The central question in this movie is BS. Plain and simple, under no circumstances am I buying that James Suckling had any doubts why Cuban cigars were, as he puts it, the greatest in the world. In his recently released film, Cigars: The Heart and Soul of Cuba, the former European Editor of Cigar Aficionado doesn’t ask if Cuban cigars are the greatest, rather, why are Cuban cigars the greatest. I won’t give away his conclusion, although the title might provide some hints. And I guess to a degree, that’s better than Suckling pondering if he thinks Dominicans could be better, but, for anyone that has followed Suckling’s work, this is still a bit much. I could have told you the answer before the movie started, or at least hist answer, but alas, I pushed play.
For those that don’t remember, James Suckling left both Cigar Aficionado and Marvin Shanken’s sister publication Wine Spectator in the summer of 2010 only to launch jamessuckling.com later in the year and recently announced that he had taken a role at Cigar Journal, formerly European Cigar Cult Journal. His website is a mixture of both wine and cigars with Suckling and a few staff members publishing both written blogs and video content, along with a forum. In addition to those two tasks, James announced earlier in the year that he would begin working with filmmaker James Orr to produce a documentary on Cuban cigars.
Cigars: The Heart and Soul of Cuba launched a few weeks ago in both physical and downloadable forms at heartandsoulofcuba.com and has received nothing but positive (public) support. (Ironically, trademark attorney Frank Herrera owns soulofcuba.com and I somehow don’t think the La Caridad del Cobre brand owner would appreciate the film, perhaps it’s time for another cigarlaw.com post?) I’ll deal with the inevitable a priori defense of Suckling because it is sort of necessary. James Suckling is one of the most respected wine and cigar critics and while his palate is his most lauded feature, I’d argue his other expertise, as shown extensively in the film, is of the Cuban growing process. This comes largely because of his great access to all of Cuba and to Cuban farmers, most notably the late Alejandro Robaina. Suckling is subject to a fair bit of criticism largely fueled by his personal quirks and his detractors spite, although rating a Cohiba Gran Reserva 100 points at the XI Festival del Habano and his persistent use of “this is the bomb” probably don’t help. Regardless, it is near impossible to deny his access, palate and knowledge — most of which are on display throughout the documentary.
If you know nothing about growing tobacco and want to learn the basics real quick, stop reading this review and buy the movie. Suckling spends over half the film on the growing and elementary curing processes. Not only does it receive the majority of his attention, but his aforementioned area of knowledge when it comes to farming was on display to provide a fairly in-depth education for never having to leave your couch.
The remainder of the film is spent largely in the factory, which is not exactly as in-depth as one could have hoped, and pondering the thesis, including a discussion with the recently-appointed Habanos S.A. co-president, Jorge Luis Fernández Maique. The time in the factory leaves a bit to be desired, basic things like triple caps aren’t explained, shown or mentioned, no explanation of base leafs, only a brief attempt at the unique factory names and absolutely no mentioning of the Cuban factories by name. There’s no explanation of the traditional division of labor by gender, which is sort of the norm when it comes to Suckling describing tradition in the factories, notably absent. The bright colored plastic molds are seen throughout, which might come to a surprise of José Blanco, the president of Joya de Nicaragua, given back in August José dismissed the idea that Cuba could be using this specific type of plastic. While he made a point of showing the draw testing, admitting the Cuban cigars of the early millennium were rampant with draw problems, there was no mention of the current changes at many of the Cuban factories in regards to production and country.
From personal experience, I can say that I learn more about factories every time I visit another one. It’s not so much learning about the new factory, but you begin to see the differences from previous factories. In that regards, I saw a bit of things that were interesting and new, but there were some questions that were inevitably not answered.
In reality, the work in the factories is adequate, and to the average smoker, it would be more than enough, but that leads to my central question. I understand the whole idea of guerilla style filming, but this was just not very well made. Throughout the entire film, the camera is shaking (tripod or shoulder mount anyone?) and the lighting is consistently mediocre. I know what good lighting can take to produce, and understand the difficulties, but at some points of the film, there really should have been some attempt at better lighting. The shots themselves were okay, at certain points stellar, but overall, not really anything groundbreaking artistically. I wasn’t expecting anything that would be in contention for an Academy Award, but when you contrast the stellar audio quality with a movie where it appears most the people in the film are slightly out of focus, you wonder.
I was satisfied with the film for what it is, but this is by no stretch of the imagination the definitive film on Cuban cigars. This is a great film for those that have never been to a factory, never done much research on farming, but this is not a film that is groundbreaking like some of Suckling’s prior work (you remember that time when he broke the story that a brand called Trinidad existed?) At the end of the day, my largest criticism is that the film is 50 minutes long. After spending time extensively documenting the farming of tobacco, it feels like Suckling’s time in the factory is rushed. My favorite part of the factory, color sorting in Cuba, is on display, but there’s a lot beyond what is mentioned above that seems missing. It was disappointing. I sat at my computer not being ready to leave the rolling gallery. I wanted to hear about the traditional media ruedas, the unique selection of tobaccos chosen for long-term aging and I would have loved to hear about Cuba’s unique distribution channel. Instead, it ended with Suckling trying to convince me why Cuban cigars were so great.
While Suckling’s access is no doubt better than 99.99% of Americans, There is, in my mind, some room to question how much access Suckling had. Habanos just announced that they were no longer offering public tours of factories, although private tours are still occurring. Some of the footage came from the Festival del Habano, but you would think Suckling would be allowed to film in Cuban factories in other times. I don’t think his access could have possibly been that limited, and I wouldn’t have considered it prior to watching, but after finishing, some stuff just seems missing and that would be a logical explanation.
As with any lengthy discussion of Cuban cigars, the government eventually becomes a central question. Suckling does a good job to just relatively avoid the topic, which, while upsetting a lot of people in Miami, is probably the best approach when you are a journalist covering cigars. I say he does this, but then there’s the last two minutes of the film where James Suckling waxes poetically about how much joy Cubans take in making Cuban cigars, an opinion I imagine not shared by many.
Overall this is a good film, one worth watching, but I’m not 97 points on this. It’s worth the fifty minutes, but it’d probably be worth even more if it was an hour and a half long.