Watching, Rooting, & Supporting The New Cuba (Producer / Content Creator)

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(Un Traductor. Foto: Gabriel Guerra Bianchini)

It’s that time of the year again, where we shout out Cuban filmmakers being featured at the Sundance Film Festival. Given the fact that there is really not much of an independent film scene in Cuba (more on that later), I find it miraculous when I discover a new name risen from obscurity, defeating all odds, slaying dragons, and making it to the top of that film mountain…. Park City, that is. Bravo to these mavericks.

In 2018, the Cuban stories screening seem less about the changing country today, and more about backstories drawn from their childhood. Specifically, both these tales were inspired by their father (this is an unrelated coincidence, and just an observation).

Last year, 2017 Sundance saw many more stories about Cuba TODAY, from short docs at the Wifi Park, to the new home-buyers market, to a well-attended English language school awaiting “la Yuma”. Let’s not forget Give Me Future, about the Havana concert performance by Major Lazer. The 2017 Cuban slate were all about the future.

This year, however, Sundance selections force us to view Cuban narratives from the inside, that is, personal stories. Here’s two to keep an eye on.

Un Traductor (A Translator)

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(Un Traductor)

In Competition for International Features is Un Traductor. Director Sebastian Barriuso tells the brave (and soul-crushing) tale of his father in Cuba during 1989, “a professor of Russian literature who was ordered out of the classroom and into the hospital”, to serve as a translator between dying children, their parents, & medical staff after the Chernobyl explosion. Rodrigo Santoro (of Westworld) plays the lead. In those years, Cuba developed a program for hospitalizing and treating the children from this international tragedy. If you don’t know about the real life incident, read about the Chernobyl Disaster, which is a cautionary tale on Nuclear accidents. Un Traductor is the story of a family man pulled into the center of this trauma. “Whether Malin’s life was enriched or destroyed by his assignment was never part of the greater equation” reads The Hollywood Reporter (read the full review here). The film was a Canadian-Cuban production, produced by Creative Artisans Media.

Screening Times at Sundance:
Fri. 1/19, 2:30 p.m., Prospector, PC
Sat. 1/20, 1:00 p.m., Redstone 2, PC
Sat. 1/20, 11:59 p.m., Tower, SLC
Mon. 1/22, 6:00 p.m., Sundance Resort, Provo
Thu. 1/25, 6:00 p.m., PC Library, PC
Fri. 1/26, 10:00 a.m., Holiday 4, PC
For more info on cast & crew, visit Sundance listing.

El Pescador (The Fisherman)

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(El Pescador)

El Pescador is a short film about a fathers love and sacrifice to put his daughter before himself. Of all the information I’ve sought on this film, the most striking overview was an article and Q&A by Remezcla. “Well, my dad is a fisherman. This is a story that’s very much about us.” says the Director. “So this was a way to give my father a kind of gift because he sacrificed so much for us. In fact, he’s an economist but in the 90’s things were so difficult here in Cuba that professionals everywhere had to find other sources of income.” And so this short story begins…

Fri. 1/19, 9:00 p.m., Temple, PC
Sat. 1/20, noon, Broadway 6, SLC
Sat. 1/20, 9:30 p.m., Redstone 1, PC
Fri. 1/26, 1:00 p.m., Holiday 4, PC
Will play with a few other shorts, details here.

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(El Pescador)

Manuel Betancout interviews director Ana A. Alpizar about the deeper context of indie filmmaking in Cuba. “Well, the short was financed by money coming from foreign — actually European — embassies. That’s what is mostly financing independent cinema in Cuba right now.” says the aspiring female Cuban director. “The Netherlands embassy gave us some money. A contest called GO CUBA!, it’s a very famous contest. Then, there’s a fund set up at the Norway embassy which also gave us some financing. And there was also some money from a fund for young Cuban filmmakers. The thing is, as an independent producer, you don’t really exist at the legal level. You’re not accredited that way.”. To read more details on this conversation, visit Remezcla’s Q&A.

So just like that, in an effort to dive inward into people’s backstories, we find ourselves once again faced with Cuba TODAY. In order to understand how each filmmaker actually made their film, you have to understand the legal barriers they face today.

