Aude Mgba: The first thing that struck me is that your film starts with a flood of news: the sounds of the world through the radio within the space of a car. All this news reminds us of how chaotic the place we live in is, and how the only connection we can find with other parts of the world nowadays is just apocalyptic information. It reminded me why I decided a while ago not to follow the news anymore. When thinking about it, I have the image of the radio many years ago as being a tool of knowledge and entertainment in different ways; through music, interviews, reports etc. I also noticed how the sound of the journey of this car gives us an idea of the textures and smells that surround it. Could you elaborate more on the sonic aspect of this work and how important it was during the process of making the film?
Hira Nabi: I’m very glad you mention the radio and its place in technology as well as culture, entertainment, and news cycles. This film is a kind of oblique nod to the radio as an event, and also very much to the car; with loud roars from its exhaust system, the door that doesn’t fully shut until you yank the handle up, the rattling sounds it makes as it moves along, the clunking and hissing when the brakes are applied. Machinery has so much atmosphere.
El Retorno was made as part of a workshop led by Abbas Kiarostami at the cinema school at San Antonio de Los Baños (EICTV), about an hour or so from Havana. One of the rules for the films that were produced in the workshop was that they must be shot on location, in the Cuban countryside, and not in the city of Havana. At the time (and I’m sure it possibly still is the case) the Internet connection at the school was terrible. I didn’t have a phone either. So there was a sense of being cut off, being at a distance from the world, even from Havana. And I wanted to convey that feeling in the film. But it’s also hard to fully disconnect, and so the radio became a kind of prompt for the rest of the world entering into the diegetic bubble of the film. I couldn’t show the world, but we could hear from the world.
“...if ever there was a prop to help locate you geographically, that car grunts and groans Cuba.”
Moreover, when it comes to films, my mind works visually, in that I often operate the camera myself (not in this film), and I edit the visuals. But the aural cues are what really pull everything together. You can only see so much on screen, and while it may be beautiful, (because Cuba is lovely, and Jonathan’s camera work is sensitive) it is still flat. With sound, it begins to breathe. There’s friction, and the news is jarring, disturbing, and the minimal score helps to guide and place our emotions. And of course the sounds of that car – if ever there was a prop to help locate you geographically, that car grunts and groans Cuba.
AM: Information flows quickly through radio and other media and connects us to other parts of the world, just as viruses spread rapidly like the Lupin virus mentioned in the film and like COVID-19 today. Also, the world before this quarantine moment was scrolling at an incredible speed in front of our eyes. If you were asked to observe the rhythm and the speed of the world as you listen to music depicting the now and the future, which music would you choose? And why?
HN: The speed at which our world is upending is dizzying. But consider this: the speed at which we have been functioning in this last decade is also dizzying. I’m more interested in the rhythm and silence of the ruptures. So when things grind to a halt, when everything shuts down, when the skies become clear of airplanes, and humans retreat indoors, what happens next? I’ve been enjoying the musicality of Nature; birds I never heard in the last few years, silences that deepen and hang like clouds in the sky, one’s own thoughts as you have time to examine them.
I'm not sure what the future will look like. Maybe a lot more like the past, than we had earlier imagined.
But as we're on the subject of music, I have been listening to a lot of music by way of tributes to the great musicians that have left us in these recent weeks and months, like Manu Dibango, Lee Konitz, Ellis Marsalis, Wallace Roney, and also rocking out to a lot of IG live sessions by DJs and musicians, which have provided a kind of comforting and hopeful soundtrack to this time in lockdown. A salute to DNice!
AM: Dizziness, sadness and darkness avalanches, information on top of information on violence, politics, social or health crisis. The moment when there is a break with these vibes and where I could find some poetry or beauty was from the music, from the smile from one of the passers-by or the curious kid looking around. I guess the strange passenger has been confused by what he was seeing and listening, since the moment he got in the car. He wanted to see/look in another way, with someone else’s eyes. That's maybe why he asked the driver for a tour, to find the invisible beauty he could not find with his own eyes? A motivation to settle or not?
HN: This film is inspired by the news story that we glimpse briefly at the end (spoiler alert). In the news article, the prisoner’s lawyer spoke to the press offering plausible reasons for his client’s decision, and his own thoughts, or diagnosis if you will, about his client’s choices. Omar’s character is drawn from those scraps of information. He is vague and mysterious, he doesn’t speak much, he watches, he listens, and he covers his face with his hands. Is he the film, or is he the set of eyes we watch the film with? It’s all a bit ambivalent.
When does he make the final call? Was the cab ride a ruse? Was it an excuse to spend a few hours learning the sights of a town that he doesn’t know? I think you can watch the film a few times, and come to different conclusions each time. The journey also becomes part metaphorical, part reality, and part surreal. But it is a quest for some kind of meaning, some purpose, for signs of beauty and life, and how carefully we need to train our eyes to seek it out, or locate it in the ruins of where it once resided.
