To be a doctor in Cuba is to live inside the swirl of history and politics that whooshes around the small Communist island at all times. To be an afro-Cuban family practitioner in the very mountains where Castro and Che fermented a revolution a half-century ago, like Reynier Casamayor Griñán, the main character of the new documentary El Médico: The Cubatón Story — winner of this year’s award for best documentary at the New York International Latino Film Festival — is more symbolic yet. When we discover that the Cuban doctor is also pursuing a parallel career as a reggaeton star — we have quite a promising premise for a documentary film.
In a voiceover at the film’s start, Reynier narrates the sweep of Cuban history by saying bluntly, “without the revolution, I never would have had the opportunity to be a doctor.” This is probably true: Cubans of African descent gained far more than white Cubans did in the revolution. Medicine and education were its priorities, and free healthcare for all, no matter how backwoods your shack or how poor your parents, is its one fairly agreed-upon success. But medicine also exposes some of the Castro regime’s less palatable tendencies. Cuban doctors today are modern monks: They know they’ll never make much more than a $20 monthly government salary. And, as they represent both piles of money invested in their free educations and so many possible lives yet to be saved, they know they will likely never be given exit visas to leave Cuba. In Cuba, a medical degree is more of a commitment than a marriage certificate.
Reynier knows all of this. His sense of service and debt to his family and to Fidel is a living, beating thing. But Reynier hopes to take a few years off from attending to the sick in order to launch his dreamed-of musical career. He’s confident he can make it work. Known to the listening public as El Médico, he has recently made an album in a ramshackle recording studio between house calls to see his patients on soupy, piney mountain mornings that feel very far from the sweaty streets of Santiago, Cuba’s spectacle-loving town where he lives. In the morning, he jokes with a patient as he holds a stethoscope to her chest and insists that she has to stop smoking as soon as the yearly carnaval is over. But at night, he gives an impromptu street concert, using a car as a stage and grinning as his fans’ arms ply the air like rhythmic tentacles.
Not long into the film, a Swedish music producer named Michel Miglis stumbles upon El Médico rapping in Santiago. There’s something vaguely greasy about Michel from the start: he has a nubile young Cuban wife, fawning contact with Spanish music executives, and utter confidence that discovering El Médico will launch his own music career. He’ll push both himself and El Médico to the top using ringtones and sexy music videos. Still, his is an intriguing oiliness, one that the film’s Swedish director and a self-described “old friend” of Michel’s, Daniel Fridell, highlights, because it promises conflict between the idealistic doctor and the capitalist foreigner. That conflict quickly bubbles forth. Because though El Médico has always dreamed of being both doctor and singer, once his first single hits #8 on the Spanish music charts, the record company will only continue to support his career if he can tour Europe to boost sales. He and Michel must convince the Cuban government to give Reynier an elusive exit visa or he’ll have to choose between medicine and music.
In a scattered way, Fridell’s film tells one angle of the story of post-Soviet Cuba brushing against the rest of the globalized world after more than three decades of isolation. It also illustrates the generational rift between younger and older Cubans. El Médico can only comfortably quit doctoring to focus on music if his mother approves. Michel says, “I know how to convince your mother,” and he brings El Médico a gold-tone bicycle. See what he can buy if he quits? But this is not a woman who will be swayed by a gold bike. This is a woman who is convinced by her own experience that capitalism didn’t do anything good for her and Fidel has. She grew up in the 50s, hungry in a shantytown on the outskirts of town. Now she has an apartment, a few weeks’ worth of rice rations every month, and a doctor son, even if her doctor son strains against the constraints of his role.
In scenes accompanied either by wistful guitar plucking or bass-thumping reggaeton, El Médico wears a crisp white coat to visit patients in dusty shacks, and then puts on layered gold chains to rap atop a jeep surrounded by half-naked women. He looks more comfortable in the former than the latter. He casts his favorite dancer, Kuquita, to do the ass-shaking moves in a music video that Michel will direct, but she quits because the parents of the disabled children she teaches at her dance school complain that it’s too lewd. Before Michel came on the scene, these pursuits didn’t seem contradictory, a binary of virtue and vice, of noble doctoring versus carnal music and movement. Reggaeton was, for El Médico and Kuquita and their friends, a place for playful, uninhibited sexuality, for innuendo-soaked dance-offs amongst peers, not a place for the models that Michel pays to shake their greased-up bodies in front of a Cuban flag. Michel claims to know far more about the world in which Reynier’s music will exist than he. But as the film progresses, El Médico, at first credulous, begins to push back against Michel, even as a new skepticism shows on his face. He will continue with his music on his own, even if he doesn’t get as far as he would with a foreigner at his back.
Foreigners, with their bank accounts and $3 mojitos and accountability to the people in sales, are monetizing forces in Cuba. They can also pull into sharp relief the paradoxes of a country in which women and men represent equal percentages of doctors (and lawyers, and scientists) yet prostitution and machismo are rampant, where black Cubans are purportedly equal and yet underrepresented in the government and glanced at every time there’s a robbery. Fridell’s movie falters as he continues to trust that his characters will illustrate these thorny dynamics by interacting, rather than address them directly. With less interaction, that tactic falls apart. Michel’s sleaze, now much less interesting without El Médico, begins to ooze through more and more scenes of the film. The racism, sexualization, and financial hierarchies that are present but unexplained come to feel like ghostly elephants that Fridell doesn’t quite wrangle on-screen.
El Médico’s hits are called “Pin Pon” and “Chupa Chupa.” They’re not subtle songs, but they’re catchy. Perhaps the same can be said of the film. Fascinating, if rough, it grants unprecedented access into how one man deals with the awkward place he inhabits at the crossroads of medicine and art, wedged between the past and future, between the complicated optimism that he never quite loses and the quiet unraveling of blind faith, between isolated Cuba and the encroaching world.