Casineros take notice: WHEEL OF LIFE is here!

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This way of dancing runs in my blood, through my veins... There is nothing like dancing in this world, it is the greatest thing there is." -- Joaquin Roche “El Oso” Rodríguez

When we first met El Oso (the Bear), one of the founders of Cuban Salsa -- Casino de Rueda, we knew he would light up the screen! Now you can meet him too, in our latest short, Wheel of Life.

Close to 70 years old and still on the dance floor, Oso's charisma and fancy footwork broke new ground for black dancers after the revolution, and helped launch a dance phenomenon around the world. In Wheel of Life, Oso guides us through his Havana, regaling us with tales of his youth ... tales from a time when Havana’s exclusive clubs were white only, forcing him and his circle of friends to dance on the streets. After rock n’ roll and the revolution intervene, Oso and his crew choreograph a new history still danced across the globe today.

We're happy to offer a special preview of Wheel of Life, available to stream right now through Dec. 15th! And, if you'd like your own DVD (or imagine its the perfect gift for a friend), we're offering a special pre-release copy for the holiday season.

For details, visit the  Wheel of Life web page

And to learn more about our upcoming Cuban stories, visit @patchworksfilms on Facebook and Twitter, follow along on this blog, or sign up on our homepage for an infrequent email newsletter (we promise not too to write too often).

Questions? Email us at info@patchworksfilms.net.

Enjoy & happy holidays.
 


Marcia Jarmel & Ken Schneider
PatchWorks Films

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Cuba Vive

The crew at Fuster's.

The crew at Fuster's.

This place continues to fascinate. Our lunch conversations are lively, as some of us are 50-somethings, some in their 60s, and others in their 20s, with totally different orientations vis-a-vis the future. Claudia and Ana, our excellent 25-year old producers have a different knowledge of history, as they were born during Cuba's "Special period," a time of deprivation catalyzed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They are practical and forward-thinking—and they value the revolution and its luminaries. All of our crew is willing to talk about race, and gay and trans is no big deal for them.

Ken and Claudia

Ken and Claudia

Before leaving for Cuba I had a good conversation with a potential funder, who told me that his trip to Cuba 5 years ago was profoundly depressing. He saw that Cubans have the joie de vivre but this was overcome by what he experienced as a desperation engendered by the lack of opportunity and dictatorship. I took a deep breath and reminded him that Cuba is an island with nuance flying everywhere. They don't vote; two brothers have held power since independence. Our version of human rights and freedom of speech, differs from theirs. Movement is limited. Many of these things bother me. Yet Cuba has a 99% literacy and high school graduation rate.  There are limited opportunities for computer programmers, architects, entrepreneurs. And no gun violence. And their national newspaper is a party organ. But no cartels. It doesn't look like Mexico, Honduras, or Columbia during the 90s. And talented people still leave, via boat or a long trek through South America, worried that if the US embargo is lifted, legal immigration tomorrow will become even harder than illegal immigration today. 

How to synthesize this into a tidy package? I can't, which is why I always take a deep breath when a friend tells me Cuba is a totalitarian state or a paradise. It's just.....Cuba. 

When Life Gives You Lemons

"When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." So said our kids' pre-school teachers, and today life gave us lemons. We had our two crack crews ready to roll when an incredible storm moved in. My entire shot list for the next two days had to be re-tooled, causing a bit of a challenge. My charge from Lincoln Center was to return to the States with footage of Havana's color- hard to do when you mainly see gray, the wing is whipping, and most people stay inside. My footage was intended to be used as a mini-scenes in between musical pieces for the broadcast of the concert of US and Cuban musicians, as part of PBS "Live at Lincoln Center." We broke up our grim crew breakfast with war stories and laughs. We decided, of course, rain being part of the landscape here, we would shoot beautiful images of rain- dripping from cars, cascading from building, interrupted by yellow umbrellas, wet streets reflecting headlights, pairs of people laughing as they unsuccessfully huddle beneath an umbrella, stepping in puddles. 

Old cars, new Havana.

Old cars, new Havana.

Over the course of the two-day shoot we had enough breaks in the weather to film: the Malecón, Havana's dramatic sea wall, enriched by the storm; images of colorful buildings and windows to intercut with the beautiful backdrop constructed for the Lincoln Center concert in New York; Cubans, young and old, crowding around one of the island's few public wi-fi hotspots, posting to social media and calling relatives abroad; the classy old cars in the emerging new Havana; the indoor art and craft market; and the gorgeous, if inconvenient, rain. All told we got what we came for. Another eye-opening experience in Havana.

Havana's dramatic sea wall.

Havana's dramatic sea wall.

Havana, We Meet Again

It's my tenth time here, but the first as part of an entourage. I am here with a group from Lincoln Center, and my charge is to film a set of Cuban musicians preparing for a trip to New York, where they will play on the same stage as Joshua Bell,  one of the finest violinists of his generation. The Cubans' journey was seeded this past April, when Joshua, Dave Matthews, Smokey Robinson and Usher journeyed with President Obama's delegation of artists to Havana. They jammed with Cuban musicians and when Joshua returned, he began planning a collaboration which he hoped would take place in New York. Six months later, the date has arrived—Joshua will be joined onstage at Lincoln Center by the same artists he met in Havana last April. 

