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Castro’s Spies: A European Perspective

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Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon, directors and producers at Gambit Pictures.

On November 19, we spoke with Ollie Aslin (director/producer/editor) and Gary Lennon (director/producer) on their latest film Castro’s Spies, (Gambit Pictures 2020).

The film had its World Premiere at the Cork International Film Festival and is screening at the Havana Film Festival under the Special Presentation category this December. The prestigious Havana Film Festival opens on December 3.

Castro’s Spies is the tale of the Cuban Five, a group of elite Cuban intelligence officers who went to live undercover in Florida in the 1990s. The Cuban Five, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González reveal how they gave up their lives in Cuba to serve their country.

What makes this a superb documentary is that it considers the political and historical context in which the story takes place. The filmmakers speak to both sides of the equation: to former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Guy Lewis, and founder of Brothers to the Rescue, José Basulto, a participant in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and a former CIA agent.

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It is an exceptional film in its objectivity because it tells the complete story with key players from both sides.

Castro’s Spies, an Irish production, received development and production funding from Screen Ireland (Ireland’s national film board).
 
Cuba Business Report: How did two guys from Ireland and the UK come up with the initial concept to make a film called Castro’s Spies? Ireland and the UK are a long, long way from Cuba.

Ollie Aslin:

My involvement in the story began a long time ago back in 2005. And as often happens with documentaries, there is a long period of discovery and research. It all began with seeing a bumper sticker on a car that simply said, “Free the Miami Five.” We’re always looking for stories, and this was one I was glad I followed up on.

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I’d never heard of the Miami Five, a group that would become known in Europe as the Cuban Five. I began to research the story more. I found that there was a large international campaign to free the Cuban Five supported by individuals involved in solidarity groups and also from larger human rights organizations including Amnesty International. We looked deeper into the story and really thought it was something we’d love to make a film about.

What did you find most fascinating about the entire story. For me, it was the miscarriage of justice, and it’s so tinged with the sentiments of the people in Miami, the anti-Castro group.

Gary:

What we found most interesting was the access we were able to get to characters in the film, and how willing they were to tell their stories. People have asked us quite a few times, did we find it hard pulling the stories out of people? Did we find it hard getting people to tell us what actually happened? Our experience was, that was far from the case. And one of the reasons that so attracted us to this story was that it was a group of spies who had led this extraordinary life. They were not a group of people that had changed sides. They weren’t people that had had some type of Damascene moment where they swapped sides or were whistleblowers like in the well-documented case of Edward Snowden.
 
The Cuban Five would absolutely do what they did again tomorrow if they were required to do it. So, that is a really fascinating starting point for us as filmmakers. Why? We were fascinated by what causes people to do extraordinary things for their country. And ultimately it is a love of their country that led them to make these choices. We live in general quiet lives, safe lives. So it’s really fascinating for just an average person, like us, to hear these people that lived extraordinary lives.
 
Then on the other side of the table, and the other side of the Florida Straits, what we found equally interesting was how people that are in anti-Castro organizations feel 100 percent correct in their attitude. They feel entirely justified in everything they were doing and everything they did. You had both sets of people on both sides of this extremely emotive issue that were very happy to say what they felt and perhaps more importantly to explain their actions.
 
We have recorded testimony, massive amounts of research, and there is a 7,000 page trial transcript. We have over the years accumulated a huge amount of evidence to show what happened from both sides. And both sides were very open about saying what they did. It wasn’t a question of us pulling these stories out of people by some type of filmmaker’s subtlety or skill. They were all very upfront. They told us what happened from their own personal experiences.
 
Because we came at this as European filmmakers, far away from the tenser nuances of US-Cuba relations, we didn’t come at this with any sort of political agenda. We came at this as filmmakers who wanted to make an insightful and entertaining film. We have an ethical code that we have to be truthful and we have to be honest with the material no matter what we discover. We tell the story as we see it and as it is told to us by the characters we interview. We didn’t approach this with an agenda of either pro-or anti-Castro’s Cuba. We feel it’s a balanced and truthful film, and we can leave it up to the audience to decide where their loyalties lie.

