In the 1940s, a musical movement appeared in Havana. He had troubadour roots and a jazz influence; instead of relying on technique, he focused on emotion and freedom. It’s poetry turned into music, and at 91, legendary singer Omara Portuondo is still waving her flag. The name of this movement (some call it a genre) is ‘filin’ or ‘feeling’ which is exactly what Hugo PÃ©rez conveys with Omara, a moving documentary exploration of La Novia del Filin which will have its world premiere at DOC NYC 2021.
“The way she communicates with people and expresses all that she has in her is through her songs,” PÃ©rez said during my interview with him about his iconic subject that we follow throughout. of the film as she performs with passion in Cuba, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. Age is not a problem; despite a career spanning seven decades, the former Buena Vista Social Club displays remarkable energy, contagious joy and an inspiring state of mind. The documentary is both a tribute to this Cuban icon and an uplifting source of motivation.
On its surface, Omara sounds like a simple biographical documentary, but after listening to Omara’s song, you’ll realize the brilliance behind PÃ©rez’s directing: instead of using an abundance of talking heads, he lets his music guide you in his soul. Not just live performances, but impromptu chants on the street while visiting his old house or in the middle of a press interview.
Before the premiere of Omara at DOC NYC 2021, I spoke with Hugo PÃ©rez about his approach to directing Omara, musical storytelling, its importance in the Afro Latinx identity, the state of non-fiction cinema, and more.
BUT WHY THO: How did the Omara project come about?
Hugo: My family is from Cuba. I was born in New York, but in 1996 I started traveling back and forth to work on different projects. I first met Omara about 10 years ago. There was a special concert that friends of mine were having. We had all the clearances in Cuba, but when we got back to the United States we were told that even though it was not a political show, because it was Cuba, it was too political to do, so all did not happen. But as a result, I met Omara and her son Ariel Portuondo. Flash forward eight years and I was producing for someone else a documentary about Cuban baseball and the black leagues, and it turns out that Omara’s dad Bartolo was one of baseball’s great players not only. in Cuba, but in the black leagues of the 1920s. We did an interview with Omara about it, but she had to fly to Poland for a tour. His son Ariel and I stayed, we had an espresso in his kitchen and on top of that he said, “Are you interested in making a movie about my mother?” If you are interested, I can give you the rights to make the film. ‘
This doesn’t normally happen when you suddenly have the rights to make a movie about an iconic figure. You usually have to hunt them for many years. In this case, Ariel and I had a good friendship, and he felt he could trust me. So I thought it would be a really interesting opportunity to portray an artist in the third act of his life. Looks like Omara has a different quality when she sings now than when she was younger. For me it’s even more powerful and heartbreaking, so I thought it could be really great. Imagine if you could make a documentary about Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf or one of the great singers at the end of their life. And there, I have this opportunity to make a film on Omara. I had to do it.
BUT WHY THO: Throughout the documentary, it’s clear that Omara has all of these protective barriers around her. She refuses to reveal anything about her past and her personal history. How did you structure this documentary, realizing that?
Hugo: There are a lot of things she didn’t want to talk about and I knew that before the movie, and it’s a challenge. How do you make a film about someone who doesn’t want to reveal anything? I felt that the way she communicates with people and expresses everything she has in her goes through her songs. So I started to think of the film almost like a musical. We take you into the details of her life, but instead of Omara telling you how things turned out and how she felt, we’ve cut out some iconic songs and moments from her life. For example, there’s a scene where she goes back to her neighborhood, talks about her mother and her upbringing, and sings Amiga.
Today, when you watch these kinds of biopics, every little detail is given to you. Everyone examines and decides. Here we have a woman with a certain mystery surrounding her life. Do you want to know her? Well, listen to her sing. It’s not going to tell you the details, but it will take you into her soul and her heart, and you will know how she feels. You may not know the details, but you will know what his feelings are.
BUT WHY THO: How did you decide to shoot the last scene with Omara looking over an empty stage?
Hugo: One night she had just played a show in New York to a full house, there was a dinner party upstairs, but Omara couldn’t go up and down the stairs. So while everyone was going up at the end of the night, I kept him company on stage. The theater was dark. It was just me and her, and she said, “You can’t imagine how many nights I’ve had like this.” And then I had this revelation: she could play in front of 1,000 people or 15,000,000 people, but at the end of the night, the audience leaves, her family goes to bed, and that’s just her. and his memories. So I wanted to end the film with something poignant and beautiful: to show how, even if only her, she can fill this empty space with her music. It seemed fair to me. And just before the scene, you hear her voice say: “Life gives you roses and gives you thorns”. And I feel like, when we listen to her, singing alone in an empty theater, we get that feeling of the duality of existence. Beauty and loneliness.