The musicians include Aldo Lopez-Gavilán, one of the subjects of our film, TWO BROTHERS, his wife Daiana Garcia, one of the island's finest young conductors, and the singer-songwriter Carlos Varela. Last night we filmed the final rehearsal of Daiana's Chamber Orchestra of Havana, nearly all-female, in the beautiful courtyard of Cocina de Lilliam, a family-run restaurant in Havana's Playa neighborhood. It was great to see Daiana up close; her energy is high, she brings Cuban rhythms and inflections to her work, and she has assembled an ensemble that reflects the island's variety of skin tones. 

Daiana Garcia, one of the island’s finest young conductors.

Daiana Garcia, one of the island’s finest young conductors.

Our crew meeting took place over dinner at another restaurant, and included some of my oldest Cuban pals, many of whom are notable filmmakers and artists. Two visionary cinematographers—Roberto Chile, who filmed Fidel Castro on nearly 70 international trips, meeting every foreign leader from Mandela to Khadafi (he loved the former, didn’t trust the latter), Rafael Solis, who works in both documentary and fiction; Figa, our excellent sound recordist who just converted his childhood bedroom into one of Cuba’s first 5.1 studios, Ivan Soca, photographer and subject of our film, THE LENS, Claudia Maria Bueno, our favorite local producer, and Javier Rojas, our driver and dear friend. It’s a dream team, and we spent dinner catching up on our families’ news and planning the next day’s shoot.

The Cuban crew.

The Cuban crew.

Evolution Cuba Hits Detroit

Andrew Black, filming Evolution Cuba: TWO BROTHERS in Detroit.

Andrew Black, filming Evolution Cuba: TWO BROTHERS in Detroit.

Aldo Lopez-Gavilán and Ilmar Gavilán, subjects of our film, TWO BROTHERS, continued their first ever U.S. tour in Detroit. Ilmar knew Detroit, as many years ago he won the Sphinx competition for classical players of color. Sphinx, in their efforts to integrate the world of classical music in the U.S., nurtured the Harlem Quartet, Ilmar’s group, which includes Melissa White, and African-American violinist, Jaime Amador, a Puerto Rican violist, and Felix Umansky, a Russian-Jewish cellist. But Aldo, joining the Quartet on this tour, had never heard of Detroit, and was shocked and delighted when we went to the Henry Ford Museum. Aldo had no idea that all of those sexy old American cars in Cuba were designed and built in Detroit. He was like a kid in a candy shop in the museum, ogling at the cars he knew from the 50s, as well as the Model Ts and a locomotive from the 1880s.

Ilmar thought he knew Detroit—he knew what most of us think we know—the narrative of a “failed city,” gutted by offshoring of factories, poverty, crime, white flight, etc. But then we went to the Heidelberg Project, a community art project started by the artist Tyrene Guyton in 1986. He took a block of burnt-out buildings and created something remarkable, which has evolved into a series of sculptures made from the flotsam and jetsam of modern life. Shoes, toys, discarded plastic and the like become the palette for a canvas of color and form, including a polka-dot house and brightly colored fences and gates. Ilmar and Aldo were blown away. Ilmar Face-timed his family to show them what he was seeing and experiencing, and told the camera that he never imagined this was possible. In Havana, yes—but in America, he had not seen this. They both spoke of the indomitable human desire to create beauty out of any materials available, regardless of how much or how little we have. The Havana-Detroit connection: cars, music...and art, in any form.

The Havana-Detroit connection: Ilmar and Aldo.

The Havana-Detroit connection: Ilmar and Aldo.

What Happens in Vegas...

Ilmar Gavilan, Aldo Lopez Gavilan, Ken Schneider

Ilmar Gavilan, Aldo Lopez Gavilan, Ken Schneider

I caught up with Aldo and Ilmar, on tour in the U.S. for the first time (due to the loosening of U.S. restrictions on Cubans) in a downtown Vegas hotel. I filmed their concert with Ilmar’s Harlem Quartet at the Troesh Theater, part of Vegas’ new performance center intended for locals, away from the strip. After the show, hot and desperate for a cold drink, we shared cocktails and hit the boulevard, braving the crowds, taking the elevated tram, and descending into the lobby of the Bellagio, a Technicolor show somewhere between Candyland and Christmas. Walking through a world of chocolate fountains, talking trees and high-end shops, we arrived at the famed fountain and enjoyed the show. Ilmar loved it, in all of its tackiness; When Aldo asked me what people actually do here, I explained about the gambling, the weddings, the shows, the ability to drink alcohol on the street and buy absolutely anything one can afford. He mused that this is a city where people find many ways to waste money. I agreed.

Harlem Quartet

Harlem Quartet

It was fascinating to see Vegas through their eyes—the immigrant who loves his adopted country and the brother who remained in Cuba, appreciates the generosity of American audiences, and is still skeptical of our various offerings. As I’ve often felt, there is nuance flying everywhere in their stories.

NEW EVOLUTION CUBA TRAILER & MORE...

Filming the TWO BROTHERS, with Aldo & Ilmar López Gavilán this summer.

Filming the TWO BROTHERS, with Aldo & Ilmar López Gavilán this summer.

Just a quick note to share our brand new trailer for the EVOLUTION CUBA series. You can find it here: https://vimeo.com/176115749. Let us know what you think, and please share with others who might be interested in what we're doing.

We're excited that the series has been invited to participate in IFP's Independent Film Week, a competitive market in New York this September. It's a little like speed dating with festivals, broadcasters, distributors, commissioning editors, and other allies who can help us bring the films home. 

