guided them. But in 2013, his wife was pregnant with triplets and was going to be sent to Venezuela on an American mission. He said, “By that time, since I became more experienced in films and documentaries, I was more aware of storytelling techniques and how to structure the story. I knew that I needed a protagonist, an antagonist and a conflict. With this guy, I had a lot– he was going to become a father, he’s young, very charismatic and he’s also a leader of this conga group rivaling another group. The director, Shark, of the rival group is very exuberant, a character, and has a different political view– he’s a communist. I just had to convince them.” This was the turning point for O’Reilly. They had a story and just needed the coverage. But one main challenge was that the carnival was every July in Santiago and they were in New Orleans. “So what do you do from July to July? You just wait and cross your fingers that nothing really crucial happens in their lives.” 

Henken chimed in that in his review of the film, he described the film with this quote “Truth is stranger than fiction.” He explained, “It just seemed to me that they couldn’t have invented a more interesting and dramatic story first because of the rivalry, but also because of the specific characteristics and dramatic development of the lives of the four characters.” Henken raises other important aspects of the documentary: Lazaro being a single father, which is rare in any country, especially in Cuba, and the fact that every character in the film is black, which wasn’t intentional but is “a powerful but indirect thing.” Furthermore, the issue of immigration, is seen with Rubiester, the Poet, who writes poems and songs calling out the government, and his dilemma of whether to leave Cuba in hopes for a better life, or stay with his family. Another aspect that jumps out to Henken is the idea of a “monolithic entity” people see in Cuba. The consequence, as Henken said, is that it erases the complexity within Cuba. But, he assures the documentary instead brilliantly focuses on the complexity: “The government is almost absent except you see the result of government decisions. You focus all on the people. But you don’t just focus on the people as an anonymous mass, you focus on the different individuals and groups and the complex relationships.” He claims that this is what foreigners do not understand when looking at Cuba, which brought to my next question: the reasoning behind the romanticism of Cuba.

Henken explains generously, “Every society has problems, every society has discontent. And capitalism certainly has problems: inequality, injustices, and abuses. So, people who live in a capitalist country– they might look around the world for a better society. Or some society that has some kind of solution for different ways of doing things. The Cuban revolution was for Cuba, but it created an example for other countries to stand up for imperialism and get rid of capitalism.” When looking at this situation as a critic of capitalism, or of the United States’ foreign policy, in which the US tends to abuse its power whether that is in Iran, Guatemala, or Cuba, people find a victim in such a situation. Henken draws a reference to David and Goliath, in which Cuba is David, or the victim. It idealizes Cuba, appearing as if “it has a solution that can build a better, more fair and more just world: Socialism.” He continues, “That has a certain resonance and attractiveness as a solution,  but it is built on a very partial, faulty and even propagandistic understanding of what Cuba really is. Yes, Cuba stood up to American imperialism, but, in doing that, and having a revolution, became communist dictatorship that sacrificed civil rights and political freedom for the Cubans for two or three generations.” The start of every revolution (Henken gave examples such as the Chinese Revolution or the Russian Revolution) is to fight against abuse and injustice. However, “in most cases, they went too far and became the new enemy, villain, the abuser or dictator. So, many people who idolize and romanticize Cuba only look at the history of American abuse, don’t understand what it is really like in Cuba, and only see the happy people in Cuba America has been abusing”. He also mentioned the people who moved to Russia during the Russian Revolution, thinking they have all the answers, are similar to the people who moved to Cuba because “they thought that there was a better experiment to be part of.” 

Still from William Sabourin O’Reilly, Lazaro and the Shark: Cuba Under the Surface, 2022. Courtesy the artist.

Moving to one of the powerful scenes in the documentary, Henken points out that the beginning scene with this quote sets up the tension for the rest of the film: “After the carnival, it’s the same every year. When the sun rises the following morning, one feels an immense sadness, a vacuum. Especially when you lose, it’s like our souls leave our bodies. That sadness lasts for weeks, even months.” This quote portrays a universal sadness after a big event that may resonate with many people, and paired up with the imagery renders an even more powerful scene. “That desolate street scene in the feeling of almost like a hangover after a wedding party. I went to Santiago a couple of years ago for this carnival and I actually marched in the parade for the Conga de Hoyos. So that scene, even if it’s not very dramatic, it’s something that sticks with me because it sets up the plot that drives everything up,” Henken said. “Any other scene containing the triplets is a good scene, because to see those beautiful children peeing or crawling, or interacting with their parents, crying, or asking to see the conga, and then you see them also in a very rustic, you might say poor, environment they live in. Their mother is a doctor, but you see how desperate their living situation is.” 

For O’Reilly, the scene where Nico, the film’s fourth protagonist, is back in Miami, looking at the ducks in a pond after the altercation with the police in the “Invasion” parade in Santiago was an important scene for him. O’Reilly recalled, “My editor told me, in order to keep that character alive in the film, the only way Nico is going to work as a strong character is that we need something else. I wanted him so badly because he represented many Cuban Americans or immigrants”. He was in New Orleans, and he made sure that Nico had recorded the whole commotion– the police beating and arresting Lazaro– before going to Miami. But when he got there, Nico changed his mind and deleted the recordings. He continued, “I kept my cool and continued recording and kept asking him questions. I knew that he’s not going to give me the tapes. Nico pleaded his case: ‘I didn’t want to be an activist, I want to be able to go back to Cuba, step on my soil and see my family, that’s it.’ And I got the point. And that’s how they feel the dark cloud of punishment when you speak about communism and the government.” O’Reilly brought this scene to the editor and cried “like a baby” when he watched it. “[Henken] told me that it was more powerful, without seeing the tape. We don’t need to see it– we already saw what happened. The Shark gave his version, Lazaro gave his version, the Poet gave his version. We didn’t need to hear Nico’s version, but what we needed to hear was what one feels when one leaves Cuba”. The key to this scene, Henken added, was that though “he didn’t want to share that footage, he was willing to honestly tell you that”. This experience is a common nightmare for some people: the fear of not being able to go back home, or not being able to leave once you get home. That O’Reilly understood those feelings is brilliantly reflected in his documentary, which he considered as “an exorcist act to get that demon out in a way.” This damage will be there for generations, but he notes that “that’s the more reason we write books.”

To really get into “Cuba under the surface”, Henken suggests the podcast Scattered, in which it unfolds a story about a Cuban American who goes back to Cuba after his father’s death. Another is a book called Finding Mañana by Mirta Ojito, which is about a Cuban American who came with the Mariel boatlift in 1980. O’Reilly suggests a YouTube channel by Eliécer Avila, where he updates about Cuba with videos and testimonies, exposé, and denouncements people send him.

From this documentary, there are different things we can take away. Henken hoped that though the pretext may be about conga, we could see “Cuba under the surface” as the subtitle suggests. O’Reilly hopes that “we are able to be more honest about the world in Cuba and the experiences there, and to have the courage to tell it, and to find inspiration from it.” He also would love for people to spread the word, and feel pride in the legacy and heritage as well as denounce what is holding them back. This documentary overall reminds us that instability still resides in the world, even if we might not directly experience it. Not only did O’Reilly showcase a specific Cuban experience, but he also captures the drastic influence a government can have on countless people, from their daily lives to big events like the carnival. Most importantly, he makes us identify with the inescapable feelings that trail along as a result of that damage. 

ED NOTE: A version of this article was originally published in The Ticker on February 13, 2023. We are pleased to publish an expanded version here.