from an interview with Wim Wenders
by Borders Books and Music
did you first become aware of/involved with the ensemble known as the
Buena Vista Social Club? Was it through your relationship with Ry Cooder?
Yes. Ry played me a rough mix of the first album, shortly
after he returned from his trip to Havana. In his usual understated
way he just told me to “check it out. I think it’s pretty good.” Well,
it was more than good. I was totally electrified when I heard the music
for the first time. I had never heard anything that contagious, warm,
lively and so full of heartfelt experience. I remember I heard that
rough cassette over and over that night.
The next morning I asked Ry: “Hey, who are these kids you
found in Havana? They’re incredible.” He laughed: “They are not exactly
kids.” And then he told me about Ruben and Compay and Ibrahim and Omara
and the others. You see I had no idea! When I heard his stories, I said:
“If only half of this is true, I have to go for myself and meet these
Ry thought that would be a good idea. And we agreed that
the next time he would return, I would go with him. That’s easily said.
And easily forgotten. We didn’t talk about it anymore until more than
a year later, Ry called me one day, saying: “Well, I’m off to Cuba again
next week You’re coming?” He gave me one week’s notice. Really not much
to get a crew and a budget together. But I was on a plane to Havana
with him that next week.
this your first documentary feature? Tell us about the process of making
it. Was there any part of the process this time around that was especially
different from your past projects?
As you can see from the way it started, this whole thing
was very spontaneous. Which, I think, is a good condition for a documentary.
You just jump into the cold water and swim. This was my very first trip
to Havana, anyway. And we started shooting basically the day we arrived.
I had made documentaries before, but of different nature. More personal,
more subjective, and I had called these films “journals”. They were
more like filmed diaries, among them 2 feature-length ones: “Tokyo-Ga”
about my favorite all-time director, Yasujiro Ozu, and “Notebook on
cities and clothes” on the designer Yohji Yamamoto. And several short
But this was the first time I set out to do an entire film
digitally. With the smallest possible crew. I had a sound engineer with
me, Martin Müller, and a cameraman who was at the same time a steady-cam
operator, Jörg Widmer. Jörg shot the entire film with a Sony Digi-Beta
on steady-cam which gave the film a great fluidity. I thought shooting
from a tripod would be too stiff, and shooting hand-held too edgy. The
music was so suave and elegant, that only a very natural, very rhythmical
way of moving the camera would translate it well. Jörg is a musician
himself. On the first day in the studio in Havana, he picked up Cachaito’s
big stand-up bass and played some Bach on it, during a break. The musicians
watched him, casually, without saying much, but I tell you, from that
moment on, Jörg could go anywhere with his steady-cam. They totally
accepted him. They were very generous anyway.
From the moment on that Ry introduced me to all of them
saying, “Hey, this is my friend Wim. He wants to film us while we are
making our new album. Is that okay with you?” they all nodded and let
us do what we were doing. And the more we were with them, the more we
became invisible. Actually, when we stopped shooting sometimes, they
started worrying. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like us anymore?” They were
almost joking. I never made an entire film before that at no time in
the process felt like work. And boy, did we work hard though.
I was my own second unit and shot a lot on my Sony Mini
DVs, both on the 3-chip as on the tiny little one-chip camera. This
way I could sometimes shoot in places and situations where you’d just
never get with a film camera, even a 16mm. This film could have never
been made, such as it is, on film. This is truly a product of the new
possibilities we have as filmmakers with the digital tools.
If you could narrow it down to just one thing, what was the biggest
challenge in making the film?
Editing. When we went to Havana, I thought that was it.
Three weeks of shooting, go home and edit. Already from Havana we came
back with 50 hours of material! Then it turned out that the band would
actually appear, for two concerts in Amsterdam. I couldn’t possibly
miss out on that. This was the only chance to ever see them play live!
As a band, Buena Vista Social Club was totally Ry’s invention. Although
some of the musicians knew each other and played together before in
different combinations, that group of musicians, from different styles
of Cuban music, son, campesino, bolero, was a unique constellation.