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Yes, I found one of the most striking aspects of the film was the balance and the unbiasedness, because it listens to all the stories, as you said. Why did you feel the need to tell this story?

Gary:

I’m Irish, Ollie is from the UK, and we’re both based in Ireland – and we’re both attracted to compelling stories. We’re filmmakers. It’s the stories and characters that always fascinate us. We had a group of extraordinary characters in front of us. We had former CIA agents. We had the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. We had five Cuban spies that had led extraordinary lives. The things that José Basulto did in his lifetime are truly remarkable. He’s very open about it. He was a former agent of the CIA. He set up his charity to rescue people, the rafters, in the Florida Straits. He saved many lives, but then he also flew into Cuban airspace without permission many times. And he openly admits to shooting a cannon at a hotel. These are not the actions of an average person. From a filmmaker’s perspective, this is fascinating. That was what really attracted us. And the other thing we wanted was to have first-hand testimony. We wanted to have the people, the actual people that experienced it and did it, as opposed to experts talking about it. And that’s what drove our characters and our selection of people you see on screen.

Ollie:

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A huge challenge in the making of the film was this is a story that people simply don’t know about, certainly in Europe. The film premiered last week at the Cork Film Festival in Ireland. We’re getting responses back from people saying, I thought I knew a bit about Cuban history. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
 
There’s a history section at the start of the film. We felt it was crucial to give context to the story, to set up who the Cuban spies were, who the Cuban exiles were, and the environment and the politics they had grown up within. There was a huge amount of information to squeeze into the film. To continue from what Gary had said, we wanted to tell this remarkable story from a human perspective, rather than a political perspective. Not as observers or historians talking about why people did this, but the experiences people had growing up. René González (one of the Cuban Five) recounts an early childhood memory of a hotel on the Havana shoreline being fired on by a cannon. We hear straight after this José Basulto’s memories of actually firing the cannon. There was a challenge in that we wanted to get straight to the human story. But also, we needed to tell that history, which I think is important to give context.

I liked the framework of the spy TV show (En Silencio) that surrounds the documentary.

Ollie: 

For us, documentary making is a very fluid process. So the use of this footage came about from an interview with Fernando Gonzalez, in Havana. He was recounting his painful memories of the funeral in Revolution Square for the Cuban Flight 455 victims. Then he just said out of nowhere, without any discussion or prompting, “a few years later there was TV show” (En Silencio) and then we were like, OK, great, what’s this TV show? Then we got the TV show off the Cuban TV network and we looked at it and we’re like, oh my God! The series was the story of a Cuban spy infiltrating the Cuban exile community in the US and was based on real-life events. It entirely changed the shape and importantly the style of the film. We embraced this kitsch 1970’s TV show in all its glory. It’s very much of its time, not dissimilar to spy thrillers from any other country at that moment. It gave us this great opportunity to enjoy that. But also gave us an opportunity to show the secret and hidden life of a spy.

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Gary:

By their very nature, spies do things in the shadows. You know, they do things where people can’t see them. So as filmmakers, we were really challenged how you show that to people on the screen. And this was the device we chose. It gave the film a very distinct look and style. It really put it in that place and it put it very much in Cuban popular culture. The series was the most watched TV show in Cuba at the time. But, it also had a practical benefit. We were able to use the TV show to help us show visually the secret life of a spy, their spy-craft, to actually see spies in action.

The quote, “History Is Written by the Victors” – incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill – did this influence your goals in what you wanted to achieve with this film?

Gary:

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Well, I think that quote has been shown to be true in many instances and one can give many examples, but from our perspective, we’re filmmakers, not historians. I’m fascinated by history. I did it in college. I tend to if I’m reading a book on a beach, I will be reading a history book. But we are primarily filmmakers. Our aim was to make an engaging film with this amazing group of characters.

