Russia is one of the very few countries around the globe to which citizens of Cuba can travel without a visa. After coming across a newspaper article about Cubans in Russia, filmmaker Luís Alejandro Yero embarked on the making of this languid documentary that portrays the lives of four queer Cuban migrants living illegally in Moscow after having outstayed the period allowed them as visitors and, as it will come to pass, days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Housed temporarily in a brutalist Moscow apartment block that the filmmaker set up for them for the purpose of shooting the documentary, the four male-presenting figures spend much of their time making phone calls to the world outside their four walls to people and places far beyond the geopolitical borders of Russia.
We begin with a scene of Yero himself struggling to make himself understood in English with Russian speakers in a transaction about an apartment. From there, it is an endless reel of phone calls made by the four unnamed characters in solitude.
In each lonesome take, a world of meaning is revealed. One of the apartment occupants is working as a telemarketer, trying to persuade customers in Spanish to purchase treatments for weight reduction and erectile dysfunction. Another occupant converses with his mother back in Cuba, consoling her about somebody else’s illness, on February 14, Valentine’s Day. A third advises his interlocutor to go get tested for some unstated medical condition.
It’s not just calls to others the occupants make: the Valentine’s Day greeter is later shown practicing Russian greetings from a tutorial on his phone. The character who appears the most alienated from his environment is never shown speaking, but gazing forlorn through the window, lying inert on a bed, and watching Spanish-language media on his phone. Hints are made in the speakers’ actions and words at the dreams they have come to Moscow, or rather left Cuba, to fulfill: one lip syncs in a red robe in the bathroom as if on stage before adoring fans. In all cases, the mobile phone serves as a lifeline to and from places the occupants do not want to be. Their constant ups and downs, mostly downs, are symbolically shown in occasional takes of them riding a sterile-looking elevator between the apartment and Moscow streets piled high with snow.
“Llamadas desde Moscú” (“Calls from Moscow”) | Fri, Mar 3, 7:00 p.m. | Sun, Mar 5, 2:00 p.m. | The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater at MoMA | Directed by Luís Alejandro Yero | North American premiere | In Spanish with English subtitles. 67 min. This film is shown as part of “Doc Fortnight 2023: MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media,” through March 7.
Nicholas Boston, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY).