Cigar Movie Review: Hand Rolled

We thought we’d try something a little different this week and a cigar movie review. This is our first cigar movie review, but it probably won’t be the last. This time around we decided to cover the cigar documentary Hand Rolled: A Film About Cigars. You can watch it yourself on YouTube with ads, or stream it on Amazon Prime Video without ‘em, if you like. With that, let’s get into it!

 

Hand Rolled: A Film About Cigars

This is a documentary, but it’s probably not like many documentaries you’ve seen before. You might say it’s combination of history lesson, heartfelt storytelling and political commentary. But most of all, it is a love letter to cigar culture. It’s crystal clear from the jump that this is a film for people who love cigars made by people who love cigars. The deep reverence for cigar culture runs throughout the entire 90-minute work from Executive Producer, Pete Johnson of Tatuaje Cigars. Pete also appears in the documentary sharing his cigar life insights and wisdom.

The filmmakers sat down with some heavy hitters in the industry, like Carlos Fuente, Jr. son of founder Arturo Fuente Don Carlos, among others and captured some great stories in the process. Peter Weller, of Robocop fame, provides the narration with just the right gritty, organic tone this film needed. All told, it’s a fantastic way to spend 90 minutes of your time. If you’re a Smoke Inn regular and you’re reading this blog, the chances you will enjoy and appreciate this film are excellent. Even if you’re a seasoned aficionado, there’s a good chance you will learn something new in the process while being thoroughly entertained.

 

A Cigar History Timeline

The film is built along the timeline of modern cigar history. Beginning in 1950s, when Cuba was free and Havana was a cosmopolitan, international capital frequented by celebrities and wealthy tycoons. The first heavy hitter storyteller out of the gate is Padrón founder, José Orlando Padrón, who talks about Cuban life on the brink of the Cuban Revolution. It may surprise some people to know that pre-Castro Cuba was not all sunshine and rainbows. Behind the glitter of the capital city of Havana, many ordinary Cubans suffered in poverty and corruption was rampant throughout much of the society. It was not yet communist, but President Fulgencio Batista was an increasingly paranoid dictator-type who began to crush the country and its people in his ever-tightening grip. That combined with increasing inequality and politically motivated mass murder made Cuba ripe for revolution and Che Guevara took full advantage of it.

The cigar industry and Cuba’s cigar family dynasties were caught in the middle of all of it. Many of them, including the Padrón Family, saw the writing on the wall early and fled Cuba. Not everyone was so lucky though. Manuel Quesada, the Quesada Cigar patriarch tells the story of the day Castro sent soldiers to seize his father’s cigar business. Tabacalera Perdomo President, Nick Perdomo, Jr. talks about how his grandfather was one of those who stayed behind, believing that the American government would intervene somehow or at least get the non-communist, freedom-loving Cubans out of the country.

 

The Cigar Industry Migrates

Predictably, Castro nationalized the tobacco industry, seizing family farms. The film explains how the Cuban government ran agriculture into the ground by setting quotas that were never met and reallocating land they had no idea how to properly manage. Cubans began to flee, en masse. Most headed for the United States, but many went to Nicaragua, The Dominican Republic and other nearby countries. In the U.S. many cigar families and the craftspeople who hand rolled the cigars established themselves in Florida. Tampa became the cigar capital of the world for a time with almost 150 cigar factories at its peak. There, families like the Fuente’s and Oliva’s hand rolled premium cigars as they always had. Made with Cuban fillers held together by Cuban binders and sheathed in Cuban wrappers.

All was well, more of less, until the embargo on trade with Cuba dropped. Suddenly the supply of Cuban tobacco was in jeopardy. This turning point in history is what truly began the emergence of fine tobacco production (and eventually manufacturing) of cigars in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean and Central American enclaves. The Cuban cigar makers of Florida began traveling to these countries and reconnecting with other Cuban’s who had fled Castro’s regime. They found rich volcanic soils and just the right altitude variations and everything else required to grow the tobacco they needed. In fact, it was already being grown in places. The film also details how the growth of the cigar business brought prosperity to the rural communities of Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Those Who Stayed

One many interesting little detours the film takes is into the Robainas Family. They were one of the cigar making dynasties which chose to remain in Cuba. The filmmakers actually went to Cuba and interview them in person and some fascinating dialog and unique perspective comes out of that. We won’t spoil it for you here though. Go watch the film!

 

Affinity for the Uniqueness of Cigar Culture

While Hand Rolled follows a timeline, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only film about cigar history. Interspersed throughout the history and accounts from industry insiders, you also find some pretty profound observations about cigar culture. It’s these parts that really show the love the filmmakers have for the people and personalities in the cigar world and the effect that the pastime has on socialization and relationships. Especially the fact that social and economic class and cliques don’t matter in the cigar world. Enjoying cigars has a very democratizing effect.

