The Havana Motor Club interview with director B.J Perlmutt by Mark MacInnis

If Detroit is known as the “Motor City”, should we start calling Cuba the “Motor Island”?

Yes! The streets of Cuba contain a “rolling” museum of classic American cars, and in a very natural and practical way, Cuba has preserved a beautiful piece of Detroit’s history for all to see.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 11.08.15 PMHow did you guys discover underground drag racing in Cuba and from that moment how long did it take to finish the film?

In January 2012, we were invited to an event at the “Amigos de Fangio” car club where they were celebrating the kidnapping of Argentine Formula One racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio. While we were there, they announced that in just six weeks, Cuba would be holding its first official car race since shortly after the Revolution. We then met with the head of one of Cuba’s car clubs who introduced us to several of Cuba’s top underground drag racers and their vibrant community. We filmed days and nights with them as they prepared their classic cars for this historic race, however three days before the race, the Pope announced his visit to Cuba, and the race was canceled because they claimed they needed all the barricades that they were going to use for the race, for the Pope. The race kept getting postponed, and without revealing the the film’s finale, we ended up working on it for over 3.5 years!

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 11.09.56 PMWhat was one of the biggest challenges making the film?

I had lived in Argentina and spoke Spanish proficiently, but Cuban Spanish is from another planet and it took me a long time to understand it, particularly among the mechanics who had their own slang. I was fortunate to have a Latino crew from all over Latin America (mostly Cuban). Another challenge was securing permits in a timely fashion. And then of course it was very difficult to secure any electronic/film equipment.

One of the racers recovered an engine from the ocean floor that was used to smuggle Cubans off the island. He then found away to use that in his car? Talk to us about that and the ingenuity you came across. I guess it’s true what they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention”?

The Cuban racers featured in our film invent out of necessity, mostly because of the U.S. embargo that Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 11.09.30 PMrestricts them from getting the parts and supplies they need from the U.S. for their old American cars. In spite of this embargo, not only have they been able to maintain these cars on the streets of Havana for over 50 years, they’ve also been able to build them into racing machines that can compete with top drag racers all over the world. What they cannot buy, they invent and create.

You spend lots of time with your subjects when making a documentary. What was the overall feeling from the racers and their family’s on how Cuba is changing and on Obama’s recent moves to normalize relations? Have they noticed any change?

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 11.09.02 PMMost Cubans have friends and family in the US, and are closely tied to American culture. My subjects and their families were thrilled about Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba because it will allow them to engage more with Americans. The one fear that many of them have is that only certain Cubans will benefit from the new relationship Cuba has with the U.S., which will result in more inequality in Cuba. This inequality has already been demonstrated in the world of drag racing in Cuba, where now there are many more modern cars racing against the classic cars. Our racers now have to compete with a huge influx of money and technology coming in to Cuba that give less skilled racing teams an unfair advantage.

As far as other changes that they’ve noticed, they feel like it’s now easier to bring in parts from the U.S. and they’re excited to have the opportunity to meet car aficionados from the U.S. who have been coming in droves to Havana since Obama normalized relations.

You’re coming to Detroit to present your film and do the Q and A. We are currently trying to get a couple of the racers to join you, what are their thought about visiting Detroit?  It must be exciting for you after being around all those vehicles made in Detroit.

It looks like at least Piti, one of the racers, will me joining me in Detroit. He’s over the moon about this trip, as he sees Detroit as his Mecca. He hopes to be given tours of as many car museums and factories as possible. He’s OBSESSED with Mustangs, so I hope he’ll at least have a chance to visit the Mustang factory.

I’m really excited about my trip to Detroit as well. I’ve only been once to screen a documentary I produced in 2004 (CONTROL ROOM), but I was only there for two days and didn’t get to travel much. I’m most excited to experience Detroit through the eyes of Piti (and hopefully some of the other racers), and I can’t wait to check out the roots of their passion.