Klayman tells the Carmen Herrera story

I had the pleasure of meeting Director Alison Klayman, who arrived at the Havana Film Festival to screen her documentary, The Hundred Years Show starring Carmen Herrera.  The truth is, I was secretly a fan of Alison from watching her first documentary, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, a ballsy account of art activism at its most triumphant form. Now she has taken on the 100 year old Cuban painter, Carmen Herrera, who sold her first piece at 89 years old, and is now a national treasure. Alison visited Carmen’s Manhattan home on a daily basis with her camera, unraveling the most intimate tales of a woman that was years ahead of her time.


(Painter Carmen Herrera)

Alison took the time to share some of her thoughts on the project with me, including working with Edgar (a music producer here at The New Cuba), as well as her thoughts on Cuba’s blossoming today. While walking down Havana Vieja streets together, it feels Alison is the type of American spirit that I appreciate visiting Cuba. Her observations, questions, and immersion into the culture made me feel that Americans can indeed play a productive and healthy role in this transition of the island nation. Here’s to many more healthy collaborations, and opening minds on a global level. And now, the Q&A:

Jauretsi: It really felt like you had the privilege of hanging out with Carmen in her home. Besides painting, what is Carmen’s 2nd favorite activity in the home?

Alison Klayman: Telling stories, new and old, over a splash of scotch (or white wine in the summer).

(Director Alison Klayman at The Nacional during the Havana Film Festival)

J: Since this project began, what is the one thing you learned about Cuba and its people that you didn’t understand before the project.

AK: Saying there was one thing would be a misstatement. I read widely on Cuba and Cuban art, and researched archival images and footage, as I was working on the film. I didn’t have the budget to go to Cuba during production, and I felt it shouldn’t matter too much – after all, Carmen hadn’t lived there since she was in her early 20s, and hadn’t even visited since the 1970s after her mother passed. Then I was fortunate enough to show the film at the Havana Film Festival this past December. During my time there I was really struck at the deeper understanding I felt with respect to Carmen’s art. Being in Havana, surrounded by the strong Cuban design aesthetic and some elements even preserved in time since Carmen was there last – really underscored for me in a new way why she paints the way she does: simply and boldly, with a dramatic use of color. Suddenly her work felt even more distinctly Cuban than I ever appreciated.


J: As a director, how did you envision telling this story through the use of music? And what the process for which you and Edgar (one of your 2 composers) created this landscape?

AK: I met Edgar through the NGO Roots of Hope. I worked with them to make my last film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry available with Spanish subtitles in Cuba via underground USB distribution. They introduced me to Edgar and his friend Yrak in Miami a few years ago, and I was delighted to hear from them about how that film was popular among the artistic and musical communities in Havana. When it came time to score The 100 Years Show, I immediately reached out to him, as well as my regular film composer Ilan Isakov.

I thought the music for the film needed to demonstrate a mixture of Cuban and classical influences — like a Cuban Woody Allen film soundtrack. I wanted the most Cuban-influenced tracks to come at the moments that had the most need for excitement, so the percussion could really be the star. Edgar worked on those cues, and I loved what he came up with in terms of cumbia rhythm, tres guitar, heavy percussion and other instrumentation choices. He still managed to make his cues work well with the rest of the score, which included a few licensed tracks (like “Cuban Love Song” by Ruth Etting). Ilan’s cues were influenced by Latin rhythms, but also has a strong classical and New York feel, which made sense since Carmen has been a New Yorker for more than half of her life (in the same apartment, no less, since the 1950s).


J: I met you in Cuba, where we really got to spend some quality time together just walking around the city. Tell us about your thoughts on this wonderfully complicated place in a moment of transition? 

AK: It is palpably a moment of energy in Cuba, especially among younger people. There is an expectation that things are going to change, and I had the impression that many people are cautiously optimist that it will change in the ways they hope for: greater communication and connection with the rest of the world, greater latitude to run personal businesses that bring prosperity and facilitate individual creativity and fulfillment. But at the same time, and after decades of particular ideologies and ways of life on the island, I also sensed that many people didn’t want to see the aspects in their culture and society that they loved and are proud of lost. So there are contradictions and uncertainties there too.


 J: Now that the Ai Wei Wei doc has aged like fine wine, how does it feel to be part of such art activism history now that you’ve taken a step back and seen the world react to it?

AK: Up until now Ai Weiwei couldn’t travel — China recently returned his passport to him, more than 3 years after his 2011 detention. Now he’s able to meet audiences around the world who have come to know him through his own work and exhibitions and news coverage, but also in large part through my film Never Sorry. Watching this meeting between him and supporters of art and free expression has been a real joy. I am so grateful that this was my debut feature, because it left me totally hooked on making films that have an impact. I really believe The 100 Years Show, although less sensational, will be just as significant in the long run. Carmen Herrera’s story belongs to all audiences, and to the ages.

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