Havana, Cuba-born William Sabourin O’Reilly, director of the new film “Lazaro and the Shark: Cuba Under the Surface” (2022), says he’s lived in the U.S. for over 20 years now. He’s adapted to the rhythms and systems of how life functions here. But he said he quickly realized that, for most people, there is a void about what life in Cuba is really like.
“The general public, many times they don’t have anything to do with the real people of Cuba. They get the propaganda—whatever they, the government, or what the Cuban people themselves want you to hear about as a visitor, or as a tourist, or as an outsider,” he explained.
Visions of what Cuba is really like and how people live every day are rare, Sabourin O’Reilly said in an interview with the AmNews on the eve of his film’s world premiere at the DOC NYC documentary film festival. “I just needed a break or two. I needed multiple breaks, a breakthrough, so that I could tell the story that I wanted to tell.”
The film “Lazaro and the Shark” is the story of rival conga bands, competing to best each other at the annual carnival in July. The story takes place in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city, known for its Afro Cuban cultural traditions. Sabourin O’Reilly said he counts himself lucky to be able to focus the film on four distinct characters: Lázaro, a young father of triplet toddlers, has been forced to raise his children on his own while his wife, a trained doctor, is performing a three-year medical residency in Venezuela. As a musician, Lázaro had been able to perform abroad when he was younger, and he’d considered going into exile in another country. But ultimately, he returned to his then-girlfriend/now-wife and started a family. Now we see him trying to get his Conga de Los Hoyos band to create a performance that will beat the routines performed by the Conga San Agustin band, led by Tiburón (The Shark).
Tiburón confesses to having been on the wrong side of the authorities for many years. But now that he leads the Conga San Agustin band, the government finds him useful. His conga music helps drive residents to take part in political rallies. Tiburón has found his place within the government and is now finally comfortable in Cuban society.
The film also introduces us to The Poet, a married man with a child who creates lyrics about the impoverished neighborhoods in Santiago de Cuba and the stresses the people there are forced to live with. The Poet also has an opportunity to leave Cuba, but for him, being away from his family and, in particular, his young daughter, and missing out on the formative years of her life is just too much of a sacrifice. One former resident of Santiago de Cuba, Antonio Hung Vidal, who now lives in Miami, Florida is seen returning to the island and doing what he can to aid the Conga de Los Hoyos band. Vidal left Cuba years ago but started making return trips because he missed the culture. He was once a member of the Conga de Los Hoyos band. When he returns for visits, the poverty on the island remains striking, but the connection to the culture drives him back. “If you hear a conga and don’t smile and feel a pain in your heart,” he says while reminiscing, “then you are not from Santiago.
“It’s so different here, the lifestyle in this country. That’s the nostalgia I feel in my soul,” Vidal adds.
The conga traditions, the band rivalries, the annual carnival, and the atmosphere of Santiago de Cuba all help Sabourin O’Reilly to make what he says is a political statement about how Black life is lived in current-day Cuba—and how we accept our lives, in general.
“I would say this. I was so lucky to have Vidal as a character in that…because I am an immigrant, I have lived in America, for many years—many, many years,” Sabourin O’Reilly said.
“Hopefully, I am going to be Vidal’s age, and I’m going to have to find a reason to be—to continue to live. …I have to look forward to something to do the next day. Vidal found that in the congas, in carnival. And thank god that he found that—not everyone is lucky enough to find that in the later periods of their lives.”