KARLOVY VARY – News broke recently that the U.S. Department Of Transportation is tentatively approving flights from the states to Havana, Cuba for eight American carriers. Based on the historically contentious relationship between the two countries this is something that was inconceivable five or even three years ago, but it’s just another sign that times are changing for the island nation and they are changing fast. That’s one of the prevailing themes of Daniel Abma’s “Transit Havana” which after an initial local release in the Netherlands screened at the 51st Karlovy Vary Film Festival this past week.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Johannes Praus, “Transit Havana” follows three transgender Cubans who are hopeful they will be one of a handful of patients who are authorized to receive sexual reassignment surgery from the government (one that pays their healthcare bills). Once a year, Dutch doctors volunteer their services to perform these surgeries over just a handful of days. For the nation’s transgender community it’s been a godsend, but there are too many applicants to meet demand (just 27 patients had received treatment at the time of shooting) and few if any can afford to leave the country for private coverage. For three candidates, Odette, Juani and Malú, there is an excitement and desperation over the chance to earn what amounts to a golden ticket for a chosen few.

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An older transman who refers to himself as Cuba’s first official transsexual (one has to assume he means government recognized), Juani already appears to have fully transitioned. Retired, but working part time jobs to survive, Juani has already had reconstructive surgery but is hoping for an additional procedure to make his male anatomy function better during sexual encounters. He seems to have a head start on the other applicants because of his notoriety and his acquaintance with Mariela Castro, daughter of current Cuban leader Raúl Castro, the head of Cuban National Center for Sex Education and the country’s most prominent LGBT activist amongst the political elite (more on her later).

Malú is a transgender rights activist who has done everything she can for her community but it still waiting for the final surgery. Headstrong and opinionated, she admits to being a sex worker at one time and patiently waits for her boyfriend to get out of prison. She’s been living as a female since she was a teenager and has the support of her mother and a group of close gay and trans friends. Out of all the film’s subjects she seems the most obvious choice to get approval from the government committee who is selecting the patients.

In many ways Odette is almost the complete opposite of Malú. A former tank operator in Cuba’s military, she has found it difficult to connect with other members of the trans community (the reason why is relegated to catty gossip). She works on a small farm where she does menial labor cleaning pens and feeding the animals that she loves (it isn’t a stretch to realize they love her back more than anyone else at the moment). While her boss supports her saying her journey is “God’s will,” it becomes increasingly obvious that her mother and elderly grandmother do not. While she talks on camera about her excitement in taking the final step, director Daniel Abma does a superb job capturing her difficulty in coming to terms with being trans and a local church that believes surgery would be wrong in the eyes of God.

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Abma impressively weaves these stories together with images and moments that document how difficult it is for his subjects to live in Socialist Cuba at this point in history. Outside of Odette’s family there seems to be little disdain for how these men and women live these lives, but economically it’s an arduous existence. At one point, the cameras follow Juani and his brother to the local grocery store where they have to pick and choose what essentials to buy with their government credits (Juani’s brother reveals he only has the means to purchase fish or beef once a week). It’s as though you’re watching an archived news report from the Soviet Union era the communist government often led to empty shelves at the food market.

Appearing more frequently in the picture than you’d expect is the charismatic Castro, a constant reminder of how much power the regime has in Odette, Juani and Malú’s lives. She’s depicted as a hero for her support of the island’s gay and trans community – she walks in pride parades and delivers a report to government officials on the plight facing trans citizens – but, as you’d no doubt expect from her familial connections, she’s also a constant propagandist for socialism. The documentary was shot between 2014 and 2015 and one of the most politically enlightening moments is to hear Castro pontificate how the nation will never return to capitalism and then almost comically change her tune after Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014 announcement lowering some of the U.S. blockade restrictions on the island. Odette is also shown watching Obama’s speech and her euphoric optimism over the news makes it obvious why the U.S. president is already seen as a hero to the Cuban people (much to the dismay of Raúl and Fidel Castro).

One of Abma’s few missteps is not spending enough time justifying who did or didn’t make the list. It’s an important part of the story that gets relegated to a short rant from one of the movie’s frustrated subjects. More disappointing, and granted, seemingly out of his control, is the fact Abma was not able to capture what appears to be the most dramatic moment during filming. In theory it’s a heartbreaking event, but it so unclear what actually took place that it leaves the viewer having to rely on conjecture to understand one of the main character’s actions (or someone else’s).

Why “Transit Havana” is important, however, is because it sheds a spotlight on the lives of trans people living a country that at this particular moment is also in transition. It’s an emotional, painful and clearly political process, but the perseverance of Odette, Juani and Malú to become whole is inspiring for those fighting for trans rights closer to home. [B+]

Click here for our full coverage from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.