We're still fundraising--most immediately to support the rest of our filming of THE BROTHERS story this fall. We have a rough cut of our first film, THE LENS, and about 60% of the second film shot. Check out our prospectus for details of the status of each of our stories: http://bit.ly/EVOLUTION-CUBA-LOOKBOOK. We welcome introductions to folks who might want to be involved with the project.

In the meantime we're continuing to tell stories of our progress on our blog. Follow along if you are curious: http://www.patchworksfilms.net/blog/.

And we are putting the finishing touches to our long-awaited short WHEEL of LIFE. It should be making its way in the world this fall.

Ken and I are deeply grateful for all the support and cheerleading that has moved the project to this point. 

Adelante.

Marcia

Mixing sound for WHEEL OF LIFE with the remarkably talented Will Storkson.

Mixing sound for WHEEL OF LIFE with the remarkably talented Will Storkson.

June 27, 2016 - A Hot & Productive Day

Day 2 - June 27, 2016

This trip we encountered lots of trouble with the internet (witness the date of this post). Our usual strategy—a hook up via a laptop entrepreneur offering Connectify at our local park, or an internet card near the government routers on La Rampa—failed. So here we are back in the U.S. posting about June 27th.  Our friend, Ilmar Gavilán, featured in THE BROTHERS, explained that the unpredictability of life in Cuba accounts for their musicians' excellent improvisational skills. Life itself is an improvisation. We're trying to perfect ours.

In the morning we met with Angela Salazar, a friend’s sister who works for Witness For Peace, documenting human rights issues throughout Latin America.  She spoke of the trade-offs of the economic shift here, more incremental than a sea change, which offers more opportunity to some but trouble for many. Those who can become cuentapropistas, self employed, have the possibility to earn more, and those who can generate tourist dollars jump to a higher level of privilege and access. But rising prices have a negative effect on those closer to the bottom. There are a record number of tourists this year, and many on the island will experience both the positive (more money) and the negative (more inequality, the selling of the culture).

Connor Gorry, one of the few U.S. citizens who lives here and has a business (the excellent cafe/free library/community center, Cuba Libro), tells us that some of her artist friends are shading their work in the direction of tourists’ preferences. A music repertoire or a painting that appeals to travelers will bring in more cash. Whether this will have a long-term effect on the art here, or simply be a subsidy for creative work remains to be seen.

Lovely to see Oso and Orguidia from WHEEL OF LIFE again--this time with our 20-year-old, Mica along, serving as production assistant.

Lovely to see Oso and Orguidia from WHEEL OF LIFE again--this time with our 20-year-old, Mica along, serving as production assistant.

Joy is still the order of the day here. We had an excellent visit with some of our past collaborators, spending Father’s Day dinner with our driver Javier’s family, followed by a visit to the classic outdoor dance spot, the 1830, where we shook it up a bit with El Oso and his partner Orgjuidia, featured in our recent short film, LA RUEDA DE LA VIDA/THE WHEEL OF LIFE.

Father's Day with our driver Javier Rojas and his dad, Modesto, who drove for us on our first Cuban shoot for HAVANA CURVEBALL, back in 2011.

Father's Day with our driver Javier Rojas and his dad, Modesto, who drove for us on our first Cuban shoot for HAVANA CURVEBALL, back in 2011.

Marilyn Monroe & José Marti grace the same wall in the hip and provocative Fábrica del Arte Cubano in Havana.

Marilyn Monroe & José Marti grace the same wall in the hip and provocative Fábrica del Arte Cubano in Havana.

An evening at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano is always energetic and fascinating. Many of the paintings are excellent and the current show includes several of our favorite Cuban artists, Zaida del Rio, Mabel Poblet, and the photographers Ludmila & Nelson. We also saw an alt music band from the Dominican Republic. While visiting with friends Inti Herrera, a filmmaker who is responsible for the Fábrica’s audiovisual everything, and David and Ernesto Blanco, popular rock musicians, Jon Bon Jovi strolled in. Cuba has become the place where celebrities want to be seen and photographed. This concerns us—while people we spoke to felt happy that Cuba could host The Rolling Stones, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Major Laser earlier this year, they grimaced when we asked about the Kardashians, or the filming of Fast and Furious 8 and The Transformers. They were impressed by the scope of the production but not the quality of the acting (ditto here). The director of The Transformers had never been here before, spent less than 24 hours on the island, did not connect with locals, and offered nothing but a wad of money to the country.

Aldo López-Gavilán after this passionate performance of Rachmaninoff's Concerto #3 in Havana.

Aldo López-Gavilán after this passionate performance of Rachmaninoff's Concerto #3 in Havana.

On the positive side, and there is always much to be positive about when here, we are planning our first shoot with Aldo López-Gavilán, one of our favorite pianists anywhere. Aldo’s father Guido is one of the best conductors you’ve never heard of; his wife Daiana is also a conductor, and this week he is coaching his star student Rodrigo Ameneiro in a competition, composing a score for a new piece by a modern dance choreographer, preparing for a trip abroad, and allowing us to film two days with him and his family. Oh, and ten days ago he played Rachmaninoff's 3rd Concerto to a full house.  It is 45 minutes of tickling, slapping and pounding the keys without stopping—one of the most technically challenging compositions in the Western canon, with complicated fingering, tempo changes, chord progressions, and dynamics.  We learned later that despite Aldo's virtuosity, the piano was slightly out of tune, a challenge in this resource-strapped country. Thanks to the help of our awesome Cuban Line Producer, Claudia Maria Bueno, we have footage of the event, as she gathered our crew and filmed the performance in the Jose Marti Theater in Old Havana.

