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Chapel Hill native’s ‘Havana’ documentary shows passion of racing

Jote with what's left of his car in the backyard of a friend's house in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, May 31, 2014. Chapel Hill native Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s “Havana Motor Club” will premiere at the Havana Film Festival this week and in U.S. theaters in 2016.
Jote with what's left of his car in the backyard of a friend's house in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, May 31, 2014. Chapel Hill native Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s “Havana Motor Club” will premiere at the Havana Film Festival this week and in U.S. theaters in 2016. Luiz Maximiano

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt was in Cuba working on a screenplay based in that country when he was invited to a party honoring a kidnapping.

It seems that in 1958, Juan Manuel Fangio, then the world’s premiere Formula 1 race car driver, was abducted prior to the beginning of the Cuban Grand Prix by members of Fidel Castro’s rebel movement. The government’s inability to find the kidnappers (Fangio was released unharmed) “in a way put the revolution on the map,” says Perlmutt, and has been celebrated ever since with festivities and a parade of classic cars around Havana.

That’s when Perlmutt, a Chapel Hill native and former student body president at Chapel Hill High School, found out that race car driving had been banned by the Castro government – it was considered elitist – and that a group of underground drivers was trying to put together the first government-sanctioned race in over 50 years. The result is “Havana Motor Club,” a wildly entertaining documentary about the men and their passion, which will screen at the Havana Film Festival this week and be released theatrically in the U.S. next year.

“I thought I was making a ‘Waiting For Godot’ story, which is very Cuban,” says Perlmutt, referring to the extended process to get the race underway, which involved endless meetings, several postponements, major concerns about crowd control and other issues.

“The government’s biggest concern was an accident happening,” says Perlmutt. “It’s not supposed to be a competitive sport, but there is this underground of betting, and the government is trying to undermine real competition. They feel it’s not a sport of the people, but our movie tries to show it is a sport of the people.”

These are not cars built for Formula 1 racing. Most are ’50s relics – including a Soviet era Lada and Moscovich – which have been souped up with spare parts cobbled together from other cars and, if the driver has a connection in Miami, parts flown in from the U.S. It’s basically drag racing over very short tracks, anywhere from 60 to 400 meters. But the enthusiasm of the driver/owners matches anything seen in the U.S. or Europe.

Working with a Cuban film crew was, however, a bit of a learning experience for Perlmutt. While he praises their technical skills, he notes that “in Cuba, most documentaries are made for TV; it’s more a journalistic piece, with a narrator describing what’s going on. They’re good at capturing the images they need, but as far as being a fly on the wall, spending a lot of time with subjects, that was a new experience for them. They were always trying to set up shots, instead of capturing what was happening in front of us.”

The final result, however, is a joyous example of guerrilla filmmaking – the car owners argue, boast, complain and tinker with their autos. The race finally comes off, the crowd is great, and everyone goes home hoping they have made a significant breakthrough for their sport.

Perlmutt, who welcomes the opening up to Cuba that President Barack Obama has encouraged, and who hopes that the trade embargo will be overturned, feels his film “shows the changes happening in Cuba through a unique perspective. You see a combination of Cuban creativity and perseverance. I hope it opens up a more nuanced look at Cuban culture. I’m excited to see what happens when it is shown in North Carolina, with all the NASCAR fans. I hope we can get a wider audience of car lovers.”

‘Havana Motor Club’

Learn more about the film at havanamotorclub.com.

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