BACK TO LOS ZAFIROS FILM
by Gillian G. Gaar
Four years ago, director Lorenzo De Stefano bought a CD by Los Zafiros (The Sapphires), a Cuban pop group of the 1960s that was hailed as Cuba’s answer to the Platters. Intrigued by their story, he learned that two of the group’s members were still alive, beginning work on a documentary soon thereafter. The end result, “LOS ZAFIROS - MUSIC FROM THE EDGE OF TIME” was shot in December 2001 and had its premiere one year later at the 2002 International Film Festival in Havana. “You talk about a perfect audience.”, says De Stefano. “They knew the music. They knew the guys. ‘I used to live next to him!’, ‘He came into my shop.’ It was really well received. I’m sure it’s been heavily bootlegged by now!”
De Stefano has been traveling to Cuba for the past 10 years as a photographer and theater director, giving him a knowledge of the country that proved helpful in making the film. “Then it was just a question of pulling a lot of resources together to get it done”, he says. Film archives readily turned up a bounty of footage, and the surviving Zafiros, Manuel Galban and Miguel Cancio, were made fiscal partners of the project, giving them further incentive to cooperate. “It was a respectful way to go”, De Stefano explains. “They’re both very pleased with the film. And these are two people on different sides of the political spectrum, but their memories unite them.”
Different sides indeed. Galban still lives in Cuba (later becoming a member of the Buena Vista Social Club), while Cancio immigrated to Miami. But aside from mentioning the basic facts, the film avoids examining the political situation in Cuba too closely. “It was a conscious decision”, says De Stefano. “Because politics pollutes wherever it goes, and though it’s important to know what’s going on, I chose a more indirect approach. There’s some implication there that Miguel left the island in the early 90’s and that his going back to Cuba is very troubling and complex. That’s a political element of the story. But everything in Cuba is political. There certainly are more political elements in the story than were included. That aspect of things was a lot more speculative, more subject to opinion rather than cold hard facts. By indulging in speculative politics, you’re going to cloud the story of the group and of the music.”
Relations between Cuba and the US have changed again; new restrictions have made it difficult for Americans to visit the country, meaning that De Stefano would not be able to make his film in Cuba today.
“The title takes on more pertinence now,” he agrees. “Music From the Edge of Time” was about the 1960s, the first decade of the Cuban Revolution. I guess it’s also become about our ability to go in and make the film when we did. Since that time might be over for a bit, I think of this as a blessed project in a lot of ways. It was meant to happen when it did. It seems pretty clear now that we did it at the right time.”
Most Americans will probably not have heard of Los Zafiros, and the film provides a wonderful, and moving, history lesson, one that’s about more than just the story of one group. “What I learned is that people endure”, says De Stefano. “Music endures. Memories endure. And it doesn’t have to only be a nostalgic journey.”
“The film produces a lot of emotion, and not just in Cuban and Latino audiences. It’s been an interesting thing for me to see, to push this imposed limit of sentimentality in cinema, just up to the edge, and then turn things away from melodrama to more universal human emotions. It’s always sort of a surprise to see that your film actually works for people. You never really know while you’re making these things. They grow out of your own fascination, then you have to grab hold of the people around you, and maybe they get fascinated, too.”
Since its world premiere the film has played in many international film festivals. It will eventually be seen on Cuban TV, and also released on video there. “We actually donated the film back to Cuba,” De Stefano explains. “It seemed appropriate, since it’s their music, it’s their group, and all we did was borrow them.”
Distribution in the US hasn’t yet been secured. But De Stefano is hopeful. “One of the motivations for making the film is to show as wide an audience as possible how wonderful a story this really is.” he says. So keep your fingers crossed; “LOS ZAFIROS-MUSIC FROM THE EDGE OF TIME” is one musical journey well worth taking.