Ollie:

History is often written in the wider politics of things, not by the foot soldiers. We wanted to go into the personal experiences of people that lived the story. This is also why we felt it was important to hear from other characters; the wives, daughters, lawyers, to get a really personal perspective of that history. And through their experiences we were able to give a sense of the wider geopolitical landscape they inhabited. We wanted to focus on the personal experience and what would drive these exceptional people to do these exceptional things.

Gary:

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The Cuban Five have a level of fame in Cuba which is similar to maybe U2 in Ireland or Diego Maradona in Argentina or Michael Jordan in America. They’re hugely famous. But it is reasonable to say that their story was largely unknown outside Cuba and Florida. As someone who reads the papers every day, reads books and magazines, their story wasn’t out there that much. When Ollie originally researched the story, he had to really search for it. It wasn’t broadly reported. So that’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity for us. And that allowed us to bring the story, we hope, to a wider audience.
 
Our aim is for people to see our films. We want as broad an audience as possible. Obviously, we want people to love our films, but we also want lots of people to see them. There’s nothing worse than having the film sit on a shelf or hidden away in the corners of an obscure film festival. So it’s absolutely our aim to get the biggest audiences possible, in particular in North America, because ultimately the majority of the film is based in the US. So that’s kind of the natural home for it to be seen by as many people there as possible.

I’m not saying here that there is a winner or a loser, but Cuba has definitely been blocked by the U.S. from developing its economy as far as trade and access to banking institutions go. Government institutions are smeared, et cetera. But would you agree that the common story propagated by the US government and its media surrounding the Cuban Five and also more recently in the film WASP Network, supports the accepted story which is biased in the Western media to support continued efforts by the U.S. government for “regime change?

Ollie:

Apologies for repeating ourselves, but in Europe we are removed from these political affairs. They simply don’t make it into the press over here. So again, we were coming to this quite cold. It gave us the opportunity to look at the story outside of the politics. As Gary said, we’re not historians. But there’s an element of the historian that has to come in. You have to do your research and you have to check your research. When I first started researching this story I knew nothing about the embargo against Cuba. Or of any of the more specific political nuances such as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. So for us, we had to fast track our education in US-Cuba politics. It would probably be wrong for either of us to really be able to give a true opinion on your question. Other than it really opened our eyes to the tense US-Cuba relations, which are still very much relevant today.

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Gary:

A major part of our story is the spies’ actions in the early to mid-90s. It was important for us to show the broader political landscape because that drove their actions. A lot of their actions were reactive to other things. And then the people on the other side of the argument, they reacted to things as a result of that. So, you know, the story is linked to international affairs. Their stories don’t and shouldn’t exist in a vacuum.
  
What challenges did you face in making this documentary?

Ollie:

Initially, a challenge for us was our physical distance from the Americas. Once we become more involved with the story and the contributors, this became substantially easier. Cuba especially is quite a remote country. Whatsapp and mobile phones are now more commonplace but contact was at first complicated. It takes a long time, a lot of ringing landlines. The first thing you need to do is get permission to film people. And we live on the other side of the Atlantic. So it’s quite a challenge. So a trip to Miami or trip to Havana, you really have to cram a lot of stuff in. I think probably our initial challenge was to get the right interviews with the right people.
 
But by far the biggest challenge was figuring out how to cram the story and the history in the film into a circa 90-minute film. The story begins in the 1500s and goes up to 2015, and so it’s rather a large period to cover. There were so many stories we didn’t cover in the film because there just wasn’t time. A challenge within that was being able to tell the character’s stories as well the history and getting the balance right. You need to know the history to understand the character’s actions. So much time was spent in the edit phase, just making sure that we were telling what we felt were the most important elements of this story and that the film flowed and made sense.
 
This is a dense and truly complicated story. It is Cubans fighting Cubans across the Florida Straits, not far from a civil war. Not an official one, but not far from it. Even just trying to explain to people that ask, ‘what’s your film about,” was in the early stages a challenge.