Pierre Rogers, co-founder of Puro Trader relates a great story about smoking cigars at a party and everyone just shooting the breeze about life and family. Suddenly he realized that the distinguished older man to his right was CIA Director, George Tenet. Rocky Patel himself wisely opines about how world leaders could probably solve a lot of problems if they just sat down and spend some time with a couple of fine cigars and some good bourbon or Scotch. We really can’t disagree. We also really appreciate the way they did service to cigar culture throughout the film. In between the fascinating history and industry commentary and touching upon politics, they never lose sight of the fact that what makes cigar culture great is the people.

The 1980s Brings Change to Cigar Making

As Hand Rolled moves into the 1980s, they describe changes coming to the industry. One change is that many of the Cuban émigrés who came to Florida are reaching retirement age. The torcedores (rollers) and boncheros (bunchers) had all aged out. Most of the rolling and production was moving out of the U.S. to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic primarily. Sure, most of the cigars were being sold in the U.S. and there was tons of capital to invest here and lots of distribution infrastructure.

But…almost all of the tobacco used was being grown outside the U.S. and mostly in those two countries. Nicaragua and The Dominican Republic, like the U.S., had plenty of Cuban émigrés. Moving production to the places where the tobacco was grown and aged just made sense. At the same time, the popularity of cigars was somewhat in decline and Nicaragua was about to enter a civil war. The cigar industry is no stranger to challenging conditions though, including revolution and war. So of course, it would survive, but it has to change once again. When it became impossible to produce and export from Nicaragua, companies like Joya de Nicaragua moved to Honduras for a bit while others went to the Dominican Republic.

 

Cigar Making Rises Again and Enters a Renaissance

Another interesting revelation in the film is the role that Cigar Aficionado Magazine played in cigar culture. Inspired after a 1991 visit to Cuba, Marvin Shanken decided to dedicate himself to creating the godfather of all cigar publications. While people in the industry and smokers alike were happy to see it, no one could have predicted the effect it would have. The magazine reignited (pun intended) the interest in cigars in the U.S. especially. Not only that, but it also changed the culture. Traditionally cigar smokers in the past used to be pretty brand loyal. They’d stick with the same thing.

One of the things Cigar Aficionado did was write amazing reviews of cigars and tell stories from the industry. That piqued smokers’ interest and inspired them to explore. Why not try something different and new? So, people did. That expansion of interest also extended to cigar makers and it began to inspire a new generation of cigar makers who opened up shop right beside the legacy brands. From this new blood came a desire to experiment with blends and explore styles. That adventurous spirt co-exists today with the love of tradition and doing things by hand in the cigar world, which is one of the many things that makes this culture and industry unique.  And Cigar Aficionado Magazine played an important part in reviving the industry and the culture and today it still represents the very heart of cigar journalism.

 

The Future of Cigars and Not Shying from Controversy

This film does a great job of casting a wide net and capturing so much of what is important about cigar culture. A lot of attention is paid to history because so much of cigar making is about history and tradition. They also touch upon regulation and the silliness of politicians trying to make a name for themselves by targeting the cigar industry. No light is made of health concerns about tobacco, rather they shine a light on the hypocrisy of looping the premium cigar industry with “Big Tobacco” when they are two objectively different things. The cheap grape and fruit punch flavored gas station cigars the government blames for targeting children have not a thing to do with premium hand rolled cigars. That’s a message that needs to get out there, so we were gratified to see it presented in the film.

We won’t give away the ending, but there’s some enlightened speculation about the future the cigar industry and the culture. Overall, this is not just a good cigar movie. It’s a great documentary, period. It does an excellent job of showing how the modern cigar industry and the culture surrounding it got to where it is today. It also doesn’t shy away from controversy and it’s not afraid to ask some big questions. They also nailed down some really big names in the industry who are exactly who you would want to hear from on the subject. You’ll hear a few great stories during the course of the film. Like we said earlier, the best thing about it may be that the filmmakers really seem to understand that it’s the people and the personalities which made cigar culture what it is and they do a fantastic job of showing that.

 

Smoke Inn is Your Cigar Place

Your local cigar place is more than just a spot to grab some cigars and scram. If they get it right, and we believe we do, then there’s a sense of atmosphere too. An energy that makes you want to hang out for a while and have an experience. Your cigar place should have a vibe that makes you happy to be there for a while. We hope our first cigar movie review resonated with you. By all means please take the time to watch this film. You can find it on YouTube here and uninterrupted on Amazon Prime Video right here. Also check out the Facebook Page for the film, here. Don’t forget that tickets for 2023’s The Great Smoke are on sale NOW. Remember that only ticket holders have the opportunity to buy the exclusive releases being announced up to the event. Get yourself a ticket or two and get down here for The Great Smoke 2023!

As always, if you’re local or happen to be visiting South Florida, be sure to reward yourself with a visit to one of the country’s best cigar shops in person. We’d love to see you.

 

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