Watching, Rooting, and Supporting this thing called "The New Cuba" (Cuba Specialist | Production | Sensei)

Posts tagged ‘sundance’

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(Illustration: Jasper Rietman for NY Times)

Tomorrow is January 20th. It’s official. Mr Trump will now be our President, and despite all the other issues to face internationally, this blog post is about one thing only — How “the Donald” will be handling Cuba/US relations and how you as an American can help shape policy and public sentiment.

On this first day at the Sundance Film Festival, we’d like to remind you to keep an eye on these films shot in Cuba. Mostly because they all exhibit a strong spirit of engagement, entering feet into the country to better understand the daily lives of our neighbors just 90 miles south.

What is the latest on the overall relations as we enter this new administration? Here’s the fat and skinny.

FROM THE US:
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order”, declares Trump, “which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”

FROM CUBA:
“Aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba”, said Josefina Vidal, a foreign ministry department head (as told to the Guardian).

We realize this looks like a runaway train in a bad action movie. The train is going to drive off the cliff, right? Well, maybe not. That is, if you believe in “People Power”. Ok, so it didn’t work so well with the popular vote during elections (by over 3 million), but Americans DID gather in solidarity over the Dakota Access Pipeline. A coalition of climate activists  and native Americans managed to raise enough awareness which resulted in the rerouting of the pipeline away from Sioux Reservation. As an idealist, I believe it’s our duty to exercise this “people power” each and every day. Before I begin spelling out action points for this particular cause, allow me to explain the landscape briefly.

We have come a long way in the last 2 years under Obama’s normalization era. While the Obama Administration has eased certain travel and trade restrictions, only Congress can lift the embargo. We have seen what isolation tactics have accomplished in the past 55 years — zilch. Just a bitter relationship between both nations. We have already seen that a policy change from hostility to one of engagement has benefited the Cuban people more in the past two years than in the last 50 years combined.

Improving the daily lives and human rights of the Cuban people is a top priority of normalizing relations with Cuba. For the past 55 years, the only people who have been hurt by the embargo are the Cuban people, as well as US Companies. Isn’t Trump’s mandate to create more jobs in the US? Will Raul Castro and Trump be able to strike a new deal? Essentially, the embargo has failed. Logically speaking, no business in the world would continue a strategy that has failed for 55 years. It has ended up punishing the Cuban people and isolating us from the rest of the world, especially our other allies in Central and South America.

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(Obama meets with Raul in March 2016. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Time)

Re-engagement is driving change on the island that is empowering the Cuban people.

Here’s a few main points to consider:

Cuba’s Private Sector:
Cuba’s private sector is the fastest growing industry in Cuba’s economy, estimated to have grown to about 1/3 of Cuba’s workforce. This boom in private sector employment is fueled by tourism – which would dramatically increase if we lift the embargo. The over 4,000 private restaurant owners, and 28,000 bed & breakfast owners, the growing number of taxi drivers, half a million private farmers, and millions more private sector employees in the tourism sector would benefit tremendously from lifting the embargo.

Increased Tourism benefits the Cuban People:
Increased travel to Cuba is fueling private sector growth that is empowering Cubans across the island. Cuba is becoming the number 1 tourist destination in the Caribbean. International tourism has skyrocketed, and with the reestablishment of commercial flights, experts expect a huge increase in American travel. The influx of American travel will come with certain expectations – expectations that cell phones will work, credit cards will work, access to internet won’t be severely limited – this will foster the kind of change that will not only benefit American travelers, but Cubans across the island. (p.s. As an American, you can travel to North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia — but you can’t travel to Cuba as a tourist. Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government prohibits tourist travel)

Access to Internet:
In this era of relaxed relations, recently, the price of internet has been reduced to $1.50 cucs p/hr, down from $2 cucs. The State is also launching some home internet connections in Havana Vieja, as well as wiring the entire Malecon street with wifi early next year (which requires a paid login with a Nauta card). Just a few weeks ago, Google signed a deal with Cuba’s ETECSA to install servers on Cuban soil for faster service. Although some of the internet expansion are purely internal decisions, it is however, a perfect climate to work with American brands such as Google or other digital entities seeking to improve connectivity on the island. This benefits all Cuban people.