Our camera rolls tomorrow. Adelante!

 

 

 

  

We Are Back in Havana!

We had an excellent landing in Havana—the first return trip for Mica since he came here in 2011 to deliver baseball gear to the Martin Luther King Center. Our casa  particular [predates Air B n B by a few decades] is in Central Havana, a few blocks from the sea and a short ride to Old Havana in a maquina, a recycled, rebuilt, reanimated American car from the 50s that functions like an affordable Uber pool, plying certain routes in the city.

Ivan Soca, subject of the first film in our series, Evolution Cuba, scooped us up in Aquitania, his car, named after the region bordering Spain and France where the first troubadours sang. Los trovadores are a central theme of Ivan’s work—musicians who write and sing songs of the people, from the people, and for the people. They are storytellers and the soul of their pueblo, of their people.

Fuster

Fuster

Silvio Rodriguez

Silvio Rodriguez

Ivan took us to Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana where the artist Fuster has transformed the area into a Gaudi-like mosaic of beauty and imagination. But tonight we were here to witness a free neighborhood concert by Silvio Rodriguez, a Cuban troubadour famous throughout Latin America. Using his own resources, Silvio invites guest artists to perform with him throughout the island, converting a street into a concert venue, free for all. This was the 75th in the series; Ivan has photographed all of them save for the two performed in Spain and Chile. No T-shirts for sale, no vendors, just a makeshift stage raised a few feet above the street, and the music. After a brief afternoon deluge Frank Delgado, another trovador with a sharp sense of humor took the stage and wowed us. A short set later, Silvio sat down and sang songs that the entire country seems to know—elders, pierced, tattooed and gender nonconforming college students, local workers, and young families, sway, cheer, and sing. Silvio has been writing and singing trovas for 50 years, and while many in the U.S. don’t know his voice, he is one of Latin America’s greatest bards.

View from the rooftop

View from the rooftop

Ivan knows not only the neighborhood, but he knows the rooftops to climb for the best plano general—the wide shot. He knocked on a few doors, introduced himself, and we were invited up.

Not bad for our first half day in Cuba.

Dos Hermanos | Two Brothers — Our Next Story?

Aldo Lopez Gavilan (far right), featured in our upcoming film, with UsherJoshua BellLarisa Martínez- SopranoCarlos VarelaDave Matthews Band, and Smokey Robinson celebrating with the U.S. artist delegation visiting and collaborating in Cuba this week.

Ken interviews El Oso last spring for our short film, LA RUEDA DE LA VIDA /WHEEL OF LIFE.

Ken interviews El Oso last spring for our short film, LA RUEDA DE LA VIDA /WHEEL OF LIFE.

We celebrated Ken's birthday at the most excellent Havana Film Festival New York—a gem of an event —where we had a sneak preview of our new short film, LA RUEDA DE LA VIDA / WHEEL OF LIFE. We shared the screen with a remarkable group of visiting directors and actors from Cuba, and elsewhere in Central and South America, and were delighted to reconnect with Rafael Solis, one of the cinematographers for our upcoming story of photographer, Ivan Soca.

Rafael Solis at work documenting photographer Ivan Soca.

Rafael Solis at work documenting photographer Ivan Soca.

RUEDA DE LA VIDA is our short film tribute to El Oso, one of the founders of casino, the godmother of salsa. El Oso’s charming story reminds us that salsa, thought to be a confluence of Puerto Rican and New York cultures, is rooted in Cuba.  Our screening inspired a group of casineros in the audience to dance in the lobby after the screening.

An inspired audience takes the dancing off the screen and into the theater lobby at the Havana New York Film Festival, where WHEEL OF LIFE previewed.

An inspired audience takes the dancing off the screen and into the theater lobby at the Havana New York Film Festival, where WHEEL OF LIFE previewed.

A highlight of our weekend in New York—Ilmar Gavilan, a Cuban-born violinist living in New York, came to our screening. Ilmar is a violinist with the Harlem String Quartet, and his brother Aldo is one of Cuba’s greatest jazz pianists. We had lunch and drinks with Ilmar, who left Cuba as a teenager to continue his music education in Moscow. That was in 1986.  Although he travels often to see his family, geopolitics have prevented the two virtuoso brothers from touring together in the U.S. Ilmar’s quartet plays a range of music spanning from Mendelssohn to  Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train. Aldo, called “a genius, a star” by none other than Chucho Valdés, has a rich creative life in Cuba, but only a few opportunities to play in the US. That will start to change this summer, when he tours with Ilmar and his Quartet, plays with an orchestra in Napa, CA,  and joins Harold López-Nussa, his dear friend (and our series composer) for a date at San Francisco Jazz Center.  We are looking for funding right now to support our telling this story of  two virtuoso brothers, separated by geopolitics, whose lives might finally converge—the third in the (R)evolution Cuba series. We welcome introductions, tax deductible contributions, ideas!

Ilmar Gavilan's Harlem String Quartet, bringing jazz and classical excellence to underserved kids.

Ilmar Gavilan's Harlem String Quartet, bringing jazz and classical excellence to underserved kids.

