Yojany “Mamerto” Pérez, has long dreadlocks, a nose ring, numerous tattoos and a passion for extreme sport. He hangs off the walls of Havana highrises to paint and fix air conditioners to earn a decent wage. He earns extra money on the side as a baker, delivering treats at full speed aboard his skateboard, sometimes wearing a T-shirt with the word libertad (freedom) on his chest.
Pérez, 28, is one of the young skateboarders and the protagonist of “Havana Skate Days,” a feature film that portrays the new generation of adolescents and young Cubans living in a country outside the official dogmas.
“When I skate it is like escaping from problems, from society, from all this,” says Pérez. Skateboarding keeps him from “losing my sanity.” Through three years of shooting, the film documents Pérez as he watches his skateboarding friends — Fernando, Raciel and Yoan — emigrate to the United States.
“Little by little, you’re left all alone, s---,” Pérez complains.
Film directors Kristofer Ríos and Julian Moura-Busquets, set the film in the midst of warming relations between Washington and Havana after both governments announced restored diplomatic ties on Dec. 17, 2014, and shoot beyond the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2016.
The young skaters who appear in the film denounce the absence of real changes in the country for the new generation, such as the lack of interest on the part of the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER) when it comes to taking skaters on the island seriously.
Skateboarding began to be considered an Olympic sport in 2016 and is expected to be included for the first time at the Tokyo Games of 2020. Skaters complain that the government promotes other sports such as boxing or baseball, but that skateboarding lacks official backing.
The 85-minute film captures the frustration of representatives of U.S.-based civil society organizations who propose building skateboarding sites for the development of the sport in Cuba, but whose plans are persistently stalled by bureaucracy.
“You know the Cuban Adjustment Act, the political problems that exist with the government of the United States, especially among the Miami community and its great strength because of the blockade,” Fidel Bonilla, representative of INDER, says by way of explanation for the the delay in approval for a skate park in Havana.
The film also offers a glimpse of how politics seeps into nearly every aspect of life in Cuba. In one scene, René González — who was convicted of espionage in the United States, imprisoned and later released as part of a prisoner swap and declared a national hero when he returned to the island — presides over a Festival on Wheels in Havana.
The documentary also highlights the discreet work of groups like Amigo Skate, an American organization that takes dozens of skateboards to the island every year, often clandestinely, to support local skaters. In Cuba, there are no stores to buy skateboards or skateboarding sports equipment.
“We do the competitions without permission. Not even INDER supports us. The truth is that we sneak in gear, as if we were mules,” says René Lecour, founder of Amigo Skate, who lives in the United States. Lecour said it is unjust to have to sneak things in although he is pleased with the ties they’ve made with Cuban skaters.
In February, Lecour and a group of skaters built ramps for their skateboarding practice in an old building in Ciudad Libertad, a former military base converted into a school.
Some of the youth interviewed in the film describe current leaders of the country as “grandparents” and said that the system “no longer represents us.”
The documentary also features an annual march in which thousands of students carry torches to commemorate the birth of Cuban patriot José Martí. The demonstration captured in the film is headed by Raúl Castro and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. “And why do you come?” a young skater is asked on camera.
“I come for the girls. There’s lots of girls here,” the young skater answers. “All this is fictitious,” he adds, in reference to the commemoration. “It’s like the documentaries you see out of North Korea.”
The persistent theme throughout the film is the skaters’ relentless pursuit of their passion, despite limited resources and support. In many ways, they exhibit the spirit of the so-called “new man” touted by the revolution as well as a determination as breathtaking as the island itself.
“Each defeat is one more lesson, another blow from life,” says Pérez, the character affectionately known as Mamerto, who is constantly falling down hard as he attempts new skateboard jumps only to get up and try again.
While most of his friends end up leaving Cuba, Pérez remains, forging ahead with a plan to build skateboards and make the sport accessible across the island.
“If you really want to do something in your country, you have to fight,” he says. “If the government tells us, ‘you can’t do this because it’s not a Cuban sport,’ we must find a way to sustain ourselves.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Havana Skate Days
WHERE: O'Cinema, 90 NW 29th St., in Wynwood
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 1
INFO: To purchase tickets visit: www.o-cinema.org