A cautionary tale: Emer Reynolds on Here Was Cuba

A chilling highlight of Sheffield Doc/Fest 20, Here Was Cuba is the eye-opening story of the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago. Georgia Korossi spoke to Irish co-director Emer Reynolds. 

Georgia Korossi
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Sheffield Doc/Fest 20’s awe-inspiring programme of films, sessions and events spreads across all platforms of documentary production. Alongside David Bond’s brand crazy Project Wild Thing and John Akomfrah’s remarkable The Stuart Hall Project, the world premiere of Here Was Cuba presented another opportunity to reflect on cultural responsibility.

By the 1960s the world had known two nuclear disasters: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From Emer Reynolds and John Murray’s film we learn that the capacity of the nuclear devices used back then measured between 13 to 20 kilotons. What prolonged the 15 days of the Cuban missile crisis from 14-28 October 1962 were missiles of a nuclear capacity 70-140 percent higher, which were secretly installed by the Soviet Union’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

Here Was Cuba focuses on the visceral fear and uncertainty that was widespread during the Cuban missile crisis, with eyewitnesses’ experiences taking us back to the moment half a century ago when the earth nearly trembled.

How did your project kick off?

We were surprised to learn that there had never been a major feature documentary on the subject. Happy and surprised! Both John and I were kind of obsessed with the crisis, and as the 50th anniversary drew closer we kept talking about what an amazing moment in history it was, how dramatic and utterly scary, and how frighteningly prescient it is for today in terms of current nuclear brinksmanship.

We approached the Irish Film Board and PBS and began the research phase in 2010. We filmed many interviews for research at that stage, including Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s key advisor and speechwriter during the crisis, and that proved so fortunate as he sadly died shortly afterwards. We were so lucky to have his first hand account of events from deep inside the White House. That set the tone of how we would approach the rest of the filming: we would try to hear and tell the story through personal experience and in doing so perhaps be able to tell the events as though happening live.

How did you acquire the historic voice recordings and sensitive material you’ve used, including letters exchanged between Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev at the time?

Over the last number of years many items that had previously been classified had become declassified in all three countries. We had two amazing researchers, Zlata Filipovic and Aoife Carey, who along with producer Siobhan Ward went on a major archive hunt. This includes actual material filmed during the crisis (news reports etc) and all kinds of weaponry, submarine footage, radio broadcasts, from the US, Russia and Cuba. This archive trawl was intensive and ambitious and yielded a huge amount of material.

Some of the material is readily available online and other material, including more obscure footage and documents, requires a very skilled researcher and lots of help and advice from the archive houses and the historians with whom we were researching the film.

I wanted to approach the archive in quite a visceral way. Rather than using material as general background imagery, I wanted to treat it as drama footage and cut it, in particular, as though we were watching the drama unfolding in real time. This approach in the film, I hope, is one of the reasons the film feels so frightening. While we and the audience know the world didn’t end, we are able to experience the events happening in front of our eyes and almost forget how it turned out.

The other archive element that is very strong in the film are the Kennedy tapes, the secret recordings Kennedy made of the Excomm meetings where they deliberated the US response, from immediate airstrike to diplomacy and all avenues in between. Eavesdropping on the various personalities arguing the toss – aka fate of the world – is gripping.

Your film begins with one of the interviewees suggesting that the events of October 1962 should be assessed from the position of the past. Can you explain this, considering at the same time the overwhelming and continuous spending on weapons of mass destruction today?

That comment was really to suggest that the film would hopefully time-travel us back, deep into the heart of October 1962, to experience the events as though they were unfolding before our eyes – a kind of real-time immersion into events. The parallels to today, with nuclear brinksmanship high on the international stage, and as you say, continuous spending on weapons of mass destruction, is one of the reasons we were so compelled to make the film.

This is not a dusty old event from the dim and distant past. This could happen today! As the International Court of Justice said in 1996: “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to destroy all civilisation and the entire ecosystem of the planet.” And as Ted Sorensen would say, “pretty chilling line”.

How helpful was the use of interviews in the making of your film and did you have any doubts or different ideas about the direction you were adopting to tell the story?

We wanted to tell the story without using narration, to let the interviewees tell the events and describe how things unfolded, and to then collage the story together using all the different voices and perspectives. Neither John or I like narration in films, so although it is a difficult road to go, it is very rewarding when it works, both for the filmmaker and the audience.

What comes out of the interviews are the psychological effects on each individual according to their position in the story. What were you hoping to illuminate with Here Was Cuba?

To explore and lament the human cost of war is a very big part of the story in the film and a very big part of our hopes for the film. It’s very much a history documentary but in its heart it’s an anti-war film. I was particularly moved by Ryapenko’s story. Seeing the lingering effects of that tragic event on his face now, more than 50 years later, was a deeply moving moment.

What are the principles of justice that come out of it?

That’s a difficult question but I think it really comes down to respect for each other’s positions, even when one is diametrically opposed to the other, and even when one doesn’t in any way know for certain what the other side is doing or thinking. Giving one another the benefit of the doubt. We all have to co-exist on this fragile planet. As one of our contributors said: “Why can’t we all get along with each other better?” It’s kind of innocent yet deeply profound.

Towards the end, one of the participants talks about Yuri Gagarin’s words on how fragile Earth is. He closes saying, “you need to make sure that you can see the truth wherever it is.” How can this message be communicated across the world and its meaning be understood?

I really wish I knew! To see the havoc that this species, the incongruously named homo sapien (as in ‘wise man’), is doling out on this unique and fragile planet, risking its destruction and the end of all life on it, is painful and shameful to absorb. We need to shout this message from every available rooftop, including the cinema rooftop!

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