Thursday, May 19, 2016

Racing to Revolution

Cars are often referred to as revolutionary in terms of design or innovation but they are not as often thought of as being tools of revolution or resistance themselves. The documentary Havana MotorClub, however, changes this and highlights the potential for cars and auto racing to be at the forefront of revolution and resistance.

Havana Motor Club tells the story of auto racing and automotive ingenuity in Cuba. It begins with an explanation of how auto racing functioned in Cuba prior to the communist revolution. At that point, cars in Cuba were symbols of luxury and auto racing had become so ingrained in society that Havana was the site of a Formula One race in 1958. The event was highly publicized, symbolizing a step for Cuba’s advancement in the eyes of some and the decadence of capitalism in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, the event was marred by tragedy when a car participating in the race lost control, veering into the cheering crowd and killed and injured a number of spectators.

Shortly thereafter, the communist revolution occurred in Cuba and all forms of auto racing were outlawed. This did not stop Cubans from maintaining a love affair with their cars – albeit cars that are essentially frozen in time in the 1950s. This also failed to stop Cubans from engaging in auto races, however these races were forced underground and became illegal activities. Still, races occurred in the middle of traffic or at night on more deserted strips of land, all under the threat of jail time and the confiscation of participating cars. These threats were not enough to stop the development of a well-known racing culture that features several prominent garages and personalities.

The film features interviews with members of these garages, who demonstrate their engineering skills in building and rebuilding cars – for licit purposes as well as racing purposes – despite embargoes and lack of spare parts. To the racers/mechanics profiled, it is clear that cars and the pursuit of racing despite the risk has become an essential part of their identities and families, in some cases extending to generations and across gender lines. It is also clear that there are dangers in the races to the drivers and to the spectators as a result of the illegal nature of competitions.

The first step toward legitimization of the races came in 2012 when the government agreed to allow an historic race to occur. During the weeks prior to the face, the film portrays the successes, failures and sacrifices of those who seek to participate. And yet, shortly before the race was scheduled to occur it was suspended by the government ostensibly due to issues with crowd control capabilities since the Pope was visiting at the same time. Despite this explanation, the outraged would-be racers – some of whom devoted decades to cars and the pursuit of racing – believe that there is a deeper political motivation at work.

Cancellation of the planned race does not suspend illegal racing or efforts by many in the racing community to press for another legal race. In the meantime, racers continue to race despite the potential repercussions and their garages continue to refine the capacities of their cars.

Eventually, the government relents and agrees to allow a race to be held. This generates hope within the auto racing community but this is tempered by some level of disbelief given the prior attempts at racing legally. At the same time, leaders within the community become acutely aware of the scrutiny that will be placed on the event and the need to ensure things such as crowd control and safety along with control among the racers themselves. Shortly before the race the official media host for the event announces to the community that his coverage of the race will not be aired on state television. Still, he maintains that he will thoroughly cover the event for posterity and to provide the community with evidence of the popularity and safety of racing.

Race day is of course quite tense for the racers, their garages and their families. The event is popular, drawing a good crowd, which makes the community’s officials concerned because of worries that the crowds will stand in dangerous places or come onto the track and cause another tragedy that will set back the cause of legalizing racing in Cuba. Throughout the pre-race announcements there are constant reminders of this and in between races the announcer must plead with the crowd to stay back from the track. Ultimately, all of the races scheduled are successfully and safely run, and the most anticipated race ends in a photo-finish – truly an ending fit for a film. And yet, at the end there is a reminder that racing is still illegal in Cuba as of the release time of the film in 2015.

Havana Motor Club is a fascinating view into part of Cuba that is unseen even with the increase in tourism opportunities for Americans and others. While Cuba is known for the preservation of cars from the 1950s, the racing culture is necessarily kept behind closed doors even from other Cubans as a result of its illegal status.

And yet, as portrayed in the film, auto racing in Cuba as emblematic of the ways in which sports can be used as vehicles of revolution and resistance. Feelings toward the Castro regime are irrelevant in this discussion. Instead the issue of revolution and resistance is related to laws that are seen as unpopular, unnecessary and, in many ways, slowing societal progress in Cuba. The racers and those associated with them act in defiance of laws that have existed for decades, offering overt forms of revolution against them and active means of resisting them.

When provided a window on legality, the racing community is eager to participate yet aware that it must organize carefully and create a well-executed spectacle to establish itself as legitimate. This provides the racers with a unique opportunity yet, as they are reminded by officials, requires them to shed some of the revolutionary aspects they were forced to adopt in order to race to begin with. In this way, the film demonstrates the ways that revolution and resistance can occur in unlikely places and among unlikely communities that might not consider themselves agents of revolution and resistance.

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