Filmmaker Explores Cuba's Surfing Prohibition

By David Jenison on February 7, 2018

"I didn't get into surfing in Maine," explains filmmaker Corey McLean, who directed the film Havana Libre about a group of wave riders fighting Cuba's surf prohibition. "I learned in the Caribbean, and then when I moved out here [to California], I was just kind of hooked on it."

Havana Libre follows two Cuban surfers, Frank and Yaya, through years of ups and downs that happened to coincide with landmark changes in U.S.-Cuba relations. Venice Beach-based Makewild Films, started by McLean with friends from his home state of Maine, captured timeless footage that tells the story of social, political and personal change through surfing. The award-winning filmmakers, who just released The Cuba Unknown photo book, plan to premiere Havana Libre later this year. PRØHBTD, which previously worked with Makewild Films on Cuba's tattooing prohibition, spoke with McLean about the forthcoming surf documentary. 

How did Havana Libre come together? 

I went down to Cuba on a whim and fell into this group of surfers who started showing me the country. As they started to share little tidbits of their culture and surf scene, it became clear that there was a story, and they were eager to tell it because there were rarely people who wanted to listen to it. When we went back, we wanted to make this film about how they don't have [surf] resources and how it is quasi-illegal, but it really became this exploration of surfing as an expression of independence and freedom and escape. It's the personal story of being young in Cuba, and surfing provided the means to tell it. 

Is surfing prohibited, is it a gray area, or is it just a way for the police to shake people down who try to express themselves? 

It's a gray area that requires some context. In Cuba, you can do pretty much what you want unless someone says you can't. There's a list of things that the government approves, and if it's not on that list, it's not explicitly illegal, but the government can decide when it wants to deem it illegal. That's not just with surfing. For example, I did the tattooing piece for PRØHBTD. Tattooing is illegal in Cuba and not because they slapped a sticker on the wall that says nobody can have tattoos. The government basically said, "We haven't given you a permit to make tattoos, so we can show up and confiscate all your gear." Those guys have gone through a lot as well, same as rock climbing. 

Rock climbing? 

[Government officials were] suspicious of groups of young men getting together in the mountains because it looked too familiar to the Revolution. It was the same thing. They were like, "Okay, if you want to keep doing what you're doing, you need to get permits from us," but there is no way to get a permit. 

With surfing, it was a little bit different. Surfing came about in Cuba around the same time the Soviet Union fell. The Soviet Union supported a lot of the Cuban economy, and when it fell, Cuba found itself in this really dark economic place. During that time, the U.S. had a policy that said any Cuban who stepped foot on American soil was considered a citizen, so thousands and thousands of Cubans fled by boat and raft to America. This is around the same time people were discovering surfing, so they'd get in the water, and the cops would stop them, take their boards and arrest them for trying to travel to Florida. 

There were a lot of really weird things that happened around surfing. There was this weird documentary that Cuba put together about how the CIA was trying to sneak in satellites through surfboards. Obviously that impacted the progress of the sport. It's a very strange socio-political story that's unusual for surfing.

Would the surfers be considered outliers, or are they part of a movement of young people trying to rebel or seek independence at their own risk?

The surfing community is pretty small, but it is part of a broader counter-cultural movement. That's one of the most inspiring things—it's skateboarders, musicians, artists, the tattoo culture—everybody is pursuing these fringe activities. They tend to fall into the same circle, and it's amazing to see how they progress all of these dreams without permission. It's similar to the rock n' roll revolution that we had here in the '60s, only it's happening now. In some ways, when people call Cuba a time capsule, they're moving through these cycles that the rest of the world went through decades earlier. 

To what extent do you think self-expression affects change and at what rate?

It's definitely changing the mindset of the youngest generation, but as far as real change, it's hard to say. Cuba is led in a pretty old-school way, and for the most part, media exposure is a huge element. There's not the same ability to broadly broadcast your message. That's why it stays counter-cultural, and it's really just in Havana. Most of the other places don't really have the same access. They don't have the same internet exposure to outsiders, so it really is this tight core group. It's one of those things where you see it, and you know that change is inevitable, but it's hard to see anything direct. 

When you were filming, several of the Cuban citizens you followed got surf visas. Can you tell me about this? 