 

We were lucky to catch Ilmar and the Harlem String Quartet play in Santa Rosa. After Ilmar and I spent the following day appreciating a beautiful San Francisco day. Muir Woods (they don’t make ancient redwoods in Cuba nor in New York), Hawk Hill for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, some in-car video of the Hyde Street Cable Car, and yes, the Sea Lions at Pier 39. Oh—and delicious food and margaritas at Tommy’s Restaurant in our neighborhood, the Richmond. I had just met Julio, the owner, at an event in Havana—small world!

Ilmar enjoying the Bay Area as we chat about profiling him and his brother, Aldo, in Dos Hermanos / 2 Brothers. 

Ilmar enjoying the Bay Area as we chat about profiling him and his brother, Aldo, in Dos Hermanos / 2 Brothers. 

Meanwhile in Havana, Aldo, the pianist brother toasts with violinist Joshua Bell, after performing together in Havana. Bell was part of a U.S. delegation of artists that included Usher, Dave Matthews and Smokey Robinson. 

Meanwhile in Havana, Aldo, the pianist brother toasts with violinist Joshua Bell, after performing together in Havana. Bell was part of a U.S. delegation of artists that included Usher, Dave Matthews and Smokey Robinson. 

And back at PatchWorks in San Francisco, the footage Ken shot of the Ivan Soca's  story last month has been translated and readied for editing. We start in earnest next Monday. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

LAST SHOOT WITH IVAN SOCA

We started our last day of shooting at the John Lennon park in the Vedado District, where a full-time guard insures that no one steals the steel rimmed green tinted circular glasses mounted on Lennon’s statue. By chance we bumped into someone I admire—Ivan Napoles, cinematographer for Santiago Alvarez, the godfather of Cuban documentary. Ivan was one of the founders of ICAIC, the government institute for filmmakers. He was profiled in Isabel Santos’ beautiful doc, El Pais Que Ya No Existe, (The Country That is No More), which I saw when it played alongside HAVANA CURVEBALL at the Havana Film fest in 2014. The film crosscuts between Ivan’s footage of Vietnam during the war (16mm black and white material he shot in the late 1960’s) and his return visit to the country more than 40 years later. Ivan is a man of many images but few words; Solis, my cinematographer and Isabel’s husband, told me that Isabel spent two years convincing Ivan to participate in her film. Isabel, Solis, Marcia and I will have more to talk about next week in New York, as our film and Isabel’s film are both screening at the Havana NY Film Festival.

Production went well. Claudia Bueno, our Cuban Field Producer, and I prepared a reasonable shooting schedule with built-in breaks, critical for a hot day in Havana. It is a city where a cold drink break at an outdoor cafe is interrupted numerous times by this director, that soundman, this artist coming over to hug and kiss and chat with one or all of our crew members. Several glasses of juice and beer later, (the beer here is tasty and weak), we finished our filming with Ivan Soca, the subject of the first film of our series, (R)Evolution Cuba. That title, by the way, has sparked some good discussions. Several of our stalwart supporters back home are upset that we would appropriate that word for our title, even with the parentheses. Nearly everyone I’ve asked here loves it. A few from the older generation, who have a different relationship with the revolution, think we should find a better title. There is no consensus. Please weigh in with comments.

Ivan teased us on camera with an intro to the project he is developing for the next Havana Biennale (2018), a build-out of his previous work with the symbolism of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It will be mounted between two institutions—one US and the other Cuban. It is fascinating and if he can pull it off, it will be a treasure.

Our final interview with Ivan took place on top of a hill across the bay from the city, with the buildings behind him turning pink and amber at the magic hour. Sergio Muñoz, our sound man, lamented that it is impossible to find a quiet place in Havana, making feature filmmaking a real challenge (but parking here is easy—there’s always a balance). We had to stop many times for trucks and guaguas, the ubiquitous buses that turn sound recordists’ hair gray. After wrapping, we had more ideas, of course, and I made my crew quite hungry while spending the next few hours filming Havana at night. They were game, though, and we celebrated at Melen, Ivan’s favorite restaurant in Miramar. As we walked out around 1:30 AM, Yissey and her band were lighting up the place with her music.

 

 

Done. At least until tomorrow, when I tie up as many loose ends as the day allows. After two weeks, I’ve got my sea legs, and as much as I miss my family, I’ll be sorry to leave.

 

PERSPECTIVES FROM FRIENDS NEW & OLD

Ken's trip is winding down.

Ken's trip is winding down.

Today was a day of sharing stories with old and new friends.  Inti Herrera, filmmaker and one of the directors at the excellent Fábrica de Arte Cubano , took me to lunch at the California Cafe, opened last year by our old pal Shona Baum, formerly of San Francisco. Shona moved here with her Cuban husband Paver and opened the California, an outstanding open air eatery a block from the Malecón (the seawall protecting Havana from the Caribbean) and a few blocks from a public wifi spot. (Call or write me before you come to Havana so I can give you the intel on the California.) Inti and I talked about his university studies (Marxist theory), what it was like to grow up in a family of artists (complicated), the early years of the Fábrica (it just turned two and has become one of the coolest places in Havana, and the world, as far as I’ve experienced), and his time in Spain. He returned after a year or two abroad to create here, became a filmmaker, and produced, among other films, Cuba’s first zombie flick, Juan of the Dead.  Juan is a wicked satire on Cuba, America, and Cuba & America.

Cuba's first zombie cult classic.

Cuba's first zombie cult classic.