International Credibility:
Year after year after year, every nation in the world, except the U.S. and Israel, votes at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But even Israel trades with Cuba. Continuing 55 years of failed policy that has been repeatedly and publicly condemned by the international community as pointless and ineffective is weakening our stance abroad. Lifting the embargo would in fact strengthen our international credibility, not the other way around. Also, major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam all publicly support lifting the embargo because they believe it makes it harder to improve human rights.

Polling:
75% of U.S. adults approve of the decision last year to re-establish U.S. relations with Cuba, while nearly as many (73%) favor ending the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, according to a new national survey by Pew Research Center conducted Dec. 1-5. Also, it is important to note that Florida did not go Trump because of the Cuban-American population. Trump’s Florida win was in fact due to votes from white voters in the I-4 corrider section of Florida. The Cuban-American vote was a non-factor. (read this thoroughly researched article on what happened in Florida). In fact, 63% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade county support lifting the embargo, according to a FIU poll released Sep., 2016. In fact, Hillary actually out-performed Obama in Miami-Dade — a testament to how far Cuban-Americans have evolved in this area of discussion.

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(Cubans stand in support of the opening of the US Embassy in Cuba, 2016)

WHAT DO CUBANS WANT?

Mostly all Cubans I have spoken to on the island welcome the reconciliation efforts made by President Obama. After half a century of butting heads, both sides are fatigued from the hostility. It was evident when you saw the faces of joyful Cubans during Obama’s visit. A young journalist, Elaine Diaz Rodriguez (the editor-in-chief of a Havana-based independent news digital magazine, Periodismo de Barrio) expressed it bluntly yet eloquently when describing this new “frenemies” relationship between US and Cuba.

“There can be no true friendship between the governments of Cuba and the United States. They represent two opposing political systems and the first has long been denying the right of the second to exist and vice versa. The most we can expect is tolerance and respect. And that is exactly what we achieved, in a way, after December 17,2014 under Barack Obama’s administration”. She continues, “but people do not have to play by the same rules as governments. There has always been true friendship between the people of Cuba and the people of the US”.

The rest of how this story plays out will take time. We presume it will be a slow burning relationship that needs to be fostered and healed over the next few years, as we focus instead on the few things we DO have in common, as well as our general mutual interests.

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(Young Cubans enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of their first US President visit in 88 years when Obama strolled  through Havana Vieja, March 2016. Photo: © Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Elaine closes her letter to Trump with the affirmative answer: “Both leaders have spoken loudly: we want relationships, we want embassies, we want the negotiations to keep going, we want to reach an agreement in every area and we are open to dialogue. We people want to be close, not far. We want to build bridges, not walls”.

It’s safe to say that lots of Cubans feel as she does. And now for the next steps.

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GET INVOLVED

To affect real change as Americans, we need to mobilize our constituents around the US. If you’re an American and are in favor of bettering Cuba/US relations, here is a basic overview of how “people power’ can help push this forward.

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Contact your representative:
Constituents outreach has been incredibly helpful in gaining support from Republican members of Congress for lifting the embargo.  Here is a link with a sample script for folks to call Congressional offices, as well as a sample letter to send to Representatives. Although the majority of my readers are from LA, NY, MIAMI, I strongly encourage everyone to reach out to Republican members of Congress.

Contact the Administration:
While only Congress can lift the embargo, as you know, the Administration has a lot of latitude in terms of easing or tightening sanctions. Trump’s nominee for Treasury is Steve Mnuchin (read about the Hollywood movie financier). So to all my Hollywood friends and readers, if you have a connection to Mnuchin, reach out and urge him not to roll back changes. A lot of the regulatory changes have happened through the Dept. of Treasury.

Donate:
Here is a link to donate to the Engage Cuba Foundation. Engage Cuba is a national coalition of private business, organizations, and local leaders dedicated to advancing federal legislation to lift the embargo. Currently, there are three bipartisan bills that Engage Cuba is actively advocating for in Congress. Read more about their legislative priorities here. If you care about the embargo being dropped, this is the organization to support. Donations to the Engage Cuba Foundation (a 501(c)3 non-profit) are tax deductible.