We had been filming with [the Cuban surfers] for about two years, on and off. One of the characters, Yaya [Guerrero], is the only female surfer in Cuba, and she's probably the first. Yaya inspired a lot of other girls to surf, and she's been the pioneer trying to make the sport legal. Without the government putting their stamp of approval on it, they can't surf risk-free. They can't import any materials. They are not allowed to compete in anything outside the country. They're pretty much not allowed to do much of anything except get in the water, and even that's dicey. 

So we were taking the footage we had and cutting little tidbits to send back to the Cubans to use for their presentations [in favor of legalizing surfing]. We put this online petition together, not trying to execute any change, but to use as a rally for surfers around the world. The goal was to compile this list of people who supported the [Cuban surfers]. The post went viral, and people from 85 different countries signed the petition. The Smithsonian Institute found out about it, and they wanted to include the surfers in this event they had going on in Hawaii. They were able to push through this visa. It was amazing. It was validation that surfing can actually take you somewhere. 

From the footage I saw, it appears they cannot buy surfboards, so they create their own? 


Who created the first surfboard there? 

There's an epic legend they told me about a guy they called the Barracuda. It was the late '80s or early '90s, and he was somehow involved in the coast guard or something. He was a boat captain, so he had the ability to travel to and from the country. He also didn't look like anybody else. He had long blonde hair, was always barefoot, covered in tattoos, and he was the first guy surfing. No one [in Cuba] had seen tattoos before, had seen surfing before, and here he is rolling up like nothing anyone had ever seen. 

That got people interested in it. Then they slowly started to find little pieces of information. They'd find little clippings from magazines left in Cuba where they could see just enough of the surfboard to start making their first designs. Then someone would find another little image and say, "Oh, so that's how that curve looks. I think those are actually made of foam, not wood," which they had been trying to use. Eventually they started stripping the foam out of refrigerators and making their own surfboard prototypes. Getting all the materials together was tricky, to say the least. 

Tell me about the photo book, The Cuba Unknown

The film looks at our characters' experiences and the history of the Cuban surf scene. It's a personal story about coming of age as the whole country is changing around them. The book is the other side of the lens, which is our experience and how our perceptions changed. When you look at Cuba from the outside, you really only see one picture of the country, and that tends to be old women smoking cigars on the stoop with old cars whizzing by. We showed up totally as tourists and started to see a vibrant underbelly to Havana and the whole country. The book is really our attempt to see the experience through our eyes. It's this adventure, traveling the whole perimeter of the country looking for waves and learning about people.

With the change in presidential administrations, are you seeing any kind of regression, or is there some cautious optimism?

No, definitely regression. [The Cuban surfers have] been pretty heartbroken with the whole thing. There's been all the news on the sonic attacks, and nobody knows what's really happening. That in itself prompted the U.S. to stop allowing any visas to Cubans at all. When we went to Hawaii, they said it was a bittersweet moment because they had no idea if they'll ever make it back there again. 

What parallels do you see with America that we can learn from and apply? 

There's quite a lot, starting with having a bit more respect for what you have at your disposal. When you see Cubans making the best of anything, it makes you realize you don't need quite as much. You see there is a use for everything, so it definitely inspires a mentality to recycle. Also, community for sure. The surfing community has really banded together. When a board gets left behind by a tourist, they know that so-and-so is really pushing the hardest so that person gets the board, and that person knows to give their board to somebody else who's learning. They all share. There's a real selflessness that's abundant in all of them, and that is a pretty valuable take away. It definitely was for us. 

We have all kinds of prohibition in the U.S., from cannabis to transgender rights. What did you learn about overcoming prohibitions in Cuba that we could apply here in the United States?

We learned it's important to properly overcome the narrative. You are battling stereotypes and different perceptions about what it is you're trying to change, and that's way harder for some things than others. In Cuba, you don't even speak the word "weed" out in public because you're going to get fucked up. There is a whole older generation that doesn't even want to understand it. With surfing, skateboarding and tattoos, it's the same thing. You are trying to overcome something that people think makes you a punk or rebel. As with weed and all these sports, it's coming up with a narrative that you can communicate to people who aren't familiar with it and that's going to make them understand why it's something you want to pursue. 

It's not really all that different here. You're starting to see all these cases with cannabis and how it's changing lives. It's got so many medical and health benefits, and this is important for convincing these people who still think weed is just for stoners, hippies and people without ambition. You have to figure out a way to tell them the story that makes them understand that it's way more than that. 

Photo credits: Corey McLean, Seth Brown and Marco Bava for Makewild Films.

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