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Meet the 2015 Tribeca Filmmakers #41: ‘Havana Motor Club’ Explores Underground Community of Cuban Drag Racers

Meet the 2015 Tribeca Filmmakers #41: 'Havana Motor Club' Explores Underground Community of Cuban Drag Racers

READ MORE: Meet the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmakers

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, co-directer of 2011 fashion doc “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” is back with “Havana Motor Club,” an exciting film about drag racers in Cuba. As this underground community of racers prepare for their first sanctioned race in Cuba since 1960, the drama and the motors heat up. “Havana Motor Club” offers a look inside an exclusive and competitive world teaming with ingenuity and promise. 

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

Change is racing down Havana’s streets, where Cuba’s top underground drag racers prep for the first official car race since the Revolution.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

“Havana Motor Club” tells a personal, character-driven story about Cuba’s vibrant community of underground drag racers and their quest to hold Cuba’s first official car race since shortly after the 1959 Revolution. It tackles how Cuba’s recent reforms — the owning of property, allowance of small businesses, and greater exchange between Cubans, Cuban Americans, tourists, and other foreigners — have affected the lives of these racers and their families. One racer enlists the help of a Cuban American patron in Miami to bring in parts for his modern Porsche. His main competitor is a renowned mechanic who uses ingenuity rather than resources to create a racing machine out of his 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Another racer ponders whether he will participate in the race or sell his motor — one that he recovered on the ocean floor from a ship used to smuggle Cubans off the island — in order to flee Cuba on a raft headed to Florida. Meanwhile, the race itself is in jeopardy of coming to fruition due to factors ranging from its status as an elitist sport to the arrival of the Pope in Cuba. Through the experiences of these racers and their community, “Havana Motor Club” explores how Cuba is changing today and what its future holds in light of Obama’s recent move to normalize relations with the island nation.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker and is currently directing and producing “Havana Motor Club”   a feature-length film about Cuba’s underground drag racing community and their quest to hold the first official car race in Cuba since the Revolution (havanamotorclub.com). It will have its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April. He also co-directed and edited “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” (Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2011). He directed and produced “Lumo” (POV, 2007), a documentary about the recovery process of a young rape survivor at a unique hospital in eastern Congo that won a Student Academy Award and was broadcast on PBS. He served as the co-producer and additional editor of “Control Room” (Magnolia Pictures, 2004), and the associate editor of “Valentino: The Last Emperor” (Acolyte Films, 2008). He wrote, directed, produced, and edited “Les Vulnerables” (Perlmutt Productions, 2007), the closing night short of the New York Film Festival and a grand jury prize-winner at AFI Dallas. He also edited and field-produced “Man V. Volcano” (Market Road Films, 2011) for National Geographic Explorer and just finished editing an episode of MTV’s “Rebel Music” series (rebelmusic.com)

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

I’ve made films on several different continents, but I’ve never had so much difficulty in securing permits and licenses as I did in Cuba, a country that (until recently) was off-limits to Americans without a special license. I traveled to Cuba under a general license that permitted me to do research on “the effect of recent reforms in Cuba” there. Each film project – all related to reforms in Cuba – was going to serve as the “dissemination” of my research, thus making me legal there from a U.S. perspective. 
Getting permission from Cuba ended up being far more complicated. First, it took a couple of months to sort out a permit for getting our equipment in, particularly our wireless mics, which Cuban authorities believe can be used to monitor their police. We ended up having to store most of our equipment in a little boy’s room in Cancun while waiting for our permit. We also had to secure work and location permits, as well as get the project itself approved by the state film board. While waiting for all of these permits, we used a Canon 5D to capture the lead-up to the race. The camera was small enough so that we could get away with appearing like tourists.
We finally got permission to make the film a few days before the race was scheduled. We traveled to Cancun to pick all our equipment up and then came back to Cuba just in time for the race (which was then postponed!).

What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?

I was always told that Cuba is frozen in time – just look at the old cars! But after more than a decade of getting to know the country and its people, I have discovered a dynamic society that’s constantly evolving. As Cuba goes through its most significant changes since the Revolution, the world wonders whether Cuba is heading towards capitalism or more socialism. Cubans themselves are overwhelmed, excited, and unsure of what the future holds. “Havana Motor Club” intends to capture this moment of change through the eyes of a group of Cuban drag racers and their community, particularly in light of Obama’s recent move to normalize relations with Cuba.

Any films inspire you?

Lucia, Memories of Underdevelopment, Senna, and Rendezvous (a short film by Claude Lelouche).

What’s next?

I’ve been developing a fiction project set in Cuba for several years that I’d like to direct.

What cameras did you shoot on?

Sony EX-3, Canon 5D & 7D, Blackmagic, Gopro (who sponsored us as well)

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

Yes, we held a successful Kickstarter Campaign.

Did you go to film school? If so, which one? 

I received an MFA at Columbia University’s film program in 2007

Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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