Read:
1- Book: Open for Business, Building the New Cuban Economy to better understand the new private sector in Cuba, and the need to support Cuban entrepreneurs.
2- Newsletter: Go to EngageCuba.org and subscribe to their newsletter to stay in the loop on Cuba/US Affairs.

Go online and voice your opinion:
If you’re at Sundance this week and if these films resonate with you, post a social media message or write a blog post (if you’re not at the festival, spread the word anyways).

SAMPLE TWEET:

1- We ask Trump not to rollback regulations on Cuba. See #GiveMeFuture @Diplo @MajorLazer to see real engagement #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba

2- It’s time to engage w/Cuba & show solidarity with the Cuban people #GiveMeFuture #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba @majorlazer

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Utah is getting a big injection of Cuban fever at the start of 2017. We’ve spent the better part of the year reading about the importance of Cuba/US engagement from media outlets like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a myriad of other outlets. Journalists have played an important role in opening this discussion while reporting a balanced story line.

This Jan 2017, it’s the filmmakers and artists who will show us what exactly engagement looks like. We’ll see curious cameras entering homes, filmmakers having “on the ground” discussions with every day Cubans, and putting a mirror up to Cuban society. None of the films are about the normalization process per say, but each of the tales are of everyday life — an American concert on the malecon, the only State-run phone company in Cuba (ETECSA), the selling of a home in Cuba, and a school that teaches English to Cubans, and more. Because all these films were captured in 2016, it is all the more reason to pay attention to what these local Cubans are expressing as we enter the Trump administration in 2017. It will take an act of Congress to fully lift the US embargo, but the more that Americans understand Cuban society today, the better it will respond to its needs in order to grow and prosper in this new era. We cannot affect Cuban policy, but we CAN affect American policy through phonecalls to our legislators, and shifting the American consciousness towards a more open relationship with Cuba. Of course Cuba will need to determine their own future, but these films are a peek into a society seeking to redefine itself.

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(Casa en Venta – a short film on the the new real estate sector for homeowners)

I’m lucky enough to have worked on two of these films (Films #1 and #2 below) which will premiere at the festival this January, one as a Story Producer and the other as a Cuba Production Consultant. Upon entering Pre-Production, each of the teams asked a bevy of questions which opened healthy dialogue — including the current state of Cuba, its relation to the US, its complex history, its challenges with filmmaking, the US Embargo laws, the tone of questions permitted, the current reforms in Cuba, the spectrum of characters, etc. etc. It seems that answering one question in Cuba begets another 50 questions. Something as simple as weak internet on the island poses enormous challenges during production, including emailing local staff or sending large files to the States. It’s a rabbit hole of lessons, but each production diligently pressed forward and managed to capture their stories with tight deadlines, frustrating conditions, an open heart, and limited budgets. Together, both films bookmark the gamut of the population today — from the elder tales of Buena Vista Social Club to the hungry young tech scene of Major Lazer’s audience. One film presents the bowing out of an older generation, while the other film introduces the future of Cuba. Both generations are very dear to me, and both being an honor to explore with Directors Austin and Lucy respectively (and their film families) who all came to Cuba in 2016.

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(Conectifai – a short film on Cuba’s phone company and internet status)

The other 3 films playing at the Sundance Film Festival this January are mini docs, but despite their short length, they are all paramount stories to explore in Cuba today. These include the story of technology today (the phone company and the emerging internet), the new home “buyers market”, and the tale of a small school that teaches Cubans to speak English as they prepare to work with “La Yuma” (nickname for the Americans).

All three storylines share the urgency of Cuba’s desire to integrate into the global economy and international community. The most interesting part of these 3 shorts is that it was nurtured by an American Institute, Sundance Labs (who attended the Havana Film Festival the last two Decembers to workshop scripts and stories with local filmmakers). Together, the 3 shorts are presented as a collection entitled “Made in Cuba”, an an example of the Sundance Institute’s “longstanding commitment to international artists” says Paul Federbush who spearheads the lab. These films were guided by the Institute’s Documentary Film Program in collaboration with La Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV) and Guardian documentaries.

