Up on the Roof

Havana, from on High

5 mins read

“To live on a rooftop is to live in a separate world,” says Reynol, a Havana-dweller. “Sometimes I feel like I’m between two worlds,” he goes on. “When I compare the earth and the sky, I am there on the border, close to that which is earth, but also I am close to the sky.” Occupying this liminal space, Havana’s rooftop inhabitants are interviewed, discussing their places within society, in director Pedro Ruiz’s fourth film Havana, from on High.

With housing shortages in central Havana, the city’s inhabitants have been increasingly forced upwards into a vertical city of rooftops. The occupants of these homes have a unique perspective on their city. In often small, dingy apartments, they look down upon tourist throngs in double-decker buses. Living in poverty, they are separate from the vacationers that sustain Havana’s economy.

The culture of the rooftop dwellers, as depicted in the film, is one of honesty and resourcefulness. The inhabitants don’t shy from discussing their personal lives, from family to career to political opinions. In particular, there’s an emphasis on the issue of class. Diosbel, an ex-police officer, recalls wearing his uniform when he couldn’t afford other clothes, while Gabriel, a pigeon-keeper, describes the inaccessibly high price of internet access. “We are in a constant struggle,” states a woman named Lala, before describing her desire for a fan and some new dishware, “to have nice things just like anybody else.”

But this struggle comes from a diversity of perspectives. In describing their personal lives, the interviewees of Ruiz’s film are always political. Some are staunch believers in the Revolution and Fidel Castro. A woman describes her service in the police force with pride, a man makes it clear that he’s a communist and will never be a capitalist. Others, though, describe the corruption of that same police force, the poverty of the city and the difficulties in maintaining a life in Havana.

Regardless of their political stance, inhabitants are united in creating their own world, the “separate world” Reynol describes. Pulley systems bring goods up to the tops of buildings, where inhabitants have decorated the roofs with plants, shrines, wall art, laundry and a number keep birds, especially pigeons. Some of these birds are even used even as messengers—a more reliable mode of communication in the face of expensive technology. To live on a rooftop is to have a life which is both incredibly urban and distinct from the city.

Ruiz’s film is intent on creating space for the world of the rooftops. Staying largely high up, shots look down on streets, cars, and tourists. These homes, between earth and sky, are depicted as almost otherworldly. The otherwise conventional film structure is broken up: a musical interlude has a man wearing a 1970s-style green suit singing of falling in love again. A drummer narrates a spoken-word poem overtop of shots of the skylines. Focus is placed on high windows, allowing us to enter rooms we’d never see from the street. Depicted with its own style of visuals, sounds and rhythm, the rooftops are their own realm, into which we are permitted to enter in order to learn from the inhabitants as they discuss the things most important to them.

Havana, from on High screens:
-Fri, Apr. 26 at 2:45 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, Apr. 27 at 10:15 a.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Fri, May 3 at 10:00 a.m. at TIFF Lightbox

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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