There’s a mole on the left side of Charlize Theron’s neck that you could call her identifying mark. Somehow, this helps you get a fix on her. As an actor, she is often so physically consumed by whatever role she is playing - be it put-upon mine worker in North Country, lesbian serial-killer in Monster, beehived Britt Ekland in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers; ambitious southern wife in The Devil’s Advocate - that if it weren’t for this marker you could lose her completely. She’s a shape-shifter.
A recent metamorphosis took her towards producing, with spectacular success, on Monster, the film that won her the 2004 Oscar for best actress. She took no small risk on the movie; the entire previous output of its writer and director, Patty Jenkins, consisted of a single short that Theron was begged not to watch. “There was nothing she’d done to convince me she was a good director,” says Theron. “I just had a feeling. But I have been wrong before. Very wrong. I’ve been in situations when I’ve said to myself, ‘Can I have rope please? Or some blades?’”
Now she has turned to documentary, producing East of Havana (directed by Jauretsi Saizabitoria and Emilia Menocal), which last week saw its British premiere at the Edinburgh international film festival. Charting the experiences of talented young hip-hop artists Soandry, Mikki Flow and Magyori, it is part document of a musical movement, and part meditation on loss and exile, with some of its most affecting material relating to Soandry’s elder brother, Vladimir, who escaped Cuba a decade ago for the US.
The film determinedly declines to romanticise life in Castro’s Cuba, pushing home again and again that these artists work in a climate of censorship and in conditions of dire poverty, denied human rights such as the freedom to travel. And it goes beyond that: there is already controversy brewing about its pro-American politics. Bizarrely, there is no mention of the US blockade; responsibility for the worsening conditions in Cuba during the “special period” of the 1990s is laid firmly at Castro’s door.
Theron’s own view is that “the foundation of Cuba is censorship. You have to ask: would I take the free healthcare and education and accept being a prisoner in my soul?” The kids in the documentary are immensely articulate and literate, and spend a lot of time scribbling lyrics in their notebooks; it is ironic that their education has given them the means but not the opportunity to express dissent. “It’s like having a key without a lock,” she says.
Theron’s ease with the political stance of the film perhaps stems from the fact that, like the subjects of the documentary, she was brought up without the luxury of democracy, albeit in a state of a drastically different complexion than Cuba’s. She was born in the former mining town of Benoni, just outside Johannesburg in South Africa, and settled in the US in her late teens, when she was training as a ballerina while modelling to pay the bills (the latter she calls “my waitressing job”). The freedoms of the US, she argues, are of immeasurable value, and in danger of being taken for granted. “In countries where things are going well, people tend to forget the things that are really, truly important. It was interesting screening this film in America. Everybody grasps on to Cuba, but as soon as the conversation comes round to America and you see how this material reflects on the US, it’s quite devastating. People are very scared to say anything that might come across as unpatriotic. But if you really, truly love a country - and I love living in America and I have a freedom that I never had in South Africa - then you should worry about those things.”