… and now a breakdown of all 5 films:

Screen Shot 2016-12-26 at 6.57.46 PM.png1- Give Me Future: Major Lazer in Cuba – Director: Austin Peters / USA – FEATURE FILM

In the spring of 2016, global music sensation Major Lazer performed a free concert in Havana, Cuba—an unprecedented show that drew an audience of almost half a million. This concert documentary evolves into an exploration of youth culture in a country on the precipice of change. World Premiere U.S.A., Cuba

Austin Peters is a director living in New York. Raised in Los Angeles, he went on to study film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has directed two short-form documentaries: Braids, starring Lupita Nyong’o for Vogue, and NYC, 1981, a companion piece to the recent film A Most Violent Year. His music videos for Chvrches’ “Empty Threat” was named one of the 10 best music videos of 2015 by Rolling Stone

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 11.06.50 PM.png2- Buena Vista Social Club Doc / “Untitled” -Dir: Lucy Walker / USA,UK-FEATURE FILM

The musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club exposed the world to Cuba’s vibrant culture with their landmark 1997 album. Now, against the backdrop of Cuba’s captivating musical history, hear the band’s story as they reflect on their remarkable careers and the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together. World Premiere.

Lucy Walker is an Emmy Award–winning director and two-time Academy Award–nominee. She is renowned for creating riveting, character-driven nonfiction that delivers emotionally and narratively. Her films—including Waste Land, The Crash Reel, Devil’s Playground, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, and The Lion’s Mouth Opens—have won over 100 awards and honors. Her new film, the untitled Buena Vista Social Club documentary, is her fifth feature (and ninth film) to screen in official Sundance Film Festival selection.

Screen Shot 2016-12-26 at 7.01.58 PM.png3- “Connection” or “Conectifai” – Dir: Zoe Garcia

ETECSA—Cuba’s only telephone company—installed Wi-Fi routers in 18 public parks in 2016. For many Cubans, this meant being able to go online for the first time. Now connected to a technology that is entirely new to them, we see how Cubans explore social media, online dating, and the ability to reconnect with family members living just 90 miles away. U.S. Premiere
Director Zoe Garcia graduated in mass communication studies, specializing in photography, at the Higher Institute of Art in Havana, Cuba. In 2008 she took a course on documentary cinema and TV at the International School of Film and TV in Cuba. Garcia has worked as a screenwriter, assistant director, and photographer.

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 9.50.48 PM.png4- Film: “Great Muy Bien” – Dir: Sheyla Pool

After the United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, it was no longer unrealistic for Cubans to dream of one day living and working abroad. Citizens of all ages, with diverse aspirations, enroll at the makeshift Big Ben English school in Havana in order to prepare themselves for a future of normalized relations between Cuba and the United States.

Director Sheyla Pool graduated from the University of Havana in Hispanic languages and in sound from the International School of Film and TV at San Antonio de los Baños. She wrote and directed Protege a tu familia and Frágil. Pool was a consultant for the script of Esteban. Currently she is working on the script for Vínculos.

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 9.49.24 PM.png5- “Casa en Venta” or “House for Sale” – Dir: Emanuel Giraldo

After over 50 years, the ban disallowing citizens of Cuba from selling their own houses is lifted. Three Cuban families invite us into their homes as a showcase to prospective buyers — to hear their “sales pitch.” Filled with memories, souvenirs, and family members, these intimate spaces are filled with affection, highlighting a country on the verge of historical change.

Director Emanuel Giraldo Betancur was born in Medellin, Columbia in 1989 and graduated in film directing from the International School of Cinema and Television. Some of his projects are 1,2,3. . . Let’s Dance! and Amapearte. In December 2015, he participated in Nuevas Miradas in Cuba with House for Sale (2016 Sheffield Doc/Fest), which was supported by Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program.

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Stay tuned for more information as these films screen at the festival (or follow @TheNewCuba on Instagram for live activities).

For media inquiries, contact Jauretsi at jauretsi@gmail.com

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