Interview: Emer Reynolds, ‘Here Was Cuba’ co-director


Here Was Cuba has its world premiere at the Sheffield Doc/Film Festival.

Directed by Emer Reynolds and John Murray, Here Was Cuba tells the inside story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, exploring how in October 1962 the earth teetered on the very brink of nuclear holocaust. In the first major feature documentary on the subject, the film brings to life the three central characters Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev and explores how the world’s most powerful men fell into an abyss of their own making and what courage and luck it took to climb out again. With nuclear brinkmanship high on the international agenda today, the events of October 1962 hold invaluable lessons for a generation too young to remember just how close we came to the end.

Steven Galvin got to chat with co-director Emer Reynolds about this landmark documentary

I was surprised to learn that this is the first major feature documentary on the subject. How did the project come about for you?

We were surprised too, that there had never been a major feature documentary on the subject. Happy and surprised! Both John [Reynolds, co-director] and I are kind of obsessed with the Crisis, and as the 50th Anniversary drew closer we kept talking about what an amazing moment in history it was, how dramatic and utterly scary, and how frighteningly prescient it is for today in terms of current nuclear brinksmanship. We approached the Irish Film Board and PBS and began the research phase in 2010. We filmed many interviews for research at that stage including Ted Sorensen, who was Kennedy’s key advisor during the crisis, and that proved so fortunate as he sadly died shortly afterwards. We were so lucky to have his first hand account of events from deep inside the White House. That set the tone of how we would approach the rest of the filming  we would try to hear and tell the story through personal experience and in doing so perhaps be able to tell the events as though happening live.

There’s a quote in the film: “The world almost came to an end in 1962. It’s not fiction. It’s not speculation. It almost happened and in terms of probability, it should have happened” – That’s quite a chilling statement…

There is no doubt in my mind that had a nuclear weapon been launched, ANY weapon, from any side, all out Nuclear War would have unfolded. The were enough nuclear weapons at that time to wipe out humankind many times over. Still are.

That’s the unique thing about Nuclear Weapons  their potential for utter devastation. I love the quote at the end where one of our contributors says,” It comes down to a question of our willingness to end civilisation.” It is chilling when you think how we dice with this unique fragile planet and our existence. And when you think just how close we came to the unthinkable during the Missile Crisis; a mere matter of hours, and how in the end it really came down to personality and individual choices; it’s doubly chilling.

Can you tell us a little about gathering such an impressive array of archive, both visual and aural.

We had two amazing researchers, Zlata Filipovic and Aoife Carey, who along with producer, Siobhán Ward, went on a major archive hunt for a whole range of archive – from actual material during the crisis (news reports, etc.) to all kinds of weaponry, submarine footage, radio broadcasts, etc., from the US, Russia and Cuba. I wanted to approach the archive in quite a visceral way  not as general background imagery but to use it as drama footage; to cut it, in particular, as though we were watching the drama unfolding in real time. This approach in the film I think (I hope) is one of the reasons the film feels so frightening- for although we, as the audience, know the outcome (the world didn’t end) we are able to experience the events unfolding in front of our eyes and almost forget how it turned out. The other archive element that is very strong in the film are the Kennedy tapes, the secret recordings Kennedy made of the Excomm meetings where they deliberated the US response (from immediate Airstrike to diplomacy and all avenues in between). Evesdropping on the various personalities arguing the toss  a.k.a. fate of the world  is gripping.

The film contains interviews with key witnesses and experts including Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier and, as you mentioned earlier, in one of his last ever interviews, Kennedy’s trusted advisor Ted Sorensen.

We were privileged to interview Ted Sorensen shortly before he died which was extraordinary; his recollections are truly wonderful and insightful. Hearing Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev, who was just a young man at the time, tell of walking with his father as he wrestled with events, was momentous. Hearing a personal memory recounted, of a major moment from the history books… and suddenly History becomes real. Equally, interviewing so many people from all three sides of the conflict, who were personally involved, was humbling and we felt honoured to be able to listen to such amazing first-hand accounts. I was particularly moved by Alexay Ryapenko, who was just a young soviet soldier at the time, who happened, as he put it, “to be at the end of a chain” in being the person who was ordered to fire the missile that killed the only casualty of the crisis, the US U2 pilot, Rudy Anderson. Seeing the lingering effects of that death on his face now, more than 50 years later, was a deeply moving moment.

The music plays an important role in the film.

Ray Harman, our tremendously talented composer, wrote a fabulous, tense, thrilling and very modern score for the film. It played such an important role in making the events seem to unfold in real time, not in the dusty old past! We have collaborated with Ray many times and feel he brought an incredible amount of tension, poetry and emotion to the story.

We also used some songs as part of the narrative, for example Ane Brun singing “It all starts with one” as the missiles turn their sights on each other, and late on used a song that is commonly thought of as a Christmas song ” Do you hear what I hear?”, but which had actually been written during the crisis, as it’s authors Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne frighteningly felt they faced the imminent end of the world ..

The other key creative element in the film is the impact cinematographer Kate McCullough had on the storytelling. We were very keen to explore Moscow, Havana and Washington in fresh ways and also explore imagery to illustrate and play with ideas of espionage/being watched/ not being clear about the other side’s hand/satellite images recording our lives, and Kate brought a very iconic visual dynamic to the film.

All feeding into, I feel, the hopeful visceral impact of the film.

I know you were also involved in the editing process, I’m sure that took up alot of time.

The editing of the film was fun but intense! We filmed and also sourced archive over many many months so material was flowing in constantly, and we were endlessly redefining how we might approach the story. As co-director and also editor, I would take some weeks alone in a dark room wrestling with the narrative and archive, and John, my co-director, was able to act as very fresh eyes and pull me back from the brink! It was a very fruitful and collaborative process.

The film goes beyond its historical narrative to explore the impact a Nuclear War would have on the Earth and, with recent developments in India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, posits the threat it still holds.

We wanted to explore the impact a Nuclear War would wreak on this fragile planet, and to shine a light of debate on the threat posed today, where along with the substantial nuclear arsenals of the ‘traditional’ countries, there are so many disturbing nuclear developments in India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iran… In just this past April, Fidel Castro wrote to Kim Jong-un, urging North Korea to remember it’s duties to others, saying the tensions on the peninsula posed one of the gravest risks for nuclear holocaust since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The lessons of the Crisis are that mankind is infallible. We can’t afford to be complacent. This is not a threat that has passed. We wanted the film to sound a loud warning bell. However, disarmament is obviously still very current and complex issue. As Sergei Khrushchev says ” First we have to change human nature… and I don’t think we can change human nature…”

But maybe if we really listen to lessons from history we can change? In the words of George Bernard Shaw: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience?”


Here Was Cuba receives its world premiere screening at the Sheffield Doc/Film Festival (12 – 16 June). Screening on Fri, 14th June at 12:45 in Showroom 3 and again on Sun, 16th June at  18:15 in Showroom 4.


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