May 19, 2021

Doc Stars of the Month: Aldo López-Gavilán and Ilmar Gavilán, 'Los Hermanos'

Ilmar Gavilán and Aldo López-Gavilán, from Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider's 'Los Hermanos (The Brothers).' Courtesy of First Run Features

Aldo López-Gavilán and Ilmar Gavilán, the sibling protagonists at the heart of Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s Los Hermanos (The Brothers), are two Cuban-born virtuoso musicians, now in their 40s, whose lives have forever been at the mercy of ideological politics. While still in his early teens, elder brother Ilmar was sent to the former Soviet Union to perfect his string instrument talent—eventually ending up as a chamber violinist in the US, never to live in Cuba again. Meanwhile, kid brother Aldo stayed home to train with some of the most respected classical and jazz pianists on the island, becoming a musical force in his own right. Yet through the years the brothers nurtured a shared dream of combining their musical talents in person— which proved ever more elusive as the decades passed. And then, to everyone’s surprise, the Cold War-era ice began to crack.

Seizing opportunity, Documentary enlisted the renowned duo as our May Doc Stars of the Month. Speaking via phone the week of the film’s premiere, the siblings were gracious enough to give us the scoop on growing up in separate worlds, sidestepping politics, and finally coming together as grown men and as artists. And doing so in front of the lens.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: So how did you meet the filmmaking team?

ALDO LOPEZ-GAVILÁN: They actually went to one of my concerts in Havana, in the jazz festival, many years ago. They attended an after-concert party and we exchanged a few words. But I think that was the key for them wanting to make a documentary about us. Then Ilmar was contacted by them.

ILMAR GAVILÁN: I came to watch one of their movies play in the Havana Film Festival [that takes place in New York City]. They invited me to see the movie, and then I had a quick bite with them and they said, “We met your brother and we love his music, and we want to do something with the two of you.” But they didn’t have the story, just the intention. I told Marcia that, by the way, Aldo’s coming to tour with the Harlem Quartet. Right then and there she said, “Well, we have a story.” And that’s how it happened.

D: Considering the geopolitical nature of your story, though, were you at all hesitant to participate in the project?

IG: The answer is yes. Especially for Aldo, it’s not something you jump into right away. But we knew that they’d filmed in Cuba before, and it was established that the nature of the documentary was not mainly political—that’s like a subtext. We also didn’t encounter any possible red tape that would keep Aldo from coming back to Cuba, or any possible backlash.

D: Considering the tensions between Cuba and the United States, I could see something happen that you didn’t want to happen during production.

IG: You are absolutely right. 

D:  That’s scary.

IG: Very, very. Especially for the party that lives in Cuba. If something goes wrong, it’s really bad.

D: So what aspects of your lives were off-limits to the camera, either for political reasons or just personal?

IG: Aldo, maybe you can answer that. I know for sure we eliminated politically compromising questions that would put us on the spot, but maybe Aldo could say more.

ALG: No, actually we were alright. I mean, we just made clear that any substantial political issues in the film wouldn’t be right. But I don’t think anything else was a problem.  

D: Nothing personal that you didn’t want to film?

ALG: No, you know, there’s not much to hide, really.  

IG: I have to admit, [the filmmakers] were very respectful. They would always check with us. And this also meant there was an amount of intrusion that we allowed to happen. It was at times unnatural for us, say, to have mics on for like five hours. We’d have mics in New York, in Boston, just in case we said something in Spanish that could be used. We were very mindful of what to say, what not to say. But the nature of documentary is, you have to give more access than you would probably be comfortable with. That said, we didn’t really put down any limits. 

D: So were you always consciously aware of the camera being around?

IG: There was one time, my favorite…Aldo, I think it’s okay to share the fart, right? 

ALG: Oh my god. I don’t remember.  

IG: The last scene in the studio. Aldo and I love playing with farts, and we were alone in the studio and we forgot that there was a camera hidden, and that all the mics were always on. And on top of that, the mics of the studio were in the cabin where the engineer was. So Aldo looked at me with a big smile and farted really loudly just to make me laugh and decompress. And then we heard people giggling in our headphones, and the cameraman stepped out to show himself. People were clapping in the cabin with the engineer! Everybody saw it and heard it. 

D: Well, I guess you really did forget the cameras were around. Did that make it into the film? I don’t remember that at all.

IG: No, no, no, the fart was not there. It [happened while we were filming] the very last scene in the studio.

D: So are there any scenes you find difficult to watch? Or any that you’re particularly pleased made it into the final cut?

IG: Oh, sure. Aldo, maybe you can tell yours and I can tell mine.

ALG: Well, when I first watched the whole finished movie in the theater, in the Havana Cinema Festival, I was wordless. I was so touched by it. I mean, I had seen a rough cut and I knew where they were filming, how they did it. But when you see the whole thing, you see a part of your own life in a different way, in a different aspect. You realize many, many things—and certain things about your own life.

D: Like what?

ALG: Well, the whole process of our lives, the separation with Ilmar, all these themes. Actually, that was very touching for me when I was a kid and Ilmar left for Russia. I used to send these tape cassettes to him, to talk with him, to play the piano for him, to let him know what I was doing while I was there in the school. I would tell him [about my] day, the classes I would attend, then I would improvise for him. And he would listen to all of that in Russia. I didn’t remember that, that vivid experience in my life. I was only a kid, so when I saw that…

D:  Was that almost a flashback?