Rafael Betancourt’s story is equally rich. He left here as a Peter Pan kid (google it), a US-run operation that convinced Cuban families that their kids would be better off in Miami than in Cuba, in the early 1960’s, a few years after the revolution commenced. In 25 years in the states, he attended school and earned a PhD in Economics before deciding to return to his homeland in 1986 to “participate in the Cuban socialist project.” During the Special Period, so christened by Fidel after the Soviet withdrawal of funds led to nearly a decade of deprivation, there were few clubs and restaurants, as electricity and supplies were short. Rafael held regular jam sessions and salons at his place, and as it turned out, hosted many of the people in our series. A university econ professor holding music sessions at his house—I like that.

Just back from a Cuban music showcase at SXSW, Telmary is back at work in Cuba.

Just back from a Cuban music showcase at SXSW, Telmary is back at work in Cuba.

After seeing Telmary perform her unique mix of soul and hiphop,at a tourist bar above the Plaza Vieja, we had a talk about her life here and in Toronto, where she lived for many years. There were more grants, more resources, but she also returned here after her stretch up north. One of the things she loves about Cuba is that “nobody asks me what I do here, and if they do, they don’t nod silently.” Being an artist here (or anywhere) is not easy, but it is embraced. She shared the frustration of having to perform at said tourist joints for cash, but it does subsidize her creative work. At midnight, when we finished our talk, she rushed off to the Bertold Brecht Theater to perform with Interactivo, the much-loved fusion band that I cannot quite describe. A few days ago, Telmary returned from South By Southwest, where she performed with other Cuban musicians; the day after we spoke, she was off to Varadero, a beach resort a few hours from Havana, to perform again. When I told her that I was exploring artists at this moment of change, she said firmly that the change has been in process the last three years. She is interested in our series, and I hope to see more of her.

Inti, Rafael and Telmary all left and returned. Each has a gestión, a navigation they conduct to continue to create. Despite the outmigration and consistent reports in our press of the difficulty of life here, this place has a magical pull.

COMPLICATIONS & EXPLORATIONS

Words Without Voice, contemporary Cuban art considering the internet's arrival in Cuba, showcased at the Taller Experimental Grafica.

Words Without Voice, contemporary Cuban art considering the internet's arrival in Cuba, showcased at the Taller Experimental Grafica.

Colleagues in the Cuban film world remind me that it’s typical to have regular cancellations and delays. I have definitely shed the “time is money” ethic of my home country, but I’m not quite used to hearing, at 11 PM on the eve of a shoot, that it is off—or on. Fortunately, the crew I am collaborating with is flexible, and has no other commitments this week—so I am still hoping to get everything done during my last three days.

An on-and-off breeze (mostly off) helped me get through the spring heat—and this is nothing compared to July, when Marcia and I filmed a few days last year. Havana is completely back to normal, as far as I can tell, post-Obama/Major League Baseball/Los Rollings (The Rolling Stones). The pulse of Havana is a bit uneven on the subject of Obama’s visit. Some are lamenting the loss of a day or two of work—not a small thing in much of the world. Some felt his speech was canned, that he did his research and said the right things, but they await actions (lift the embargo). Others were inspired and felt that it was a historic opening, with inherent gains—and risks. Over beer today with our advisor Rafael Betancourt, an economist at the U of Havana, we talked about the implications. All of it is true, he said. Potential gains, risks, frustrations, empty promises, inspirations. A middle class will emerge, non-agricultural cooperatives will grow in number, and the state will remain strong and involved in planning the economy. There are no models for Cuba’s future—not Vietnam, nor China, nor Sweden nor Denmark.

Cuban telenovela star, Enrique Bueno.

Cuban telenovela star, Enrique Bueno.

I met with Enrique Bueno, one of the most well-recognized telenovela stars, whose government salary requires him to create other opportunities. I know that many aspiring actors in LA, San Francisco and New York wait tables between auditions, but Enrique is a star. He had several stories to tell that he wished to remain off the record.

An cautionary vision of the future Malecón by Lyudmila & Nelson at the fabulous Fábrica de Arte Cubano. 

An cautionary vision of the future Malecón by Lyudmila & Nelson at the fabulous Fábrica de Arte Cubano. 

As my final meeting was delayed, I had a nice walk on the Malecón, the wall that protects Havana from the sea. While the light turned warm, and the sea a deeper blue, I watched a fisherman snag a squid, a Santera dressed in white with a white parasol, and the usual and wonderful collection of lovers young and old, families, travelers and seekers. It is a magical part of this city.       

OLD CHEVYS, NEW ART

Ken with Ernan López, jazz pianist and father of our series composer, Harold López-Nussa.

Ken with Ernan López, jazz pianist and father of our series composer, Harold López-Nussa.

Bumped into several interesting people today, starting with Ernan Lopez-Nussa, patriarch of one of Cuba’s great contemporary jazz families. Ernan plays piano, like his son Harold, who will compose original music for our films. We shared responses to Los Rollings (The Rolling Stones) concert. It’s always interesting to talk to jazz and classical artists about rock and blues. We both agreed that Ronnie Wood was the best of the front line musicians. I still think of Wood as the “new” Stone; when he joined the band in 1974, two guitarists had already preceded him. Wood is also an accomplished artist, and a few of his portraits of rock and blues artists are hanging on my brother and sister-in-law’s walls.

Also saw Ian Waddell, former BritishMP from the socialist party. He wrote laws protecting the rights of indigenous Canadians. He was very excited at the election of Justin Trudeau, as Ian had served during his dad’s (Pierre) tenure.

But the day’s highlight, save for the mid-afternoon nap, which I needed after only four hours of sleep following a 4 AM bedtime (don’t ask), was the time I spent with Kadir López, one of the most interesting artists on the planet.

