“A once in a lifetime experience”- Interviews with U.S. film students who worked with well-known cinematographers in Cuba

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the full version of the interview by Henrik Eger, as found in Writer’s Block #33. Happy reading!

It took Cuba and the United States more than a half-century of Cold War estrangement and hostilities before both countries shook hands, reopened their embassies, allowed visitors, and engaged once again in cultural exchanges. Gerard (“Gerry”) Hooper, a U.S. filmmaker and professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, took ten of his film students to Cuba, where they studied and, with the full support of Cuban filmmakers, shot documentaries for two weeks at the legendary Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in San Antonio de Los Baños—one of the most important audiovisual training institutions in the world.

 EICTV implements the teaching philosophy of “learning by doing” with teachers who are active filmmakers. It was founded in 1986 by Colombian novelist and screenwriter Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Argentinean poet and filmmaker Fernando Birri; and Cuban theoretician and filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa, amongst others, and is supported by the government of the Republic of Cuba.

 Over the course of time, thousands of professionals and students from over 50 countries have graduated from this famous film institute. Three students from the Drexel group—Nick Bell and Anna Pruett, two Americans, and Inbal Madar, an Israeli American—openly discuss their experiences in Cuba.

 Henrik Eger: What did you know about Cuba before you heard about the trip to Havana?

 Nick Bell: Beyond a smattering of cold war history factoids, I only knew that Spanish was the official language and that Cuba was largely off-limits to people from the United States.

Inbal Madar: All I knew about Cuba was that it was a Communist country that just recently opened its gate to Americans, and also that it had a wonderful, colorful culture. I am Israeli, so several of my friends did visit, and they all said that the Cuban people are very nice. It was all true.

Anna Pruett: I knew about the high-school version of American history that pertained to Havana, and nothing else. I loosely remembered the significance of the Bay of Pigs, and understood that the country was Communist. I also had the idea that baseball and mojitos [a traditional Cuban cocktail] were some of the country’s well-known exports.

Eger: What did you do in preparation for your journey to a country that was out of bounds for US citizens for many decades?

Bell: I’m not going to lie—I didn’t do a whole lot for preparation. I’m fairly certain I packed to leave the morning I boarded my first plane.

 Madar: My biggest concern was whether or not to take my Israeli passport, rather than my American one. At the airport in Havana, they actually stopped me and asked about my American passport as they wanted to see my Israeli one. Unfortunately, I did not bring it with me, and had to explain in my broken Spanish that I have dual citizenship. They did question us about our reason for visiting Cuba. We were the first American group that came to the university [EICTV]. I did do some research, though, for my thesis about Cuban television, so I did know a bit about the history.

Pruett: I did not fully understand the scope of devastation in Cuba until I got there. When my professor told me that the U.S. hadn’t been an ally for over 50 years, I was not surprised, given the amount of poverty everywhere.

Eger: Describe the film project that you were working on in Cuba.

Bell: We shot a documentary about the rise of the Internet in Cuba. Havana has only had Wi-Fi access available since July 2015. It’s fascinating how social media has infiltrated the country, despite how tough it is to connect to the Internet. Almost everyone we talked to had a Facebook account. Some of the people we interviewed would travel for hours from outside Havana just to get online for an hour.

 Madar: Our film The Cuban Connection (a working title) will display the Wi-Fi in its early stages. There are only certain spots in the city that are Wi-Fi accessible. Cubans use it mostly to communicate with their families, since it is cheaper than regular phone calls. People have to stand in the street in order to connect. Some even have to travel from out of the city in order to connect.

The islanders we interviewed were expressing how new technology changed their relationships with their families and how it made them better. As of now, Cubans finally get to communicate with each other—after years of disconnection. I find it fascinating that they are only just now getting exposed to these technical connections—all part of the changes that Cuba is going through.

What we may see as trivial is far from being trivial for them. They don’t use the phone for games, watching movies, or social media—they just want to talk to their relatives. Family is the core value in Cuba. This subject, in a way, also connected to my research about their television viewing habits, which are completely different than ours.

Pruett: I worked on a short film about the vast differences between the conditions in which people live and the conditions of the tourist spots in the city. We found that the government does as little as possible to protect its own citizens, but enjoys restoring buildings for tourist areas, because the greatest revenue is derived from these places.

Eger: Describe your experiences working with Cuban filmmakers and crew.

