INFLUENCER: Habitant’s Managing Partner, Santiago Lebrija, reveals how to take advantage of the newly opened borders in the production paradise
All eyes have been on Cuba in the wake of its thawing diplomatic relations with the West, with many eagerly watching and waiting for the opportunity to capture its historically rich and unparalleled locations on camera.
It’s not hard to see why: the picture-perfect images of crumbling, pastel-coloured colonial facades, 1950s-era vintage cars, and cigar-smoking locals are all alive and true.
The geographically untouched paradise boasts 330 days of sunshine per year, making it a dream for filmmaker and photographers alike. The highly-stylised architecture and romantic beaches make for a stunning backdrop to luxury commercial shoots and are, unsurprisingly, a favourite of the fashion, alcohol, and perfume industries.
Quick to spot the potential, fashion royalty Karl Lagerfeld staged Chanel’s Resort show in Havana earlier this year. The Fast and Furious cast were also spotted reportedly filming parts of the eighth instalment of the franchise on the island, confirming predictions that the ending of the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo will ramp up film production on the island.
Shooting in Cuba is an unforgettable experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything, but it comes with a unique set of logistical challenges that are difficult to navigate if you’re unfamiliar with the country. So here’s what you need to know if you’re interested in producing in Cuba.
Photo Credits: Hans Neumann
The Key to Permits:
Not so long ago, strict regulations for non-Cuban productions had determined photographers and filmmakers shooting under a low profile. But thanks to recent developments, it’s now legal to film and shoot in Cuba with the right permits.
Cuba is famous for its relaxed way of life, which has attracted artists and musicians alike - most famously, Ernest Hemmingway. However, that laid-back attitude and the introduction of a new system means that Cuban bureaucracy isn’t exactly known for its rapidity and can be perplexing to say the least. Working with a knowledgeable production partner who is familiar with the official system, will save you valuable time securing permits in advance and ensure that your project won’t get stalled.
Open the Door to Authenticity:
Half a century of socialism has left Cuba refreshingly unmarked by the technological revolution. Those who’ve been lucky enough to shoot there liken the experience to being transported back to the past, which lives side by side with modern-day life in Cuba.
Dilapidated 16th century Spanish colonial structures are inhabited by locals, eager to share the fascinating stories behind the textured walls.
However, authentic vintage Cuba comes with equally vintage internet connection. Wi-fi is still a relatively new development in Cuba and was only made public in 2015, so a thorough pre-production process is absolutely essential.
Having a solid support network nearby means that you won’t be struggling to reach your crew in Cuba from the other side of the world. You need a partner who’s able to transform a time-warped treasure into a modern hub. Our base in Mexico ensures smooth communication between our representatives and puts us in a good position to provide spontaneous creative solutions.
Access External Sources:
There’s nothing to rival the authentic shoot experience you’ll get in Cuba, but due to slow growth under socialism, you should think carefully about who you choose to shoot with. Having a base in a more developed country can greatly speed up the process of sourcing equipment and crews.
With ample resources only two hours’ flight time away, flying in equipment and crews from Mexico is cheap, quick, and easy. We do our pre-production in Mexico, which gives you more time to explore the treasure-trove of unchartered locations that Cuba has to offer.
For American crews, relying on a Latin American service provider is not only practical but also key for value. USA dollars aren’t accepted in Cuba so by using Mexican pesos (one of the preferred methods of currency), it means that you’re not losing out on the exchange rate.
Decrypting Culture and Language:
Shared language and cultural similarities put Latin Americans amongst some of the most welcome business partners in Cuba. Mexico and Cuba’s histories are interwoven through some of its most important national events: Fidel Castro and Che Guevara met and planned part of their revolution in Mexico. This amicable relationship and mutual trust makes us perfect middle-men in granting exclusive access to dig beneath the surface and discover some truly extraordinary gems.
Cultural and linguistic know-how aside, the best partners also act as service translators. Habitant’s intercultural awareness from our vast client base, coupled with years’ worth of experience servicing in Cuba, allows us to deliver the full range of production possibilities to the high standard that we know our clients expect.
So whether you’re looking for breath-taking natural beauty, iconic colonial buildings, or to capture the island’s authentic cultural energy (which stems from the unique melting pot of Spanish and African influences), Cuba has the lot. If you embrace the special ‘Cuban experience’ with open arms, you’ll be rewarded with the most incredible settings. Believe me, it’s worth it.
Santiago Lebrija is Managing Partner at Habitant
Habitant has been providing tailored film and shoot locations across Mexico, Chile, Argentina and the Caribbean for film and photography shoots for 12 years. It has partnered with clients including renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz, Louis Vuitton, Nike, Nine West, Bloomingdales, Saks, Anthropologie, Free People, American Eagle, Boden, Macy´s, Net a Porter, Anne Taylor, Chico´s. Advertising clients include Nike, Johnnie Walker, Chevy, Nissan, Ford, L´Oréal, Dish Latino, Santander, Tecate, Tequila Cazadores, Adidas, Camel. Agencies include JWT, Publicis, Leo Burnet, Wing Latino, DRAFT, Publicis, Ogilvy, DRAFT FCB, Saatchi & Saatchi and more.