Kadir in his studio.

Kadir in his studio.

Kadir was very generous with his time and invited us to film as he welcomed an American art tour group organized by a couple who run an art center in Palos Verdes. The evening started with the group piling into a convoy of bulbous convertibles, yellow, pink, purple, and red, hood ornaments preceding their arrival.  Honestly, it felt a bit strange. Kadir explores, among other themes, memory, and history. What do we take with us? What should we forget? What need we preserve? Both in the personal, cultural and political landscapes?

Much later in the evening, after the guests had left, sated with food, mojitos and art, I asked him in a midnight interview, about the convoy. He told me that the Americans’ memory is part of his work as well. Our histories are intertwined, not only since the revolution but for years prior. He has a strong critique of the colonial relationship the US imposed on Cuba after the Spanish-American war. And he also recognizes that we share this landscape. That past present and future are more a spectrum than three distinct time periods. The tourists in the old cars, looking at the neon signs he has restored throughout the city, (a huge and ongoing public project) are part of his art.

Bending glass for a neon sign.

Bending glass for a neon sign.

I was thankful to have filmed it, and grateful for my incredible crew—Rafael Solis as cinematographer, Claudia Bueno as producer, Sergio Muñoz on sound. And props to Adolfo Nodal (Al), Kadir’s LA-based associate.

Kadir also gave us a demo in his workshop of bending neon over a blue flame. His work is quite visionary. In order to do it, he navigates the worlds of private fundraising and seeking permissions and licenses from the state. For him this is no conflict. Both entities ultimately want the work to be done.

ART & ROCK N' ROLL

Mabel Poblet's work.

Mabel Poblet's work.

Met with two of my favorite artists today to continue a dialogue about our series. Mabel Poblet had several pieces in last year’s Havana Biennale, and her work is striking. She did several pieces with incarcerated women called, “Simple Beauty.” She told me how lucky she felt to be born an artist in Cuba, rather in the US, where it is so hard for artists to earn a living. Kadir Lopez-Nievesdoes mixed-media work about history and memory,  often mounted on old porcelain signs left by American companies (Esso, Texaco, Wells Fargo, etc) and shot up by rebels during the revolution.  Both are interested in participating in our series.

Rubrik's presidents, work by Kadir López.

Rubrik's presidents, work by Kadir López.

We started filming the preamble to Los Rollings the morning of the concert.  The line was quite short—don’t they know that they should line up for 3 days and hold a bacchanale while waiting? Apparently not. There were a few hundred people in two lines, clearly enjoying themselves, but not unruly. They were in their 60s and teens, pierced and clean-cut, Cuban British, American, German, Mexican. Our conversations with them were quite moving—this was a historic moment, the first big show in the history of Cuba, whom had once banned the music. It was both a reflection and an announcement of the change taking place. David Blanco, one of the most well-known pop/rock musicians here, described it as an opening , a bridge builder. Of course, they want more concerts, but he was expressing more than that. A man in his 60s told me that this indeed was their Woodstock.

Our crew waits for the concert to begin. (L to R) Ernesto Granado, Javier Figueroa, Ivan Soca and our own Ken Schneider.

Our crew waits for the concert to begin. (L to R) Ernesto Granado, Javier Figueroa, Ivan Soca and our own Ken Schneider.

A very nice lady and her mom who live across the street from the venue invited us to her rooftop perch, where we set up a camera to capture 2 PM--the moment when the gates opened and Cuba poured in. I was on the ground filming, and it was exuberant.  I spent the next six hours conversing, with and without the camera, and the pulse of Cuba beats pretty well today. A large (estimates were 500,000) but civil and polite crowd—people gently touching my shoulder if they needed to move past me, no strung-out people, little overt drunkenness. And tremendous enthusiasm, with an understanding of both the gravity and joy of the moment.The two port-a-potties on my side of the field could have used help though, like another dozen. I imagine that Los Rollings brought them in, as the Cuban version was a rusted stall placed every few hundred yards on the street.

Los Rollings make history.

Los Rollings make history.

Mick and the boys are quite incredible in their early 70s. They still put on quite the show, although the voices are not what they once were.  For me the music was fun (they did play a few of my favorite Stones tunes, and even threw in “You Got the Silver” when they needed a rest on stage), butthe event was spectacular. And, by the way, free. And therein lies the rub. More bands will certainly come; they are already lining up.  Will they too give free concerts?  Or will future concerts rely on a middle and upper class to pay for tickets? Change here is inevitable, and the creating of said classes is already underway. Many Cubans I talk to embrace that aspect of the change—at least the creation of a middle class. But yesterday I saw a broad swath of el pueblo, the Cuban people, in attendance. What happens if, next year, a band plays, and it costs $20 to attend?

FIRST DAY OF FILMING!

Cinematographer, Ernesto Granado, with Ken at Ivan Soca's studio--a space we in San Francisco would dream about.

Cinematographer, Ernesto Granado, with Ken at Ivan Soca's studio--a space we in San Francisco would dream about.

