SHEFF DOC FEST ’21: A Tale of Two Cities – Debbie Harry and Rob Roth talk about their latest collaboration ‘Blondie: Vivir En La Habana’

Still from Blondie: Vivir En La Habana. Debbie Harry, hair tousled in the wind, sits in an open-topped car in Havana, looking way from the camera in yellow mirrored sunglasses. Shot on 16mm, the film is visible in the image.
Still from Blondie: Vivir En La Habana

In what is bound to be one of the most exciting events at Sheffield DocFest this year, the legendary New York-based director and artist Rob Roth and the Debbie Harry will be presenting their latest collaboration on Thursday 10th June. Blondie: Vivir En La Habana is a vibrant and intimate portrait of Harry and her band, as they travel to Cuba as part of a four-day exchange facilitated by the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

The legendary band, whose gutsy, mischievous sound and distinctive visual style helped shape an entire epoch of music, has a rich history of collaborating with contemporary subgenres – be it the punk movement of the early 70s, the new wave movement of the 1980s or forays into reggae and rap. Roth’s film documents the band’s latest venture – a collaboration with Cuba’s premier progressive rock band Síntesis, set in the ruinous beauty of Havana.

Drawing influence from his illustrious career as a multidisciplinary artist and his proximity to the decadent NYC nightlife scene, Roth’s film is a sensory plummet into the lush and dynamic culture of Havana, as seen through the eyes of his enigmatic muse, Harry. It is also, perhaps most poignantly, a documentation of a specific moment in time, representing the  end-point of the band’s 40-year-long desire to visit the country and exulting in the power of music to transcend language, history and culture.

Over the phone from New York, Roth and Harry spend some time talking to Lydia Rostant about the film.

Screen Queens: Rob, how did the project arise?

Rob Roth: As a filmmaker, I usually don’t pitch. This is the first thing I’ve ever pitched to the band and I basically said ‘this is never going to happen again, and I really feel in my gut that we should document it somehow, because it’s going to be such a special experience.’

Debbie, in the film you say “I feel like I had been there before” regarding Cuba. I really loved the dreamy quality to Rob’s film and the sense that Havana, and Cuba more generally, were almost prophesied for you and the band – did it feel in a way like a spiritual homecoming?

Debbie Harry: It certainly gave us a sense of completion because our entire lives were spent with a very big Cuban consciousness. It was defined in our minds as a place of Mafia influence, gambling, jet-setting – that mixture of naughty and nice. And then, of course, the influence of the Kennedy approach in the 1960s and the embargo and so on. I had a Cuban boy in high school with me, called Arturo Prada – he was terrific, very handsome and sort of shy. In fact, I think the Cuban spirit sort of moved into this country in a bigger way with the fall of Batista [in the Cuban Revolution 1953-59].

There are so many political and economic relationships. I’ve always sort of loved the Cuban culture – for a small place, the cultural variety and the influence it’s had on music and art is phenomenal.

I loved the vitality and tactile feel to the film – did Havana provide a natural sense of richness and inspiration?

RR: For me it was oozing out – I wish I could have captured even more but we only had so much film because we were shooting on 16mm/8mm. I tried to capture the energy of the moment – it was in the street, it was in the shows, it permeated everything.

Debbie, in the film you draw a comparison between what you referred to as the “beauty in decay” of the Lower East Side in the 70s and the crumbling charm of Havana – did Havana feel like a bit of a cultural time machine to you in that sense?

DH: I guess the comparison of the crumbling buildings and the vibrancy of the music scene are direct parallels for me. I find that when there’s no money to be made, the excitement and importance of music and the arts becomes so much more apparent and so much more vital to life you know?

I loved the elemental structure of the film and how it’s split into ‘chapters’ of Water, Fire and Air. What was the thought process behind this?

RR: Well, at first, I wanted to do three different little films. I think the elemental heart was to do with the idea of how music, no matter where you go, is kind of this universal language and it was fascinating to me that when the band arrived they had very little time to rehearse but it all just fell into place. It was like they were speaking each other’s language. It made me think about the film in terms of alchemy or some kind of magic that is universal in its nature. For me the whole experience is connected – the water, the music, the nature – it’s a kaleidoscope of all these feelings.

So as far as aesthetics are concerned, were you given free-reign?