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(El Pescador)

For example, by todays law, a non-Cuban and a Cuban are not allowed on a boat vessel together in Cuba (this obviously posed a conundrum for Ana’s shoot schedule, thereby disallowing her sound guy to jump on board). Also, in order for both these films to have been made, Cuban filmmakers had to seek financial support from outside. Independent Cinema is not quite recognized according to Cuban Institutions, yet it is this exact indie scene on the island that is bubbling with creativity. “But what is happening still is that the Cuban government still won’t recognize them; they won’t play their movies. They have no legal standing. You, as an independent producer, don’t exist. You can’t apply to any kind of grants or funds [in Cuba]”, she tells the writer.

So how easy is it to just apply for outside grants? “These Dutch funds — you actually have to apply to them as an individual, not as a film producer. You can’t apply to these bigger funds unless you partner up with a foreign producer or set up a production company outside of Cuba” says the diligent filmmaker who finally formed a film collective outside of Cuba called Fila20. She loves her homeland and stresses that she’d like to tell more stories from inside the island. There is supposed to be an official body called “Ley de Cine” (Law of Cinema) to oversee all filmmakers but she mentioned that the government doesn’t really adhere to those standards. “And in that sense, Cuban independent cinema is wholly excluded, which is very sad. Because what happens is that a lot of talented people just end up leaving”.

The other director Barriuso moved to Toronto Ontario while his brother Rodrigo still spends lots of time in Cuba. So after wrapping my head around both these films, I actually walked away with a deeper understanding of their struggles. Not only the yesteryear struggles, but todays struggles.

Welcome to Sundance, aseres. To infinity and beyond.

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I’ve always been struck by the barren offerings in neighborhoods where Cubans shop. The products, surreal. Brooklyn based photographer (Germany born) Alexa Hoyer walked the boulevards, spending 2 years capturing images recently published in Vice.

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The photo essay is moody, poetic, and a humble documentation of all the products that Cubans DO NOT have. The shops seem almost the ghost of what originally was a serious global shopping destination before the Revolution, riddled with consumerism and opulent displays of Luxury.

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As evident in the images, today, there are not nearly enough products to fill the enormous displays. Window dressers are now employed by the Government through the State Ad Bureau, but you can see the care and considered strategy, arranging minimal items in geometric or colorful narratives. To view more images, visit Alexa Hoyer.

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If you’re a fan of Major Lazer, here’s a doc you’ll appreciate. If you have no idea who Major Lazer is, yet have a deep curiosity for Cuban youth culture, then this doc will equally intrigue you. In full disclosure, I worked on this film as one of the Producers, with the excellent team of Matador films (shout-out to Director Austin Peters), who visited Cuba to document this band on their most epic journey.

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Let me say that working on this project, as a Cuban-American, has been the most therapeutic process in facing my proverbial brothers (and sisters) on the other side of the pond. For me, it has been a long soul journey returning to the motherland, with an insatiable appetite to better understand the future of this country through the eyes of its youth. What we discovered was an island nation in transformation, full of curiosity and creativity, with an equal appetite to absorb American culture as well. For one shining day, ideologies didn’t matter, and instead, music was the glue.

As Major Lazer entered Cuba, our whole team expected maybe 20,000 to 50,000 fans to attend. As you will discover from watching the film, approximately half a million cool young folks showed up on on the streets that day, eager and excited to enjoy the show.

Here’s 3 reasons you should watch the doc:

(1) Meet Young Cubans

Artists like Iliam Suarez are bold, eloquent, and have something to say. Give Me Future enters their home and minds… a portal into youth culture that is generally overlooked.

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(2) People Power in Action

The big question we always get is, “How did Cubans know about Major Lazer?” and “How did you promote the show?”. Enter the Paquete. If you understand the birth of Paquete, you can better understand the ingenuity, resilience, and innovation created by the younger generation. By the middle of the documentary, we arrive to the actual day of the show. We see the crowds beginning to collect on the streets in droves. Slowly but surely, it was evident this was going to a BIG show. Finally, while gazing at the crowd of 450,000 fans, the bands manager, Andrew McInnes, says, “Well, the Paquete worked!”.