We all thought that the one time they could all come together
to play in public would be the only time ever… We shot for a week in
Amsterdam, the rehearsals and the 2 concerts. In spite of their age
and their experience, the musicians were really struck by stage fright,
like a band of teenagers. They had no idea what reception was waiting
for them. Both concerts were incredible. Legendary. And I came back
with another 20 hours of tape. And again, that was not the end of the
story. Another concert, this one definitely the last, emerged as a distant
possibility. Carnegie Hall. The mecca!
How could I possibly miss on that last phase of their incredible
success story? We didn’t know up to the last moment, if the Cubans would
actually all get visas and could show up in New York. But they did.
We spent another incredible 4 days with them, shooting with them in
the streets of New York and of course in Carnegie Hall. Which added
another 10 hours of stuff to edit. And as it all had come together unexpectedly
and spontaneously, not planned, there I was in my editing room, with
more than 80 hours of beautiful material. I could have easily edited
3 films out of it and treat Havana, Amsterdam and New York separately.
But of course, the story that we had witnessed was that
journey, from oblivion in Havana to center stage in Carnegie Hall. We
had to put it all into one film! It took a year to figure that one out.
I never regretted it, though, that the quick little adventure that it
started out as turned into such an epic experience. It was worth every
day of it.
and your wife also wrote a book about the Buena Vista Social Club. Can
you tell us about that? What prompted you to elaborate on the story
in printed form? What riches do you think the book holds that audiences
might not get out of the movie?
The book is really a picture book, more than anything else.
Donata took lots of black and white photographs during our trip. Beautiful
pictures. Myself, I only had time to walk around with my panoramic camera
on the last 2 days of our stay, when the crew had already left. Still,
when we finally had time to look at our photos, which was much later,
when the film was finished, we thought it was a pity not to share that
part of the experience. So only in hindsight, when the film was out
already, we conceived of this book. I wrote a little about the experience
as well, we included excerpts from the musicians’ dialogues, song texts
and a very good interview text by Ry Cooder.
Altogether, I think, it is a book that will enhance the
joy you had listening to the music and seeing these people on screen.
It mainly consists of photographs, though. Donata’s black and white
portraits and stills, my color panoramas and video print-outs from the
film is laced with magical moments, both sad and uplifting, both loud
and triumphant, and quiet and soulful. I know it is probably hard to
pick just one, but what was the most magical, wonderful occurrence that
transpired during the shoot? When did you know the film would “work?”
I realized the range of the film only when it came to an
end, at Carnegie Hall. Only then it dawned on me what incredible journey
we had had the privilege to follow. And that we had actually witnessed
a story bigger than life, even if it had been for real. I saw all this
in that final triumphant moment of Ibrahim’s, when he had finished his
final solo and was just standing on stage, almost absent-minded, with
the roaring applause around him that he didn’t seem to notice. I felt
I knew what was going through his head then.
And I realized we had shot more than just a documentary.
I knew then that this film would touch peoples’ hearts. I had no idea,
though, how much it would do that.
The Buena Vista Social Club has almost single-handedly revitalized interest
in Cuban music. Millions of people all over the world, many of which
have had little or no exposure to Cuban music at all, have fallen head-over-heals
in love with their sound, and with your cinematic story of how these
men and women got together. Why do you think this story has been embraced
by so many?
It is a dream come true. And it actually happened. And these
people deserved it so much to happen. Their music deserved so much to
be known all over the world. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we
contributed to that with our film. I must give the main credit for that
to Ry Cooder, though. He started it, he discovered these people, and
he took me onto this adventure.
Tell us a bit about what kind of involvement you have with the score/musical
selection for the soundtrack when you are shooting a feature film. (I
know that a lot of directors are quite “hands off,” but then you have
people like Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann who hand pick songs, and
are with the process every step of the way.)
I would never let anybody do this part of the work for me.
That is, in fact, the most fun part of the whole filmmaking process,
in my book. Sometimes I even think it all boils down to that, from the
beginning that I wanted to produce images that would then be met by
my favorite music. I listen to music all the time. Especially when I’m
working. I would never want to make a film without music. What would
be the point!