Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Writer Jesse Andrews Meets Filmmakers in Cuba
Sundance Film Forward took me to Havana. We drove in from Jose Marti airport in an ancient Chevy and it was like nowhere I’d ever been before—the simultaneous brilliance and dilapidation, the glorious houses half-swallowed by the unkempt jungles of their own little yards, the Avatar-ish ficus trees weeping vine-like branches straight into the ground, exploding the streets and pavement, the state’s big confident red graffito of SOCIALISMO O MUERTE, the billboard announcing that the U.S. Bloqueo was the greatest genocide in history.
But we were received with incredible warmth, openness, and curiosity. It’s a cliche but a true one that Cubans love film. They have a thing called the Paquete, a weekly smuggled-in hard drive of movies/TV/music/magazines that makes its way into what seems like every home. Our American group took an informal poll and agreed that we would rather subscribe to the Paquete than any of our cable channels.
We had about half a week of screenings, master classes, and roundtables, and at every event the excitement about independent film—its authenticity, its specificity—was really palpable. Cuba is a place where truly independent film is difficult to make, and yet it was abundantly clear that the local filmmaking community is one of terrific will and talent and, above all, integrity. If the country is to move beyond its lingering political and economic difficulty, I think that community will play a pivotal role, and they need our support. I think Film Forward did a brilliant thing in selecting Havana as the site of its latest trip.
But I feel, a little guiltily, that no one could have benefited more from the experience than I did. I was there to show a film that I wrote (and adapted from my first novel), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and discussed it after, and I got to see my characters through the eyes of Cubans. It was one of those landmark experiences that you don’t get too many of, in an artist’s lifetime.
It feels dangerous to encapsulate or simplify what I learned, talking to Cubans about art for a few days, but in one sense I found the experience a kind of sifting device, separating what is culturally specific from what is universally human. One older man who works at one of Cuba’s hospitals, caring for cancer sufferers, described his grief at watching Rachel decide to stop treatment, despite all her advantages. The advantages—her privilege—fell in the former category. The man’s grief was in the latter.