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(3) Real US/CUBA Cultural Exchanges

During Major Lazer’s quick sojourn into the country, the director of Musicabana, Fabien Pisani, brought the band to the Ludwig Foundation to introduce Cuban DJ’s and Producers to the trio of DJ’s for a discussion on software, production resources, and give an overall general pep talk. It was a lovefest exchange between Cuban and US artists. The wholesome interaction acted as a bit of healing balm between two nations previously estranged for half a century. The concert and DJ panel occurred during Obama’s reconciliation days (March 2016), however now that Mr. Trump has iced our relations yet again, it is important to continue these healthy artistic exchanges more than ever.

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The Synopsis of the film is as follows:

In March 2016, following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, electronic dance music trio Major Lazer made history, becoming one of the first major American acts to play in the communist state. Unsure how their descent on Havana would be received and hoping to reach a few tens of thousands, the epic concert unexpectedly drew in close to half a million fans. Much more than a garden variety music film, “Give Me Future” begins as a behind-the-scenes look at the historic concert and evolves into a masterful exploration of Cuba’s inspirational youth movement and its ingenious DIY information culture. Capturing exhilarating performance footage and authentic stories highlighting the country’s cultural growth and desire for inclusion in the global community, director Austin Peters conjures a transcendent, rhythm-laced depiction of the powerful catalysts driving a country on the brink of change.

To watch the whole film, download here: APPLE MUSIC.

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In 2016, World tour surfer Courtney Conlogue visited Havana to meet surf chicks on the island to understand surfing’s place in Cuban culture and the discovery of empowered young women trying to find their voice. Billabong came along for the ride and make a little short film about it.

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(American surfer Courtney Conlogue in Cuba)

What Courtney discovered was “a culture of pioneering surfers patching together boards from refrigerator insulation and boat resin, determined to pursue their sport despite their limitations” reads the short film synopsis. “Like their musical counterparts, female surfers are empowering themselves through their creative outlets, finding their voices on the stage, the studio and the waves.”

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(Cuban Surfer, Lorena)

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(Cuban Surfer, Yaya)

The New Cuba consulted on the music for this journey and introduced Cuban rapper, La Real, to the project. Her musical strength fit perfectly into this odyssey because Courtney was also searching for women’s movements. The hip hop female community is another tough sector that exists as a microcosm within a microcosm. Feminism within a machismo society. Girls kicking ass in a boys club.

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(La Real, Cuban Rapper)

In partnership with the World Surf League, Billabong joined forces to bring donations and equipment to local surf clubs while filming. The belief is that surfing will have a lasting and positive impact on its communities. Big thanks to Elley Norman who Creatively Directed a beautiful experience.

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The New Cuba strives to work on more bridge-building projects, shortening the gap between US and Cuban artists across many fields, from arts to culture to sports. Please reach out to us for a creative chat to bring more cultural ambassadors to Cuba. The time for peace-making is now.

To watch the full short, see below:

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As I sit here contemplating what the hell to write about D17 this year, my screen is just blank, without words. How is it that 2 years of progress and healing has just hit a wall? For those that don’t know exactly what D17 is, in short, it stands for December 17, 2014, the day Raul Castro and Obama both personally announced to their nations (and international media) that the time for reconciliation is now, thereby creating the official thawing of this particular cold-war relation. This 3rd birthday, under President Trump, is bringing us back to icier times, however I am remaining optimistic because US travel to Cuba is STILL legal, thereby creating more space for better understanding on a people-to-people level.

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December 17th is also the day of St Lazarus, a Saint called upon for healing and miracles. If watching a US President extend an olive branch to a Castro isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. Read The Big Day to understand the nuances, symbolism, and significance of this epic date for all Cubans. The first and second birthday of D17 saw real changes — more business trade talks and increased tourism. Collaborations also included environmental & medical advances, and a mutual effort to fight drug and terrorism together in our hemisphere.

