Castro’s Spies is not just a very good film about Cuba, it is an important milestone in Irish documentary filmmaking. Taking the kind of insight normally reserved for Irish subject matter, Ollie Aslin and Garry Lennon have got inside a story to reveal truths that others have never even looked for, let alone attempted to capture on film. As a piece of documentary making it is entirely devoid of ego, whilst revealing egos larger than life, egos worthy of a historical canvas, egos as humans. A rare and beautiful thing.
The protagonists tell their story, in their own words, sitting in the security of their own chairs in their own rooms without interference, without prodding, comfortable in their own skins. And what skins they are. What times they lived. What truths they speak.
The narrative, which stretches from 1500 to 2015, involves perhaps 15 different storytellers, some of whom have three on-screen personas and even multiple identities, is illustrated with everything from news clips, cheesy 1970s docu-dramas, hammy reconstructions, mobile phone footage and family photographs. It should be a car crash, but it works. The variety of sources actually reveals the scale of the canvas, the breath of the evidence, the depth of the scholarship. It does all of that, whilst remaining true to the human beings involved. It is a rare service to the audience to take such diverse ingredients, such a complex story and never lose focus on the human beings involved.
I admit I’m involved, I know some of these people personally. They are as real to me on film as they would be if they were sitting at my table, telling me their story. I can’t get closer to the truth than that.
Much will be made of the never-before-seen archival footage: FBI surveillance film, rare colour film from the triumphant arrival of Castro into Havana. These are indeed noteworthy, but noteworthy for never having been looked for before. Others have not invested the time to search out such sources, only needing a quick gloss over to confirm their pre-programmed narrative. Not these guys. These guys are the read deal.
Fascinating, enlightening and touching, the film is a rare glimpse into the reality of lives lived under the tyranny of imperialism, deformed by the legacy of colonialism. A very Irish perspective.