Alejandro Robaina lived through revolution, defied Fidel Castro, and traveled the globe for decades as an ambassador for Cuban tobacco. His plantation earned him recognition as the best grower in his home country, but the Cohiba cigars bearing his crop are sought after throughout the world. And before cancer took his life in 2009, the “Godfather of Cuban tobacco” chose a successor to follow in his footsteps: his grandson, Hirochi.
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That choice is the subject of a new documentary, Prince of Smoke, centered around Hirochi Robaina and the challenges that come with preserving his family’s 171-year-old legacy. Filmmaker Matthew Gelb (brother of David Gelb, who gave us Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table) went to Cuba after President Obama lifted a half-century ban on travel to the island nation and, after some convincing, set out to tell Robaina’s story. (“It was kind of an excuse to go to Cuba and smoke the best cigars,” says Gelb.)
Gelb, who previously edited movie trailers, hopes to officially release Prince of Smoke in 2018, but in the meantime, he’s busy picking up accolades with one of the buzziest films on the festival circuit. We caught up with Gelb between screenings to find out what he learned from filming with the first family of Cuban cigars.
He had to “audition” for Robaina’s whole family.
I was interested in making a film about cigars, but I hadn’t really found a subject to create that real personal connection. I met a bunch of different cigar makers and tobacco farmers and kept hearing about Hirochi. I finally met with him in New Orleans, filmed a bit, but he wouldn’t sign the release. So I had to go to Cuba, film the harvest and the first unedited interview, then show him that in front of his family and all of his business partners. Based on that, I was going to have to go home or continue filming this amazing story.
A geographical “sweet spot” gives Cuban cigars their distinction.
Sanctions in some ways made it this forbidden fruit; people want what they can’t have, so that definitely heightened it. But the reality is, especially in Pinar del Río, where Hirochi’s farm is, it’s the perfect sweet spot of wind, soil, and climate to create the best crops. Something we talk about in the film is this comparison of wine to cigars—they both depend on the land, the climate, the producer, the variety. People tend to understand it better when they think about it that way.
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Climate change is the biggest threat to Cuban cigars.
The depleting ozone layer has left Hirochi’s crops more exposed and vulnerable than they normally would be. He’s informed and interested. He speaks on how climate change is dangerous on a bigger scale, but also specifically to what’s happening right now to the farm and to his livelihood. Hopefully the film in some ways brings a little bit of attention to this issue.
Gelb doesn’t intend the documentary to glorify smoking.
We’re trying to present cigars in light of their cultural significance in Cuba—there are some moments in the film where we talk about how you smoke a cigar when a baby is born, or when someone gets married, or a business deal gets made. These are very significant parts of life, where Cuban cigars have been an integral cultural part of that. Even Hirochi knows smoking is not good or healthy for you, but it’s not really about that so much as the significance and portraying the way it is there. I was concerned, especially with the title, that it would maybe become a thing, but people seem to get it and understand that. I’m just excited to share this snapshot into Hirochi’s life, artistry, and a family tradition that dates back so many years, and I hope people can enjoy a glimpse into that world.
Prince of Smoke is screening at multiple festivals. For information, click here.