This December 17, 2017, Trump was expected to offer words on this symbolic date, and here’s what he had to say: “Hopefully everything will normalize with Cuba, but right now, they are not doing the right thing. And when they don’t do the right thing, we’re not going to do the right thing.” I have so many thoughts about this deficient diplomacy effort, but for now, I’ll just keep it simple, and print the words that CDA recently published.

D17 and “The Right Thing”

December 17, 2014. Three years ago this week, Presidents Obama and Castro gave simultaneous addresses signaling to the world a historic shift in relations between the two countries. The announcement represented a move away from a policy that had failed for decades, yet oftentimes appeared interminable, and a step toward common-sense cooperation between two neighbors. It felt, as we wrote at the time, like “a day of miracles.”

Three years later, the euphoria has subsided. Though bilateral cooperation continues, recent U.S. policy changes and harsh rhetoric have cast a shadow over hopes of a swift end to this dangling Cold War remnant.

Speaking to reporters at the White House Sunday, President Trump acknowledged the anniversary. He said, “Hopefully everything will normalize with Cuba, but right now, they are not doing the right thing. And when they don’t do the right thing, we’re not going to do the right thing. That’s all there is to it.”

The President’s words amount to an admission of guilt – he acknowledges that his revamped U.S. policy toward Cuba isn’t “the right thing.” He also continues, as we wrote two weeks ago, to recycle words from his predecessor. Three years ago, in his speech announcing the U.S. would pursue normalized relations with Cuba, President Obama said, “We are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.”

In any context, “the right thing” can be a subject of debate and contention. We won’t argue that here. What’s more concerning is that in recent months, U.S. policy has done a number of the wrong things, including curbing the rights of Americans to travel freely, imposing restrictions that will hurt U.S. and Cuban businesses, and separating families by slashing consular services.

President Trump went on to say, “We have to be strong with Cuba. The Cuban people are incredible people. They support me very strongly. But we’ll get Cuba straightened out.” Of course, Cuba has yet to hold a straw poll on the Trump presidency. But we do know that engagement is overwhelmingly popular on the island – in a 2015 Washington Post/Univision poll, 97 percent of Cubans said that normalization is “good for Cuba,” and 96 percent of Cubans said the U.S. embargo on Cuba should be eliminated.

Attempts to dictate what the Cuban people may or may not support should not come from Washington or South Florida. Instead, we believe that by lifting its onerous restrictions, the U.S. can allow Cubans to be the determinants of their own future. This sentiment is reflected in the words of Julia de la Rosa, Niuris Higueras, Marla Recio, and Yamina Vicente, four female Cuban entrepreneurs who took to the Miami Herald last week to stress the negative impact of the President’s Cuba policy. They wrote, “Rhetoric, finger pointing, and restrictions are not the type of ‘support’ the Cuban people want and need. What we want are fully functioning embassies and the freedom of travel for Americans and Cubans alike. We can take care of the rest.”

The President’s words this week mirrored a common refrain of detractors of normalization: that the U.S. should wait for Cuba’s government to make reforms before engaging. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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To support the CDA (Center for Democracy for America) on their mission to help end the embargo, visit their website.

Read the official statement from Cuba, through the words of Josefina Vidal, a refreshing voice that is balanced and working towards a pragmatic solution. “In this complex situation, the Cuban government has reiterated several times its willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the US Government, without impositions or conditions”, writes Josefina. “As far as we are concerned, we will continue to work with all people of good will in the United States, aware that there is a general consensus in Cuban and American societies favoring better relations between our two countries and peoples.”

Best wishes on a productive path for both nations in 2018 and beyond.

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For those who are constantly asking me about the subculture of surfing in Cuba, here is a project worth supporting. The Cuba Unknown is a travel and surf photography book about a cross-country journey through Cuba, in search of waves and understanding. If you choose to order this book on Kickstarter now, you can receive it US delivery by Christmas 2017. Here’s the story…

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A creative surf crew from Venice, California (original buddies from Maine) decided to follow some die-hard surfers around the country. Cuban surf leaders Frank Gonzalez and female Yaya Guerrero hold the authors hand through the unique terrain of embracing the sport in the island nation. Having learned that surfing was once illegal in Cuba, the author describes the renegade riders with pure awe. “These surfers took the sport into their own hands, passionately shaping surfboards out of refrigerator doors, ceiling tiles and whatever else they could find. They paddled out to score a few moments of freedom” reflects the writer. “They inspired us.”