RR: Oh yeah! The film was very low-budget which meant that I could pretty much do what I wanted! When you’re working with a small budget, you don’t have music people or company people dictating to you, which often ruins a vision. I’ve been working with Debbie and the band for so long I felt as though anything I did would be understood through them. I wanted to capture the magic of them and Debbie’s magic on stage.

I find that a lot of films about artists can often be overwhelmingly nostalgic or retrospective. I loved how you showed the timeless appeal of Blondie and the energy and wisdom of Debbie without a sense of yearning for the past …

RR: Yeah I don’t like doing that [nostalgia]. And Debbie’s not really interested in all that either. It’s more about moving ahead, moving forward. That’s also what the title is about; ‘vivir’ means to live, but it also means ‘to live on’, and ‘to live through’. It has all these different meanings about life and I really tried to capture that sentiment in the people of Havana and in the city itself – which feels so alive.

DH: When we were over there, we had dinner with some writers and creatives that were part of the underground arts scene. Cuba is still a communist country and its people are still in many ways inhibited in terms of expressing themselves. Music is one of the ways that Cuban people can really express themselves. Some of the younger writers were very frustrated because they wanted to write from their hearts about their experiences but they weren’t able to. Whereas in music, we all can.

Debbie, what was the process of collaborating with Síntesis like?

DH: As Rob mentioned, we didn’t have a large rehearsal time but they came in fully prepared, fully rehearsed and ready to go. It was a language without language. I think they say in terms of ancient history that music existed before language. So, on that basis we were completing the cycle in a way. They were just wonderful to work with, cooperative and energetic, it was spiritual.

Both you and Chris (Stein, co-founder and guitarist of Blondie) said that Latin music had always been a big part of New York’s culture and that you were surrounded by it on the streets. Do you think there’s a kind of natural merging of style, rhythm and sensibility in Latin music and your own that meant it was quite a natural pairing?

DH: Yes, definitely. We see and we hear, and this amalgamation is what the arts essentially consists of –  layers of different influence and different understanding. In New York, we used to play with a crazy Conga player and I’ve played with different horn sections over the years. You can definitely hear the Latin influence in the song Tide is High. In New York and in London too, we get a lot of different influences and (most of us) are open to them.

RR: It’s also a film about two cities. It’s not really about Cuba versus America, it’s about New York and Havana and how they’re both port cities and the way they both influence each other. I’d never been there before, and I was curious about how much they’d know of Blondie’s music – and they completely did – there were families in the balconies singing the songs together, from the oldest person to the youngest and that was quite moving.

A quote that really stuck out to me was “music is its own language”. Do you feel that nowadays artists are too often asked to explain their work or tie it to some greater sense of significance?

DH: You know, there was a time, before the internet, when things maybe had to be explained more. But nowadays, everyone seems to have the opportunity to learn – the ‘seepage’, the influence, the overlapping … it’s unstoppable! We are totally absorbing each other from everywhere in the world, it’s all completely available.

RR: The idea of influence is so different now I think. As a filmmaker, I’m always fascinated by other people’s interpretations of my work. They will see something I maybe didn’t see or intend. And I think that’s what art is really about; you channel your vision and then others interpret it in a completely new way. It always fascinates me and to be honest, that’s why I create as an artist.

I guess that ties into your idea of letting something ‘live on’, ‘live through’. People constantly interpreting your work is another way it’s going to continue to live on and keep giving. Debbie, do you feel that everyone brings their own kind of interpretation to your music and that’s part of the reason it’s still so exciting and energetic?

DH: Oh yes absolutely. And it’s one of the simplest ways to do that. People can actually look up the lyrics now, but there was a time you couldn’t and so very often you were singing your own made-up lyrics, alongside the actual ones!

RR: And sometimes you’d think, ‘I actually like my version better!’

DH: But as with any art, it’s in the eye of the beholder … or the ear of beholder.

It will be up to the audience to decide how they interpret Roth’s film; what memories they encounter upon hearing Blondie’s iconic songs and what desires they see playing out against the verdant backdrop of Havana. In a world that has found itself shrunken by the joint forces of a pandemic and various political divides, the film represents a desire for freedom, creative expression and boldness that, as personified by Harry, defies time and place. 

By Lydia Rostant

Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: 
Twitter: @LydiaRostant

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