AM: Unfortunately this search for beauty does not find its responses during the journey between the driver and him. We discover sights of a city that seems to be just an ugly reflection of what it used to be, the result of many alterations and decision- making and non decision-making that are just transforming it to an almost deserted space. A city with heavy histories of fire, pollution etc caused in majority by human decisions. We can imagine that this city was a good place to be before all these narrated circumstances happened.
HN: It’s crazy; I’ve almost internalised destruction as something innate to humans. What do humans do? They destroy. We destroy. So how do we separate the two?
We all imagine the past to be a good place, a better place. The future is scary, hard to imagine. We now realize that it possibly won’t be the shiny, happy dream we thought we would be living. Climate change and uncontrolled diseases and massive hunger should tell us something, right?
But there’s also a danger in nostalgia. Coming from Lahore, I should know that. Cubans know that too;the rest of the world travels there to experience the past. Svetlana Boym wrote about this, how we are constantly remaking the future in molds of the past. But we can’t really go back to the past. We need to take bold decisions for a shared future.
This moment is an important one. On a planetary level, we need to rethink greed and unchecked ambition and what the desire to burn up fossil fuels to keep planes in the air, lights on, mowing down natural habitats to line them with concrete has done to the planet that we share with other non-human beings.
“And as we talk about dreams and hopes, this moment with COVID-19 claiming lives, or the dreams of black people being crushed in the US, and many other injustices around the world that rage on while under lockdown, from occupation to penal systems, I stop to remind myself that it’s also a privilege to hold on to the right to be able to dream.”
AM: A driver who studied archaeology? In Cameroon people would say "Qu'est ce qui n'a pas marché?" (What went wrong?) I feel like the world we are living in also influences our decision-making in terms of what jobs we are doing. The city this driver is present in does not look like one where an archaeologist will find a place, right? But on the other hand, his different background somehow reflects the way he is guiding the passengers through the city. How does the world transform our dreams?
HN: I guess this is a bit dated now, but in the writing and making of this film I was recalling the irony and tongue-in-cheek humor from Cuban cinema of the ‘90s, and also from when I first visited the island in 2009. The joke being that everyone in Cuba was highly educated (thanks to the Revolution) while being poorly paid (also thanks to the Revolution and the US embargo). And currently so many hopes and dreams are being put on hold as we quarantine ourselves and remain in lockdown. Filmmakers have put their film releases on hold as cinemas remain shut down, and film festivals postpone or put on online festivals. Large art events have been canceled. So there is this rather long pause, in which everyone must think of ways to adapt, or re-think what they were doing, or pursue other dreams. And as we talk about dreams and hopes, this moment with COVID-19 claiming lives, or the dreams of black people being crushed in the US, and many other injustices around the world that rage on while under lockdown, from occupation to penal systems, I stop to remind myself that it’s also a privilege to hold on to the right to be able to dream.
AM: The mysterious passenger makes a shocking decision at the end of the journey that reveals part of his identity: he wants to return to prison. We all know what we say about Guantanamo and the horrible things that happen there. One would imagine that every prisoner’s dream is to find the way to freedom, to wandering without limits, to be outside. What do you think will happen after our confinement, this period of quarantine? It took the passenger one day to make a decision. Do you see decisions, and thus change, coming? Where will we want to be? Where would you like to be?
HN: It is a shock, yes. It makes you rethink the very concept of freedom; what is it? What does it mean? What does it taste like? What do you do when you find it? Do I think that some people will choose to remain in isolation after the period of confinement? I do think so. I think the new normal, whatever or whenever that will be, will carry with it a lot of fear, a lot of paranoia, a lot of risks, which some people will not want to take. As for where I’ll be – I’m not really sure. I would like to be in Nature. I would like to be by the sea, which I miss dearly. Perhaps it means I film alone in empty, abandoned places more. Maybe it’s a kind of confirmation of things no? Artistically speaking, at least.
AM: Do you think we will be afraid of going back to the world we left? I guess like this former prisoner we all have some memories, as you said ‘nostalgia’, that we hold on to what we miss and left outside?
HN: Oh definitely. I mean can you imagine just getting on a plane and being shut in an unventilated metal box for 12 hours with a hundred or more people? Or sharing a meal and cutlery without a panic attack, like say sipping someone’s drink to taste it?
I think there will be new rules, new social codes, maybe undone in time. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, I think everyone will just be hyper aware of all the germs, bacteria, all the viruses awaiting a host floating in space around them, alongside them, possibly inside them. I do think everyone will be thinking and re-thinking, and maybe overthinking almost everything, just like I’m doing right now.