ALG: Exactly.  

IG: I was going to say that this also is the most difficult part to watch. For me it’s still a very vulnerable part of my life. It brings up very raw emotions, that scene. 

D: Because of the separation from Aldo?

IG: That’s part of it. But it’s mainly because it’s part of the whole picture—the separation from my family in general. My mom came with me the first year, when I was 14. But when I was 15, I was alone there doing attending boarding school. I missed my family, I missed my country. I was lonely in this foreign country that is not particularly warm. It’s a different culture, right? They are not Latino. It's different.  

So watching that brings me back to that very vulnerable time in my life. It’s not only because of Aldo, but because the tapes were my connection to my universe. The tapes were more than music. All the surrounding noises really put me right there at home where I belong.

In a way, living in exile, you always feel like a kid in another country. Even though I have my own family here, and I’m very happy here, there is still a part of me that is that little kid that belongs home. In his own home, with his mom and dad and little brother. It doesn’t go away.

On the positive side, every scene that has to do with Cuba I look forward to watching very much.  

D: Does that make you happy or homesick—or both?

IG: No, it makes me happy. To see the street to our first building we grew up in, that scene with the neighbor that I call grandma, and also the funny scene looking for soy sauce. These things make me smile, make me very happy.  

D: Aldo, do you have particular scenes you enjoy? 

ALG: One of my favorite scenes is when I try to pick him up at the Havana airport and it’s a total failure. He was already gone, and I was waiting there with my daughters for a couple of hours. I mean, now it's a good scene for the movie, but at the time I was really mad.  

IG: There’s a lot of humor in the way Ken and Marcia use that mishap. I think it’s brilliant.

D: So what are your hopes for the film now that it’s about to be released to the general public? Do you plan on using your artistic clout to get it seen by politicians, especially the hardliners, in either country?

IG: Aldo, maybe you can start. I definitely have hopes.  

ALG: The best hope we can have is for the film to be watched by many people—and not only in the States, of course. As widely as possible in many countries, in many movie theaters. And definitely I would love for a politician to watch it, especially now with the new administration that came in. I hope that this film can be a key to increasing friendship between both countries. I think that would be fantastic. That’s my main hope for it.  

IG: Yeah, we even reached out to the person who introduced us to Ken and Marcia. He has a way to approach Kamala Harris, so we asked him if he could introduce us. It’s tough now that she is no longer in California—but she is the [US] vice president. I really wanted to reach her in particular because I know she has an Indian background, so she might be able to identify a little more. But honestly, the new head of the State Department [Antony Blinken], I also like that guy. I wish he would watch it. Any conversation that involves the relationship between the two countries would really benefit from having the perspective of this film.

D: I’m guessing the filmmakers would be able to lobby at least some of these politicians. Are you planning on going to Miami or the South Florida community to get it seen by them as well?

ILG: Definitely there. Not Aldo and I, but the moviemakers. They have a release plan and we are keeping our fingers crossed to make sure [that happens]. We don’t want to provoke the people who feel differently. We just want to inspire them, inspire everyone. 

D: Maybe if hardline people see this, it would soften them.

ILG: Yeah, that’s our hope. And another personal hope is for more people to find out about Aldo’s beautiful music. That last scene, when finally Aldo and I were able to record our first CD…Imagine, we are in our 40s and this is our first CD together! And that’s the culmination of the movie.

D: Is there a way for you to do virtual concerts in conjunction with the movie?

IG: We are already doing live concerts. Two days ago we played in Detroit. A lot of people are vaccinated, and a lot of venues are restarting, so that’s another personal hope—to get to tour with Aldo. He’s already toured with the Harlem Quartet, but I have to say, it was always a dream for me to tour with him as a duo. We just did that first one, so we are really happy about that. 

D: So did making this film change your own lives—or minds—in any way?

ALG: Well, I am the same person, of course. But I think it’s a great honor for us to have something like this film. It’s a treasure, you know. Because more than a feeling, it’s like a memory of our family. And it’s not only for us, it’s for the whole family. 

IG: For me, I feel the same as Aldo. I’m the same person essentially, but I feel more of a responsibility now. The visibility that this movie provides makes me slightly more capable of provoking change that goes beyond my own life. So in a way I’ve become even more involved [in making that change happen].

  I know that music plays a key role in geopolitics, and in humanity in general, and it’s different with this level of exposure. I feel I can do more because I can bring it to the attention of people, say, in the public schools.  

What I’ve been doing already with the Harlem Quartet is introducing audiences that are not usually exposed to classical music, like African American and Hispanic [audiences], to classical music in a way that’s organic. So that role is now even bigger. Our music is such a great vehicle because it’s not purely classical, it's not pop either. It’s that wonderful music that makes everybody relate [to it]. So that’s changed my mind a little bit more. Now it’s, How can I be an even bigger instrument for change in the area I’m already working in?

Los Hermanos (The Brothers) is screening in virtual and in-person cinemas nationwide through First Run Features.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.

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