After the lights in the Saybrook Underbrook theater dimmed, an audience of about 20 Yalies was transported to the crumbling apartments of Alamar, a seaside housing project east of Havana. Alamar is the heart of Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement and the setting of “East of Havana,” a 2006 documentary that follows Soandry, Magyori and Mikki, three of the movement’s leaders.
The film was screened Friday afternoon by the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association. After the screening, the group held a Master’s Tea in the Saybrook Master’s House with Jauretsi Saizarbitoria, the film’s Cuban-American co-director.
Saizarbitoria, 38, was raised in Miami by Cuban parents who owned a restaurant and music establishment. Saizarbitoria said politics played a major role in her childhood.
“The Bush familyhung out a lot at my dad’s restaurant,” she noted. “I was raised right-wing.”
In her twenties, Saizarbitoria said she was “hungry” to learn about the country of her heritage. It was then that she visited Cuba for the first time.
On that trip, Saizarbitoria, who worked as a DJ for 15 years, discovered a hip-hop party in Alamar, which she called the Bronx of Havana.
“I had no idea people were saying these things,” Saizarbitoria said, referring to hip-hop artists’ outspoken criticisms of Fidel Castro’s regime. “It was the holy grail.”
The experience inspired Saizarbitoria to explore Cuban hip-hop, which she called “the newsletter of the ghetto,” by filming a documentary. Speaking at the Master’s Tea, Saizarbitoria maintained that her motive for making the film wasn’t political.
“I wasn’t trying to make a Michael Moore movie at all,” she said.
Nonetheless, politics play a prominent role in “East of Havana.” The film, which was co-produced by Saizarbitoria’s friend Charlize Theron, begins with a photomontage juxtaposing images of the Cuban revolution with those of Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement. The documentary’s protagonists rap about police harassment, racial discrimination, the indignities of prostitution and “the system.”
At one point in the film, a rapper even accuses Castro of “[dragging] an entire country to the grave with you.” But Saizarbitoria was quick to explain that “East of Havana” “isn’t an anti-Cuban movie at all.”
“Even though people [in the movie] criticize the system, they also say they love their country,” she said. “They criticize the system because they love their country.”
Saizarbitoria herself criticized “the system” — the hip-hop artists’ euphemism for Castro’s government — during the Master’s Tea.
“The system is designed to hold you down,” she said.
She compared Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which monitor Cubans’ activities, to the KGB.
“It’s like a Kafka novel,” Saizarbitoria said of Cuba.
Several of the students interviewed after the event said they were surprised by the film’s depiction of conditions in Cuba. The hip-hop artists in “East of Havana” contend with frequent blackouts and extreme poverty, along with government censorship and a ban on Internet access.
“We live in the dark,” a rapper named Magyori says in the film.
“East of Havana” includes scenes of Magyori trying to sell her clothes to strangers for one or two pesos.
Christian Vazquez ’13 said that such poverty was surprising to see on screen, despite the tales of his Cuban-born grandfather.
“The movie was really hard to watch,” added Jennifer Urgilez ’10, the president of the five-member Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association. But she said it inspired her to travel to Cuba, even though many Cuban-Americans strongly oppose travel to Cuba.
“Now, I feel I have to go [to Cuba],” Urgilez said.
Saizarbitoria, who now works in the fashion world, said she hopes to soon publish a book on Cuba’s hip-hop movement. Like her film, it is entitled “East of Havana.”