Bell: The Cuban filmmakers were world-class. Our director of photography, Roberto Otero Martinez, is a genius with cameras, and he brought a lot to the project. Ariadna Acosta, our producer, got us interviews that we would never have been able to record on our own, and Efren, our sound man, gifted us a ton of beautiful Cuban music. They were all incredibly professional and fun to work with, and Roberto’s ideas helped shape the structure of our entire documentary. I could write you an essay on how great these guys were.

 Madar: It was amazing working with filmmakers who had so much experience. They were all very educated and really gave me a positive perspective on Cuba. Enrique Colina [Cuban director and film critic] is a very intelligent, sharp, and extremely entertaining person, and it is all portrayed through his films. Being able to sit with him, watch his films, and listen to his thoughts behind the creative ideas was a remarkable experience. He pushed us to explore our ideas deeply and then present the best to him. We actually had to convince him that they could work and lead to a great scene or a great film. Such creative teamwork, which respects and challenges even young filmmakers, is part of Cuban culture. It was very refreshing.

The crew was great! They made sure we had at least one English speaker among them, which made communicating with them just that much easier. They let us—the students—become the directors, give the instructions, and be involved in every step of filming.

The Cuban filmmakers made me feel important and that my opinion mattered—essential to my self-esteem as a first-time filmmaker. Also, since they were all from Havana, they took us to places we wouldn’t have found on our own. They managed to get people to talk to us, and some of our best interviews came from people who didn’t agree to talk to us at first.

Pruett: I had an amazing experience working with my Cuban crew. I was lucky that I took Spanish classes throughout high school, because I would not have had a way of communicating with them otherwise. English is not a common spoken language among native people, so I had to recall vocab from middle school in order to communicate effectively with my team. Other than the language barrier, the experience was incredible. Our crew took us to dozens of buildings where real people lived in horrendous conditions, and actually had us interact with the tenants. In our American way, we didn’t want to disturb anyone whose life may already be difficult, but people were happy to talk to us about their situations.

Since then, my team of Drexel students and I have begun editing our short documentary, and it is looking fantastic. Thanks to our amazing crew, every part of our production was painless and our editing has gone smoothly. We are still finishing it up along with countless other projects we have been assigned since we got back, but we are looking forward to a final cut soon.

 Eger: Were there any moments where you experienced a kind of culture shock, difficult moments where you saw part of the difference between life in Cuba and the U.S.?

Bell: One of the biggest shocks was also one of my favorites. There are maybe seven or eight Wi-Fi hotspots around Havana, and it’s both difficult and expensive to connect to the Internet, even for an hour. What was really shocking was walking around the city without seeing people all hunched over their phones, walking around and bumping into one another as in the U.S.

 Madar: Honestly, the biggest shock was when I went to take a shower and no water came out. Another major difference was the lack of efficiency. With a very slow Internet connection, getting information was nearly impossible. The Internet is not available everywhere, only in government offices, universities, and hospitals. While trying to change a flight, I had to stand in line for hours outside—lines are never inside the offices. Eventually, they couldn’t even tell me if there were available seats. I had to go to the airport for that.

But the thing that bothered me was the “catcalling” culture. Cuban men are not violent people at all, but they like to call women out. Cuban women are very independent and strong. In some ways, they reminded me a little of the Israeli culture. But when our cameraman, Roberto, saw that I was offended by the catcalling, he explained that it is a part of the culture and women actually like it. For the Cuban men it is meant to be a compliment for women. Apparently, if a woman is not being acknowledged enough during the day, it would actually hurt her self-esteem, and she would start wondering if she is not attractive enough—according to Roberto.

Pruett: My entire trip to Cuba was a culture shock. The moment I got off the airplane and saw only cars from the 1960s, I felt like I was in a time warp. However, the lack of running water, toilet seats and paper, and general issues with hygiene altogether, were the big hitters in terms of shock value. I learned to take toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me everywhere, because the restrooms in restaurants and schools often provided just a flushing toilet, if that.

I also had to get over my fear of germs with food, because I saw meat with bugs crawling on it, sitting out in the open on a dirty wooden counter, outside. This was a common occurrence, and I convinced myself somehow that the meat I ate in our hostel did not originate from one of these establishments.

Eger: Overall, what were the most important aspects of your recent trip to Cuba?