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The book is told in journal fashion, with entries written by a curious visitor who’s truly engaged at the most raw level — living, eating, sleeping, and playing with these fearless Cubans. It’s funny because the new US Policy laws would probably prohibit traveling through Cuba this way now, which was previously filed under “Individual” People-to-People travel. Ironically, this is the most truthful way to experience Cuba, as opposed to the larger rigid bus tours. The narrative of this book is what I truly consider “engaging with the Cuban people”. We need more of these build-bridging projects, not less.

On another note, reading this book offers a bit of tips & tricks for traveling cross-country, namely hand signals on how to hail a local Almendron vehicle on the side of the road.

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The yearlong adventure coincidentally documented 2016, the actual year Cuban millennials experienced hope through the lens of warmed relations with the US (thank you, Obama). In addition to visual breadcrumbs of make-shift surfboards, roadtrip snapshots, and beat up skateboards, you’ll also see photos of the infamous Rolling Stones concert, or John Kerry’s friendly face on a static 60’s Russian TV set emanating through the walls of a Cuban countryside home. It was an overall year of high emotions, and this project recorded it all through the lens of the surfers.

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Take a look at the video for the full story, and drop your money in this bucket. It’s a project made from the heart, and isn’t that all we’re looking for? A Cuba project with soul and good intentions? Purchasing the book and supporting the project at any level helps the team finish their feature film, Havana Libre, which follows the effort to legitimize surfing in Cuba.

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Plus it’s a darling Christmas gift — be it for yourself or a friend. And to all the Cuban surfers, we urge you to “keep on keeping on”. The world is watching, and your hobby will soon be recognized as a professional sport. We’re rooting for you.

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As a foreigner in Cuba, I’m always fascinated with the trends taking hold of the once isolated island. Halloween, for example, is only recently catching on the last few years. If you google Halloween in Cuba, you’ll see zilch, maybe a few scattered pieces, but really, it’s not a big thing.

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(Trump finally makes a “better deal” with El Comandante)

In Havana, children certainly don’t wander the streets dolled up in outfits, ringing doorbells, amassing buckets of candy. In Miami, however, Cuban-American culture strongly embraces “Hah-Low-Weeen” with a latinized “Tric o Tri!”.

Just a mere 90 miles away from the States, but feeling like on another planet, I found myself crippled with ideas after being invited to a local bash. “Getting a costume can be a problem because there are no specialty stores and such parties are not a habit in Cuba”, resident Yunior explains to OnCuba Magazine about the usual limitations. “In the end you always manage to invent and some put on makeup that mimics a film character, others create a mummy with toilet paper or a ghost with sheets”.

This particular year exhibited laugh-out-loud archetypes clinking rum glasses in Roma, a breezy rooftop bar in Havana Vieja, with a party-train that followed to Bar EFE afterwards. The outfits were in full force. Here’s just a tiny taste of the faces out that evening.

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(Bank robber Robin Pedraja of Vistar Mag with Celia Mendoza as Blink 182’s naughty nurse)

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(Anonymous representing the Hackers)

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(Marla Recio Carbajal of Havana Reverie w/CET’s Collin Laverty)

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(Unidentified Ogre)

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(Plot Thickens. Russians in the house)

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(Cuba Educational Travel’s Isabel Albee doing her Amy Winehouse)

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(Religion is Back. And it’s pissed)

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(Airbnb provider Yasser, who offers Bike Tour experiences, and his wound to the chest)

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(The Bartending Squad)

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(Filmmaker Joey Carey & soon-to-be “cuentapropista” in Havana Vieja, Lauren Fajardo)

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(Luisa Ausenda of Arte Continua as Helen of Troy)

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(Twin Fridas. P.S. That’s me on the right. )

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