Ruben Blades, Looking for the Man Behind the Songs

August 30th marks the Central American commercial release of the film Rubén Blades Is Not My Name, a documentary directed by filmmaker Abner Benaim, which focuses on the life and work of the successful Panamanian singer-songwriter.

By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Roberto Quintero, Courtesy Apertura Films

Everyone has heard of Panamanian musician Rubén Blades, one of the most successful and prolific songwriters in Latin America, with a career spanning fifty years. Also known as “The Poet of Salsa Music,” Blades is the father of “intellectual salsa” and the author of hits such as “Pedro Navaja,” “Plástico,” and “Buscando guayaba.” In the early 1980s, he debuted as an actor and has appeared in more than forty movies and television series. In addition to having charted a successful path in the entertainment world, Blades is also a lawyer, politician, and humanist. And yet, though he is one of the most recognized figures on the planet, what do we really know about Ruben Blades?

Filmmaker Abner Benaim made a documentary to uncover the person behind the songs, the Rubén known to only a few. The director, who has seven feature films to his credit, met the musician in 2009, soon after making his first narrative film. “I looked him up because I wanted to show him Chance. It took me forever, but I eventually found him and showed him the trailer. He said, ‘Come to my house and show me your movie, and I’ll show you one of mine.’ The day I went to his house, before talking about anything else, he gave me a summary of his life in about 25 minutes. As if he were some stranger I’d never heard of. That night I showed him Chance and we stayed up talking until late.”

Abner Benaim

A friendship between the two men developed slowly, between Panama and New York, where Blades resides. Through the years, over talks and drinks, the seed of Benaim’s new film germinated. “Every time I visited, we ended up doing the same thing: we’d have a few drinks and he’d start telling stories and anecdotes, or he’d grab a guitar and sing me his new songs. Eventually, it began to make me nervous and I had to tell him: ‘Hey, I’m a filmmaker. You can’t just throw these stories at me, because I’m going to want to film you.’ And that’s how I ended up suggesting a documentary of his story. More than anything, to take advantage of his trust in me and to show people who don’t know him well what Ruben is like in private. I found the idea interesting, because although he’s very admired as an artist, he’s actually very reserved. It seemed to me that the person behind the songs could actually interest a wider audience.”

The singer agreed, the filmmaker hoisted a camera onto his shoulder, and the rest is history. Rubén Blades Is Not My Name is scheduled for release in commercial theaters in Central America on August 30th, following the documentary’s world premiere in March at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas and successful screenings at the International Film Festival of Panama, the Guadalajara International Film Festival, the Ambulante Festival in México, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival, and Docs Barcelona, to mention only a few.

Besides being his friend, you’re a great admirer of Rubén Blades’ work. Before filming, did you already know what you wanted to say about him, or did you just let the documentary flow?

I knew that there were certain basic things that I needed to touch on. The basic biographical points, let’s say. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to make an informational film, like some kind of video version of a Wikipedia page. I wanted to get closer to his human side, to the casual person, the man. Obviously, it’s nearly impossible, in only ninety minutes, to reveal the complete person behind the artist, or to provide a profound understanding of him. But I wanted to get close to that. And I feel like I managed to get close to the relaxed Rubén Blades, when he isn’t on stage.

The documentary talks a lot about the passage of time and death. Is this something he’s interested in, or were these issues that you wanted him to reflect on?

We talked about many things, including those topics. I didn’t force it; it just came up. He’s writing a little more about that in his songs now. And it seemed relevant to include it, because his career has lasted for 50 years and he’ll often mention a friend who has left for “the other neighborhood,” as he puts it. Of course, he’s still in good shape and we expect to have him around for many years, but he’s reached a point where he can look back and reflect on a life well lived.

I let the topics that resonated most with me guide me when deciding what material to include or leave out. His career is so broad that it’s impossible to cover everything or talk about all the topics relevant to him and his audience. I just followed my instinct and the film came together that way. I worry about death too, and I realized that I wasn’t forcing him to talk about it. I could have included other subjects we talked about in the film; it could have been about music exclusively or about Panama or a thousand things we talked about, but these are the ones that resonated with me.

Did you discover anything new about him while making the film? 

One of the things I observed, and that I think makes people respect him, is that he has been very consistent. If you analyze the issues that worried and annoyed him forty years ago, you’ll see that the same ones still matter to him today. And he’s been brave enough to talk about things that weren’t popular at the time, and he’s still talking about them. He is not an opportunist who thinks: “This topic is hot” and then he talks about it because it’s controversial and might get him some media attention. He’s consistent and he has a very clear sense of right and wrong. He’s very aware of the injustices in society. This may seem like flattery, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong about learning something positive from a person who has so much to give. Because you’re always afraid of that, right? Nobody wants to look like a flatterer.

So how did you approach the life of someone who has always fascinated you? 

I didn’t decide to make this documentary as a way to look for a hidden or negative side of the character. It began because I admired the artist, and I stuck to that, obviously trying to see the real person and not create a caricature from the perspective of a fan. I tried to keep a critical distance, and I think I managed to do so.

The movie has an affectionate tone. It’s not a film that tries to dig into difficult subjects. It’s quiet. And, as a filmmaker, it was a challenge to make something positive. It’s much harder to create a film that smells rosy than to criticize. And somehow I feel that the film draws people in and holds their attention, even though the message is clearly positive. It’s something new for me.

Did it ever occur to you to seek a balance in the documentary by including characters who spoke ill of Rubén?

We tried, but it seemed out of tune and not relevant. Rubén himself told me: “Talk to people who hate me, put them in there!” But it didn’t make sense to me; it wasn’t what interested me.

So what does Rubén think about the movie? 

He hasn’t seen it yet.