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Gary:

I think like all filmmakers in this genre; the scale is large. Ollie started working on this over a decade ago. It’s a vast enterprise. It’s a huge logistical enterprise. And it’s one that involves an awful lot of endurance. And like any other film, we needed finance. And finance is one of the hardest things to obtain when making a film. We were very fortunate that we got wonderful support from our National Film Board, they’re called Screen Ireland, the Irish government as well, with a filmmaking tax credit. And also an extremely helpful group of private investors. And through those people, we were able to tell this story and make this film. You know, it’s not an Irish story. So it’s a harder thing for us to get over the line. So that took a lot of endurance.
 
So the three things that were the big challenges, was that initial finance one and the tyranny of distance that we had that Ollie described. And then it’s the final one, to make it a compelling and entertaining film in a feature-length duration. Ollie both directed and edited this. So if you can imagine this massive piece of granite that we kind of chipped away at it bit by bit to get to what I think is a beautiful sculpture in front of us now. It just takes a long time in the edit phase because this was such a big story. It’s not something that you can just play with for a couple of weeks. It was more than a year just in the edit and a vast amount of hours.
 
I think it’s very hard to wake up in the morning and do something for this long for this little money if you don’t like it. It’s good to pick a story you find fascinating with a great group of characters. We did this for a number of years because we found the story so compelling. We lived and breathed the story. We felt that it would have a wide audience appeal and that allowed us to do this and carry it through the challenges we faced. And there’s quite a few lows. You think it’s not going to get made and you’re going up against the challenges of raising finance and distribution in particular. So all of those things, it’s a big, long process. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint. Hopefully, we feel we’ve got the right team together. We’ve got one of the world’s leading sales agents Submarine with us. So we hope to get our film out to as big an audience as possible.

Will Castro Spies be shown to other film festivals?

Yes. It’s in what’s known as the festival run at the moment. Our world Premiere was in Cork International Film Festival in November, and the second screening is in the Havana Film Festival in December. We are currently hoping to get into some other ones, and we’re hoping for a great festival launch in North America.

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Your film was accepted at the Havana Film Festival, would you like to tell us anything else about that?

They’ve made the announcement literally, I think twenty minutes ago. One of the reasons we went for Cork was they tried their very best to do a physical festival. Castro’s Spies is what’s known as a feature-length documentary. It’s a documentary that is primarily or initially intended to screen in the cinema. It’s shot to the quality that it will screen as well as any other film you watch. The sound is designed to be heard in the cinema. So Cork tried their best to show it in the cinema and we got very close to that. But then Ireland went into its second lockdown, so there was no way it could happen. So the festival went online.

Cuba is hosting a physical festival. So it’s really exciting that it will be screening in the cinema very soon. Unfortunately, we can’t be there due to Covid restrictions. But we’re delighted it’s going ahead.

The film being screened in the cinema is just super because the atmosphere is different in the cinema. You know, you sit down, you’re in the dark, you have your popcorn, and you’re going to see it as it is supposed to be seen – no distractions! It gives a different experience.

Cinema is just this magical thing.
 
Tell us about the assistance Cuba gave in preparing for the making of this documentary?

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We received wonderful support from all the key people in the film. The Cuban Five, the cultural institutions in Cuba, the Cuban Film Institute and the national Cuban TV network. The Ambassador in Ireland and Canada were extremely helpful. The Canadian embassy and the team there have been wonderfully supportive, and many of them played a direct role in the story of the Cuban Five. They’ve been a huge source of support. But it is important to note that we also got great support in America. From the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Guy Lewis, the legal teams as well as the universities in Florida and also the FBI.
 
It was very nice to talk to you. Lovely to meet you. Yes. Thank you guys. Thank you.

A pleasure. Thanks so much for taking the time to interview us.

We’ve had some great reviews from our Cork World Premiere that your readers may be interested to take a look at:

Screen International

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Cineuropa (also available in Spanish on the site)

The Irish Times

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