Cuban filmmakers Gloria Rolando, Cruz Gustavo Pérez, and Gilliam de la Torre received fellowships to participate in the 58th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, which took place June 16-22, 2012. The filmmakers, who represent three generations of Cuban cinema, met each other for the first time at Colgate University (in Hamilton, NY), which hosted this annual international meeting of directors, writers, scholars, and students of documentary cinema.

For this year’s seminar, film programmer Josetxo Cerdán (Tudela, Spain, 1968) presented a series of nonfiction works around the theme “Open Wounds.” In response to the screenings, participating filmmakers discussed a wide variety of issues—personal, political, and social cinema, problems of representation, the mysteries of cinematic montage, how to approach “the other,” the responsibility (and the courage) to film here and now, the tendency to adopt preconceived ideas—and in general, to reflect on documentary cinema as a defense and revindication of our identities.

Journalist and film editor Mónica Savirón attended the seminar and interviewed the Cuban filmmakers for Cuban Art News. In this first installment, Gloria Rolando talks about her career, Cuban cinema, and her experiences at the seminar. An interview with Gustavo Pérez will appear tomorrow, and with Gilliam de la Torre the following day.

Gloria Rolando

Gloria Rolando (Havana, Cuba, 1953): I began my career in 1976 when I graduated in Art History. The Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) began looking for university graduates in journalism, philosophy, history, and other humanities to integrate them into their team as researchers, to be assistant directors, and in general to help other graduates. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I began to feel the need to express myself with film. But the industry is very small, and there was no plan to develop careers for women; there were very few women film directors. In the 1990s film production was very affected by the economic problems of the country. On the other hand, video technology came into use, which offered Cuban artists an alternative. This new situation gave me my start in directing films.

I made my first documentary, Oggun (1991), to approach the world of Afro-Cuban religion. I began with a particular vision of the life of one of the most important singers we’ve had in Cuba, Lázaro Ross, who was part of that religion. Afterwards it occurred to me to form a group that would work in video and that would be dedicated to the study and presentation of the history of Afro-Cubans. The group is called “Imágenes del Caribe” (Caribbean Images). None of my projects has had a budget: they begin with a borrowed camera, or a little money to rent equipment, but always with a clear idea of the story I want to tell. I like themes of history that tend to be represented with stereotypes. My inspiration has been important historical Cuban works by Sergio Giral, Sara Gómez (the first woman to make films in Cuba), and Rigoberto López.

I began to work on immigration, on the history of Cuban blacks with English names who come from distinct places in the Caribbean. It’s the story of the economic emigration that began at the beginning of the 20th century. The film is called My Footsteps in Baragua. Then I made Pasajes del corazón y la memoria (Passages of the Heart and Memory), which also deals with the history of immigrants with English names, but specifically with those who came from the Cayman Islands to Isla de Pinos (today called Isla de la Juventud). I started to discover a historic world that was born of economic necessity but that also offers a genuine culture and customs. I wanted to give voice to the protagonists of this story. Cuba is a multicultural country, and a part of its culture is that of the anglophone Caribbean that came to Cuba.

I also made two documentaries on the Havana carnaval: The Scorpion and Los marqueses de Atarés (The Marquises of Atarés). It’s the story of the people who humbly provided the music that gave luster to the carnaval of Havana, and the story of their descendants. In 2003 I began making 1912, voces para un silencio (1912: Voices for a Silence): three chapters dedicated to the story of the party of free coloreds, the only political party that blacks have had in the history of Cuba. It began in 1908 and came to a bloody end in 1912. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre, an unknown and forgotten chapter in Cuban history. The first two episodes are completed; they serve as an introduction and explain the antecedents of the 18th and 19th centuries in Cuba. The third part takes us from that moment to the final massacre.

From my experience at the Flaherty Seminar, I take away the realization that there are avant-garde languages that can be incorporated into narration, even if we’re working with historical or didactic material. I saw the use of aesthetic liberties with archival images and photographs, as in the work of Portuguese director Susana de Sousa. Also the revolutionary use of the soundtrack, which is part of the aesthetic of the story, even following a chronological sense. In my work, I not only present a theme, I move between the voices of historians and interviews with experts. They are more logistical images. The material from the Flaherty has historical value, but maybe insufficient information or facts. I need additional information to accompany the cinematographic whole. The work of Lourdes Portillo, which we also saw at Flaherty, is tremendously skillful. She controls the script, and I identified with her style of storytelling, which is very solid. For me, documentaries must be like a tale, and if one can tell the story in the best possible way through editing, I think it will convey an interesting message, especially if one has chosen a historic subject.

There is an annual film festival in Cuba, and Lourdes Portillo was in Cuba a while back. We also have a week of Italian cinema, Indian cinema, etc., but this week in New York has been a gift. I shared, I related socially, I saw other points of view on making films, and I could expand my vision. Cuban filmmakers feel limited by resources, and for Cubans living in the island, we don’t have access to the resources of some foundations for political reasons that are well-known. I move in the academic world and that has allowed me to have an audience and dialogues about my work. It’s not the same as in film festivals, but at least this educational function makes me feel useful.

The most important thing is to have access to exchanges like the Flaherty Seminar. The influences of this experience on my work will come with time, but it’s important to have the space to be able to have a dialogue. Cuban art is not unique. Even before the Revolution our art was very universal: dance, music, cinema. Cuban culture has always been very rich, full of traditional folk culture, and I have had the opportunity to drink at all those fountains.

The Americas Media Initiative helped secure funding to bring the Cuban filmmakers to the Flaherty; their fellowships were supported by the Ford Foundation and the Reynolds Foundation.