Havana Motor Club

Inspiring and thrilling, HAVANA MOTOR CLUB beautifully captures the vibrancy of Cuba and its people

As a motorsport fan, I have watched many sports documentaries in my time. Some are good, most are bad but every now and again, a true gem comes along. HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is one of those gems.

Directed by Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, HAVANA MOTOR CLUB explores the vibrant community of Cuba’s underground drag racers. The 80 minute feature follows a group of passionate petrolheads over the course of two years as they try to hold Cuba’s first official car race since the 1959 Revolution.

Car racing has been a tradition in Cuba for over a century. During the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cubans turned out in their thousands to watch their heroes – Juan Manuel Fangio included – race through the streets of Havana. But triumph soon turned into tragedy as archival footage shows how a car competing in the spun into the crowd, killing 10 and seriously injuring 40. A year later, the Cuban revolution triumphs and the regime declares auto racing as “dangerous and elitist” and bans it indefinitely.

We jump to January 2012 and the personal stories of five racers – Rey, Carlos, Jote, Piti and Ecuardo. We watch they piece together their unlikely autos from imported and scavenged parts, attend club meetings and scope out potential race tracks. Since the ban, car racing has remained largely taboo on the island, forcing the sport and its racers underground. These racers are desperate to make street racing legal but when an officially government-sanctioned race finally does get approved, it is promptly suspended because the barricades needed to protect the spectators are being used for the Pope’s visit. After years of trying, the racers are back to square one.

Inspiring, thrilling and visually stunning, the HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is more than just a film about racing, it’s about Cuba’s divided emotions. Piti describes how he was diagnosed with cancer and treated for free thanks to the Revolution. Fellow racer Jote tells us of his desperate need to leave Cuba. “The hardest thing about living here is that there’s no life for an honest man” he says, describing his failed attempts to reach Florida by raft. These men are fiercely proud of the revolution but all of them yearn for change. What makes HAVANA MOTOR CLUB special is that Perlmutt doesn’t shy away from this – he captures their hopes and their dreams as well as their difficulties and their failures, resulting in a personal, character-driven story that both enthrals and inspires.

A special mention must go to cinematographer Zelmira Gainza who beautifully captures the vibrancy of Cuba and its people. The lavish colours, lively Cuban music and American muscle cars look stunning in the Cuban sunshine as the racers drive through the streets of Havana, searching for good strips of road.

The climax of the film is also beautifully executed with its fast paced sequences, low camera angles and extreme close-ups honing in on the tension and suspense as the racers gear up for their big race.

HAVANA MOTOR CLUB captures the spirit and determination of five Cuban racers as they sacrifice everything for their dreams and goals.

4 out of 5 stars

HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is released in selected US cinemas and on demand from 8 April 2016. 

This review was originally written for ScreenRelish