BUT WHY : Omara is a very important documentary for Afro Latinx representation. How do you see this aspect of American industry? Is it progressing?
Hugo: It appears that African-American representation has improved a bit in recent years. If you watch the big Marvel movies or Netflix, you can see it. But when you look at the Afro Latino experience, it always seems like an invisible demographic. There are several Afro-Latino actresses who have done well, but they are usually chosen as African-American.
I think this is the perfect time to explore the Afro-Latino identity and Omara is certainly one of the iconic figures of Latin America. The past two years have been a little frustrating for me because we had a hard time before COVID-19. We’ve been to a lot of big companies, and although people enjoy the movie and Omara, there’s always thatâ¦ they don’t get into it. The message I’m getting indirectly is that there isn’t a big enough market for this. And I have the impression that it is the opposite. When I see Omara in concert, and I see the way people respond to her, and the way Afro Latinos respond to herâ¦ look at the Tokyo section of the film.
Omara is performing in Tokyo and you see all these young Japanese women crying because of what she sings. She’s Afro Latina, but she’s a universal figure who connects with everyone. However, people still rank it. They say the demographics are not that big or that they will only appeal to an older audience. It’s funny because most of the people who are most excited about Omara that I have spoken to are young people. People in their twenties and thirties. It helps them connect with a sense of identity. It represents a direct line towards a certain cultural identity which is more and more lost. I think younger people, especially Afro Latinos, are looking to connect with a certain identity. They look at Omara and say: I connect with her.
BUT WHY THO: In your opinion, what is the state of non-fiction cinema right now? Is there more support from distributors? Is there more public interest?
Hugo: I think the public is very interested in documentaries. Today, I see a lot of my non-filmmaker friends watching documentaries. They talk about great documentaries they saw on HBO Where Netflix. And 10 years ago, they would never have used the word documentary at all. There is a bigger and hungrier audience than ever.
We are currently experiencing a documentary renaissance. There are so many interesting filmmakers who make so many interesting films, telling stories in a very creative way. It’s incredible. But, many of the more creative voices don’t necessarily find a large following. However, at the same time that we have a huge demand and a source of incredible creativity, there is a cookie cutter approach to creating high-end documentaries, especially in the realm of real crime. There is a certain similarity, a formula. There is a lot of money in it. But on the other hand, streamers are commissioning some really interesting work, like “A cop movie.” They are interested in documentaries that do creative things with form.
BUT WHY THO: You co-directed another documentary screening at DOC NYC: Once Upon a Time in Uganda. What can you tell me?
Hugo: I co-directed it with Cathryne Czubek. The idea started in 2014. My friend Alan Hofmanis, who is a subject in the film, went to Uganda to find these guys who were doing action films in the slums. He came back from that first trip and said, âHugo, I’m an action star in Uganda now. I immediately thought it would be an excellent documentary.
Isaac, Alain and Wakaliwood. This is one of the funniest groups of people I have ever hung out with in my life. From the minute we landed they greeted us and it was really amazing and fun to be there, to see them creating magic with nothing. Here in the “first world” everyone says they have no money. There are plenty of excuses not to make films, and over there they say, âOkay, we’re just going to make the film. We have no money, but we have ourselves, we have this camera, go out there and film. And it’s very exciting to be a part of it.
Once upon a time in Uganda and Omara are very different films aesthetically and in terms of subject matter, but one thing that both have in common is that you find a lot of joy in the things the subjects do, Omara with his music and Isaac Nabwana with the films they make. in Wakaliwood.
Omara will be screened in person on Saturday November 13 at the IFC Center and on Monday November 15 at CinÃ©polis Chelsea. It will also be available online from November 14 to 28. You can find more details and buy tickets at DOC NYC official website. You can read more about Once Upon a Time in Uganda at this link.
Ricardo is a Mexico City-based bilingual writer, Rotten Tomatoes Certified Film Critic and Digital Animation graduate. He loves cats, Mass Effect, Paddington and is the founder of the movie site “La Estatuilla.”