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[whitespace] 'Yank Tanks'
Grill Thrill: Cuban mechanics don't believe in subcompacts.

Rolling Thunder

Cuban mechanical artists keep Ike-era behemoths on the road in Cinequest documentary 'Yank Tanks'

By Richard von Busack

FOLK ART often emerges straight out of poverty. What makes director David Schendel's documentary Yank Tanks one of the most easily recommended films at the upcoming Cinequest (Feb. 21-March 3) is that it doesn't strictly swoon over the poor life. Schendel observes something beautiful that happens despite poverty, not because of it.

The Cubans in Yank Tanks have taken metal offal and turned it into poetry in motion. Schendel and his interpreter/interviewer, Javier Bajana, justly celebrate the ingenuity that's kept Yankee cars--1950s bulgemobiles, long extinct in the land of their birth--on the road in Havana.

These cars--sleek Hudsons, imposing Buicks and enormous Ike-era Cadillacs--are memorials to a time when Cuba's rich were importing American luxury cars by the score, right before the fall of the Batista regime. These jalopies, ancient and corroded by the salt air, are renovated and kept alive despite the U.S. trade embargo. They're doctored by shade-tree mechanics whose deftness includes creating spare parts out of jury-rigged kilns and the kind of low-tech equipment you'd find in a rural high school's metal shop.

Some of the work is alarming: a brake reliner, identified only as Ito, bakes his own asbestos/ceramic brakes in his backyard, working barehanded with big fluffy piles of the deadly stuff, as if it were household flour. (Stick around to the end titles--the director does eventually intervene.)

Yet some of the work here is inspiring. Billin, a former electrical mechanic who now rebuilds cars in his yard, is seen retrofitting a chain-saw engine onto a bicycle to manufacture a homemade moped. Apparently never having heard of a hybrid car, he theorizes out loud that a half-gas/half-electric engine could be a future breakthrough for city travel.

"Every Cuban is a mechanic," says a proverb quoted in the film. Observing these "hecho in caso" cars, Yank Tanks chronicles how these automobile carcasses are revived. "They come in here with plants growing on them," remarks a mechanic. "They won't recognize them when them come out." The guts are cobbled together from parts out of Cold War beaters. "Our Russian friends are still helping us," says one interviewee, pointing out the parts of a Volga motor that he grafted on his Detroit engine.

While Schendel loves the look of these cars (and who wouldn't?), he's careful to note that their mechanics work in a legal twilight. These mechanical artisans--maybe artists is a better word--are muscled into repairing government autos, which helps provide money and material for reviving these vintage beasts. Like old cars everywhere, these old cars do end up being pushed and towed. One stalled-out driver is seen, ready to drive 26 miles in first gear with a busted clutch.

Most of the people interviewed seem to agree that the inevitable end of the U.S. embargo may mark the end of these homegrown mechanics and their venerable vehicles. Tellingly, the mechanics in Yank Tanks are mostly old men, with few young people getting into the trade. And any Californian who worked harder to get his smog certificate than he did to get his high school diploma can only fret over what the emissions are like from some of these rolling behemoths.

Schendel is a first-time filmmaker who seems likely to take up where documentary-maker Les Blanc has left off. This marvelous documentary should be required viewing for gearheads, yes, but also for anyone who harbors daydreams of getting into business for themselves; the people here work hard but, despite it all, seem very proud and free.

This year's Cinequest (like last year's) is something of a demo for the evolving powers of the digital camera. The DXD (Digital by Digital) section of the festival (March 1-2) offers aspiring filmmakers a chance to exchange ideas with heavy hitters from the digital camera and projection industry. The technicians and artists are working to improve the visual possibilities of the digital revolution, and for the occasion, a special digital-projection system will be installed as the San José Repertory Theatre.

As Duncan Shephard, the film critic from the San Diego Reader, once wrote, the question about digital film has always been, "What's in it for the viewer?" Yank Tanks answers that question. The technical and bureaucratic problems of shooting this splendid documentary on 35 or 16 mm film would have been inconceivable. High-res digital cameras offer exactly the independence of spirit that Yank Tanks celebrates.

Prep Work

A two-week festival like Cinequest takes a bit more planning than dropping in on the nearest cineplex to catch Collateral Damage. Next week's Metro will contain a definitive guide to the festival, but it doesn't hurt to get started early.

The opening-night film (unreviewed by deadline) is The Search for John Gissing, the latest work by Mike Binder (responsible for HBO's The Mind of the Married Man), who also co-stars with Janeane Garofalo and Alan Rickman (still the ultimate villain of the modern era for his role in Die Hard) in a comedy of social manners. The Search for John Gissing will show Feb. 21 at 8pm at Camera 3 and the same night at 8:30pm at Camera One. The real social whirl takes place at the gala party after the film at Paolo's Restaurant.

This year, the festival is honoring three mavericks: actors David Strathairn and Lili Taylor, and composer Lalo Schifrin. First up, on Feb. 27, is Schifrin, who has seamlessly joined his work as a jazz musician (collaborating with Sarah Vaughn, Stan Getz and Count Basie) with some of the most memorable movie music ever created, including scores for TV's Mission Impossible, as well as Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke and Dirty Harry. The Schifrin tribute and Q&A take place Feb. 28 at 7pm at the San José Repertory Theatre. Bracketing the event will be screenings of Bullitt (Feb. 27) and The Hellstrom Chronicle (March 1).

-- Michael S. Gant

Cinequest runs Feb. 21-March 3 at Camera One and 3 and the San José Repertory Theatre and AMC Saratoga 14 in San Jose and the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto. Most screenings are $8; special events range from $10 to $55. Call 408.295.FEST for details. (Full Disclosure: Metro is a major sponsor of the festival.)

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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