Bell: When we first got into Havana and we saw all the old cars, and the Soviet-cement-factory style mixed with classic colonial architecture, it was a pretty huge shock. It was like traveling back in time. You know, you have all those classic Fords and Chevys, and the Russian Ladas, and everything is jury-rigged to last forever. Plus, there is a ton of beautiful graffiti mixed with old Communist propaganda.

 Madar: The atmosphere is remarkable. It is a very happy culture; music is the driving factor in Cuba. Their museums are incredible, very well maintained. We filmed some children playing soccer outside. After school, full of happiness, they go to the field every day. We asked them a little about the Internet and what they know about it. Surprisingly, they all had Facebook pages, although they only connect once in a while for a couple of minutes. However, the kids were unanimous in their answer that playing soccer is way better than surfing the web. It will be interesting to see what will happen in a year or two.

Walking in old Havana was one of the best and most interesting experiences I’ve ever had. Looking at the beautiful architecture, along with the ruins, was a very powerful experience. Cubans are very poor. And yet, they don’t want you to feel sorry for them. They are very friendly and welcoming. We actually found a church with an American priest. He spent the last 12 years there. It was very interesting and surprising to meet him.

Pruett: Cuba taught me many things, but overall, I was shocked by the patience of the culture. People there do not expect to be socially mobile or even make ends meet, but they are still happy. The people, no matter how many obstacles are placed in their path, patiently work to achieve happiness. People live day to day, because thinking long-term is miserable.

I consider myself fortunate to have visited Cuba before U.S. companies begin to monopolize every market down there, because I needed to see what it’s like when the U.S. rejects a nation for so long. I needed to see what my own nation was bringing upon these people, and I am fortunate to have witnessed Cuba while it still has a small island identity.

Eger: What are your plans now that you have experienced a different culture—both as a filmmaker and as an American? For example, would you like to study at the EICTV in Cuba next year, or would you like to work on a joint project with a Cuban filmmaker?

Bell: I would really love to watch Latin American movies in general and more Cuban films specifically—and steal from them. Seriously, I would be honored to work with a Cuban filmmaker.

 Pruett: I would love to go back to EICTV or work on a project with a Cuban filmmaker, because I’m more familiar with Cuban culture now. Really, I would love to just meet Cuban people in general. My friend and I plan to send some goodies home to our hostel owner, because they could use some American junk food.

Madar: I would like to finish editing the film and see how it turns out. I would love to do a joint project with the Cuban crew—they were wonderful. I am a graduate student at the Television Management program at Drexel. My biggest dream would be to bring the Cuban crew to my school and have them run a workshop for the students. They deserve it, and they have a lot to teach us.

 Eger: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Pruett: Cuba is a mysterious, seductive place with a unique culture. Its history is rich and unusual. I would love to go back and see how things will have changed in a few years.

Madar: I would recommend our Drexel film program. Having a chance to film and walk down the streets of Havana and talk to the people is a once in a lifetime experience.

 Eger: Muchas gracias y viva Cuba, viva los Estados Unidos—y viva cooperación. Many thanks and long live Cuba, long live the United States—and long live cooperation.

 HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe, is a bilingual playwright and author of articles, interviews, and books. He was born and raised in Germany and received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He served as the German translator for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. A tenured professor of English and Communication, he taught in six countries on three continents.

 Final notes: Gerry Hooper, film professor at Drexel University, just shared the following information:

  1. The first visit by U.S. film students to Cuba was so successful that Drexel University not only repeated the two-week intensive program with a second group, but has incorporated it as a regularly offered documentary production class, continuing their partnership with EICTV. The university sees the work with Cuban filmmakers as well as the production done back home as an important stepping stone for students’ professional and personal development.
  2. Drexel decided that any of their students could participate in this new program, regardless of their major, as long as they could demonstrate an intellectual and artistic interest, along with the ability to investigate, explore, and document a foreign culture.
  3. A few weeks after their return from Cuba, the first teams of students completed the editing of their films and presented them in class to an overwhelmingly positive response. The second group will show their remaining 7-10 minute films in May of 2017.
  4. EICTV offers close to 40 international workshops a year. Recently, International Educator published an article about the experience of the first U.S. group from Drexel, along with British and Canadian film classes who also participated in EICTV programs. For more information, check out “Developing Study Abroad Programs in Cuba.”

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