Wim and vigor

"When you see them, you realize that you cannot even make any separation between their lives and music," German director Wim Wenders says of the Cuban musicians in his documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. "It’s just all one and the same. For them it’s not art; it’s just their way of living.

"I would almost say the same for myself," he continues via telephone as he edits his new film, Million Dollar Hotel.

"Filmmaking for me also is not an art; it’s my way of living, and everything I do is related to it. For them, too, music is in their blood and they would continue playing after each recording. There was just no stopping them. For them it’s just like breathing."

Like many listeners to the Buena Vista Social Club album, Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The American Friend, Until the End of the World) was entranced by what he heard and "would fall in love with it just as well" even if he had no connection to the project.

But, in fact, he did. Wenders and the album’s producer, guitarist Ry Cooder, have been friends for 20 years. ("It’s a brotherly corporation," is how he describes the relationship.) They first collaborated when Cooder composed the score for Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), but didn’t work together again until The End of Violence (1997).

"Because that was such a good experience for both of us," Wenders says of their first film, "we stayed very good friends but refrained from working with each other for a while. It was such a perfect experience that one can only be afraid to ever do that again."

What Cooder did for Wenders in Paris, Texas – perfectly complementing the lyrical imagery with music – Wenders does for Cooder in Buena Vista Social Club. Usually, Wenders explains, he begins focusing on the music to his films after editing together the first rough cut. But he had to work very differently for Buena Vista Social Club.

This time, Wenders began with the music and let it be his guide. Using a very small crew – cinematographer and sound engineer – he shot on high resolution video which offered flexibility and the option to be spontaneous. To capture a particular moment, Wenders often picked up a second camera himself.

"One of the tasks of the film," he explains, "was to have the film language try to get the flow of the music, and we tried with the steadicam to catch the spirit of the music already in the camera movement."

This movement continued into the editing – where images flow effortlessly from a Cuban studio or street to an Amsterdam or New York concert scene. Even though Wenders was only in Cuba for three weeks, with brief sojourns for the concert dates, he returned home with 80 hours of footage. Nine months later, he had the final cut of the 106-minute documentary.

During the making of Buena Vista Social Club, one of the conscious decisions was not to turn it into an overtly political film, but to straightforwardly depict life in contemporary Cuba.

In one telling sequence, the camera glides up the magnificent staircase of a former casino and finds 80-year-old pianist Rubén González playing an upright piano in a corner of an exquisite column-filled room. It’s only after the man has played awhile that Wenders reveals the utilitarian purpose of the space: a practice area for young gymnasts in training.

"It’s become sort of a forgotten place," Wenders says of Cuba, "as if it didn’t exist. I hope the film will contribute a little bit to creating awareness of it again. That is one of the reasons why we really tried to refrain from making a political film as such. I thought just showing Cuba as it is was a political statement in itself."

The success of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians abroad has also helped to put Cuba back on the map and has made them heroic figures back home.

"They’ve got a nickname in Cuba now," Wenders explains. "They’re called ‘the super-grandfathers,’ and it’s a very tender name. ‘Grandfather’ is already a respectful name, and ‘the super-grandfathers,’ they are like Superman."

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