Bonavista Social Club: 41 Years of Waiting For Fidel

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Smallwood & Stirling, By J.H. Burns

Forty years before Obama announced his willingness to open diplomatic pathways with Cuba, two distinguished Newfoundlanders, Joey Smallwood and Geoff Stirling, attempted their own form of diplomacy with the island nation, [albeit, unofficially and more than a little eccentrically.] In 1974, Smallwood and Stirling were invited to Cuba by Fidel Castro to conduct an interview with the controversial leader. Following them was director Michael Rubbo and a film crew who intended to make a documentary out of Smallwood and Castro’s meeting. Yet, to their chagrin, Smallwood and Stirling find themselves evaded by Castro.

While they wait, Castro is filmed at a Havana airstrip waiting instead for Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany, who would take up all of Castro’s time. With the exception of a brief, un-filmed meeting between Castro and Smallwood at a dinner banquet, their expected interview never takes place, as they are outshone by a bigger fish.

Rubbo, in an attempt to salvage his documentary, re-names the film Waiting for Fidel. Stirling and Smallwood sift for their answers among the Cuban people. However, it would be unfair to claim that Waiting for Fidel is strictly a documentary about Cuba, despite it being the exclusive setting for the film. Nor is it a film entirely focused on Fidel Castro, despite the fact that his name graces the title. Instead, it could be apt to call it a documentary concerning contingency and blindness.

Imagine the position of the filmmaker- having already used enough film to bisect Cuba horizontally, and the inevitability of having to answer for a climbing price tag which worries even Geoff Stirling. In the absence of the superstar Castro, the best possible choice is to instead focus on the two esoteric characters flown there to interview him.

Smallwood and Stirling: singular, intelligent, conflicted with themselves and each other. They are perhaps two of the most ideal people to be stuck with when a void in personality needs to be filled. However, Rubbo’s decision to keep the film rolling comes at a cost. Both Stirling and Smallwood have brought their own intellectual baggage on their trip. Overweight, the documentary loses is grasp on the heart of Cuba and instead reports on how two outsiders come to see it.

Smallwood's stroll on the beach, By J.H. Burns

Smallwood’s stroll on the beach, By J.H. Burns

Just two years before the filming of the documentary, Smallwood lost control of the premiership and party that he had run in Newfoundland since 1949. As premier, his failures were often filled with good intentions, yet his successes were just as often dubious. In Cuba, Smallwood is shown many of the social programs he tried to initiate as premier and as a self-proclaimed socialist. We see of these a small sample of these projects in the documentary; though Newfoundland’s own sour history with many of them are often the main topic of conversation. The student protest of 1959 in St. John’s, job creation, and proper housing are just some of Smallwood’s initiatives that are mentioned both directly and obliquely. For all of his experience with the lack of sustainability of these projects, he is still enamoured with them when he sees their implementation in Cuba. Nearly every institution that the crew visits followed by a shot of Smallwood gushing over the Cuban efficacy. Even questionable child labour in the school curriculum leaves Smallwood flushed and smiling. When he is challenged by Stirling over his support of the working classroom Smallwood states that he “would like to see every child in Newfoundland and in Canada work” What Smallwood sees is a small sample of Cuba, yet he seems ready to swallow it whole.

Even though Joey Smallwood and Geoff Stirling have been friends for decades, Stirling is of different mind when it comes to Cuba. Awkward scenes ensue where the weight of Smallwood’s failures is used like a maul by Stirling to strike down Cuba’s own experimentation with them. When Stirling mentions Newfoundland’s 1959 student protest to question students ability to protest in Cuban universities, the camera cuts to Smallwood’s visage in the heat of embarrassment. Stirling–a media mogul, philanthropist, and self made man–was disillusioned with the post-revolutionary state of affairs under Castro. Stirling positions himself as a defender of the free market economy that has treated him so well and takes every opportunity in the documentary to argue with Rubbo, Smallwood and the Cuban people over the economy that they endorse. Between bouts of yoga, poolside or at the infamous Bay of Pigs, he expounds on the diffuse topics of capitalism: gold prices , presidential elections and the benefits of the free market in pursuit of a persons highest potential.

Often attributed with mystical beliefs, and surrounded by legend and anecdote, Stirling is the least unmoored from reality of his fellow travellers. He questions Rubbo as to the profitability of a film in which Castro does not appear, and knows dressed-up child labour when he sees it. However, this reality is skin deep. Stirling’s militant endorsement of capitalism clashes with the lessons learned throughout Cuban history. Ultimately, when Cuba had a free market economy it came with the expense of its own freedom . Before Castro, Cuba was almost entirely under the dominion of the United States. Between the Platt Amendment which led to U.S. dominance in Cuba and United Fruit Company’s exploitation, which left the country hamstrung and dependant, money flowed out of the country and across the Florida straits until businesses were appropriated by Castro in 1961. Stirling didn’t care much for Cuba after the revolution.

Waiting for Fidel shows so little of Cuba and its people that the country can not actually be said to have been seen by Stirling and Smallwood at all. The duo proceed from appointment to appointment and then return to the house that was provided for them. Restricted by arrangement and translation who is to say what was missed, what opinions were held back, tongue’s bitten in front of the men who are to meet Castro. In the beginning of the film it is mentioned that Stirling found post-revolutionary Havana “seedy and run down”. Unfortunately the Havana he refers to missed the celluloid. Absent are the drugs, violence, and abject poverty Smallwood was anxious to question Castro about. These too were overexposed by the gaiety of students and hospital patients farming vast fields of roses. If this documentary was about Cuba itself perhaps these things would not have been missed. However, this is not to say that Waiting for Fidel isn’t intriguing for other reasons. The film is exemplary of outside attitudes about the mysterious Cuba and the remote in general. Your expectations and experience will inevitably influence what you actually see, whether you look through a rose coloured lens or left the lens cap on. Ultimately, no country on earth is either entirely romantic or completely backwards. Yet, Stirling and Smallwood depart Cuba polarized though they hardly leave each others side. The socialist and the Capitalist fly to Cuba and see exactly what they expect to. For this reason the documentary is worth watching, as it highlights how political opinions are made from the outside without having to look in. While Smallwood and Castro wait for Fidel to settle the debate, Cuba waits in the wings.

Waiting For Fidel is free to watch on the National Film Board of Canada’s YouTube Channel:

The film is also free to watch on NFB’s website.

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