“Our story of two Afro-Cuban virtuosos who love their own countries, love each other’s countries and love each other, adds a level of nuance rarely seen in news or documentary reporting on Cuba,” filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider tell The Hollywood Reporter, via email, of their documentary Los Hermanos/The Brothers. It’s a tale of two long-separated brothers — one living in the U.S., one living in Cuba — who reunite, however fleetingly, to create beautiful music.
The film tells the story of music virtuosos Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, Afro-Cuban brothers who were separated at 14 when Ilmar, the elder of the two, went to the U.S.S.R. to study violin before moving to the United States. His younger brother Aldo stayed in Cuba, studying to be a classical pianist. As adults, both Ilmar and Aldo achieved great success as musicians in their respective countries. While they were able to visit each other when their schedules allowed, the pair always hoped to collaborate with one another. Los Hermanos/The Brothers tracks the duo’s musical reunion as they perform together in venues across the U.S.
“We had been traveling and making films in Cuba for several years when we saw Aldo perform at the Havana Jazz Fest,” the filmmakers say about how they first came upon what emerged as a captivating story. “We were blown away. When we discovered that his older brother Ilmar had left the island as a teen and established himself as a concert violinist, and that they were touring together for the first time, we knew that we had a deeply personal story that intersected with current politics.”
With their own deep familiarity with a Cuban culture often misunderstood in the U.S., the two directors were eager to use the brothers’ tale as a means to explore the gulf that bridged two worlds. “Most Americans have a cartoonish vision of Cuba as island paradise or island hell,” Jarmel and Schneider write.
The filmmakers managed to persevere even after political posturing resulted in a sudden policy shift that challenged production. “U.S. travel restrictions, dating back to the implementation of our country’s embargo of Cuba in 1961, make travel to Cuba difficult,” they recall. “President Obama loosened the restrictions, which made travel easy for 18 months, but President Trump slammed that door shut and made it difficult for us to travel there, and nearly impossible for Aldo to travel from Havana to the U.S.”
Still, the brothers’ connection underscored the need for better bridge-building between the nations. “Aldo and Ilmar have remained connected as much as possible but never had the chance to record music together or work seriously on composing and arranging Aldo’s original work,” the filmmakers note of the joyous results of the collaborations. “During the Obama time, Aldo was in the U.S. nearly every month, and the two brothers graced many U.S. stages with their original music and renditions of classics and jazz standards. We saw very clearly the benefits of tearing down — rather than erecting — walls, and understood that where politicians fail, artists can succeed.”