The Obama visit seems to have struck a jazz chord here—expected, but still surprising, with a nice after taste. This was a big deal visit, and his words, both to the Cuban entrepreneurs (“How can we help?” rather than the drumbeat of “You need regime change”) resonated and, I believe, inspired. I met a writer for the Wall Street Journal whom I told, yes, everyone I have spoken to wants change, but nobody wants to give up what they see as their basic human rights: universal education, healthcare , housing and food. He responded that nobody is threatening to take that away. I mentioned that Cubans know that we lack such guarantees, and that may be a cautionary tale for Cubans, and he shrugged.  I also met a Puerto Rican news crew, baseball fans like myself, and after talking pelota for a while I asked their impressions of the Obama visit. They appreciated his speech, but are disappointed in the absence of action on Puerto Rico’s desire for independence. Tough job these Presidents and Prime Ministers have.

Ivan Soca photographing The Rolling Stones stage, built at La Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) in Havana.

Ivan Soca photographing The Rolling Stones stage, built at La Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) in Havana.

 

Spent some time filming out at the grounds of the Ciudad Deportiva, a sports arena and public field built in 1958, the year before the revolution, and the site of tomorrow’s concert of Los Rollings, as Mick Jagger’s enterprise is called here. Ivan, the subject of the first film in our series, is one of the few Cubans with access to photograph the site.  It is the usual array of banks of speakers and an arc of screens and a neon ornamented stage and huge towers of lights, 62 freight containers in all. Apparently they have 3 complete sets, which allows for the 2-3 week set up time on this “Olé” tour throughout Latin America. But it does look unusual against the canvas of Cuba. I won’t get too detailed about the 600 strong crew of shirtless Englishmen, including 300 for security, as Martin Scorsese is here with 40 cameras and will no doubt produce the definitive film of this moment. Because I’ve got something Scorsese doesn’t—Ivan. In 1990, Ivan, living with his diplomat parents in Eastern Europe, saw Paul McCartney in Red Square, The Rolling Stones in Prague, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall concert in Berlin, a few months after the wall fell. A few weeks or a few months later, the Eastern European form of socialism ended. Ivan offered that this moment is a similarly historic one. Not that socialism here will end this Saturday—but things will change, and the process of history will continue, and Cuba will evolve. I see this moment as Cuba’s Woodstock, save for the naked swimming in the pond at Yasgur’s farm.

Ken, our field producer, Claudia Bueno, and our sound recordist, Javier "Figa" Figueroa.

Ken, our field producer, Claudia Bueno, and our sound recordist, Javier "Figa" Figueroa.

 

Helluva time to be here.

 

The evening ended with an excellent dinner at Habana Blues, a restaurant inspired by the 2004 film of the same name, where all of the waiters are actors in TV, cinema, or theater. Joined by Gary Meyer, old pal and founder of Landmark Theaters, who supported our first Cuba film, HAVANA CURVEBALL. He brought a group of friends who included Robert Bloomberg, a filmmaker specializing in 3D, who gave me the best business card I have ever received—a set of 3D glasses with his name and website printed on the edges. He also took a few frames of us with his 3D still camera, mojitos out front. 

Dinner out with Bay Area film stalwart, Gary Meyer.

Dinner out with Bay Area film stalwart, Gary Meyer.

A FEW PICTURES & SOME GOOD STORIES

Our field producer, Claudia Bueno, on Day 2.

Our field producer, Claudia Bueno, on Day 2.

Our crack team met at the house of Figa, our sound recordist, who has an apartment in Vedado. We try to travel light, but ended up with a crew of 8, all Cuban except moi. Our newest find is Claudia, a 25-year old producer who will be working on Rapido y Furioso 8 (Fast and Furious 8) when that production blows into town next month. Claudia is amazed at the amount of money Hollywood throws around, for a location that will provide only 10% of the finished film. I responded that I wish I could pay her what they are. 

Production day 1 went without incident--but for a few small snafus, it was similar to a production day back home, except it was easier to park. We had to think on our feet, solve a few problems, but we spent much of the day in the studio of our character, Ivan, well outside the sections of Havana I know. From outside one might not pay it any mind--a concrete building painted a pale yellow, off the potholed street, past a gate and a garage--but inside the place was sumptuous for a studio. A large room greeted us, side lit by windows, with a kitchen and two other spaces, where Ivan's guitars, computers (he has preserved the archaeology of his technological development, even keeping the Mac SE, which he claims still works), photographic equipment and music lives. 

Ivan Soca Pascual's self-portrait.

Ivan Soca Pascual's self-portrait.

Ivan proved a willing subject, is a good raconteur, and speaks from a combination of head and heart. Ernesto Granado, our new cinematographer, knew exactly what to do, mounting the 5D on this handmade concoction of pipes and mounts, to create a primitive but effective shoulder mount for handheld work.

At night, Ivan and a few friends watched Obama's speech, which was an invite-only event with huge security. It was cool to hear them talk about it--they appreciated its warmth and sincerity, and expressed a mixture of optimism and concern for the changes ahead. But there seems to be a good vibe here vis-a-vis the President's speech. Not such a good vibe, however, about the Tampa Bay Rays, the baseball team visiting for a game against the Cuban national squad. Tampa Bay trounced, 4-1.

Watching Cubans watch Obama.

Watching Cubans watch Obama.

Good news though. Although I am still waiting for my press pass, A very nice woman at the Press Center gave me the wi-fi code, which only requires me to be in the vicinity of the Center. Reliable, fast wi-fi is a rarity here, and I am enjoying.

The Obama visit was odd to witness in that, there was very little to witness, unless you were in the press pool. There were no true public events—no throngs of people watching the motorcade pass, no public addresses,  no posters. I scoured several neighborhoods for “Welcome, Señor Obama” signs but nary a one was to be seen. I thought that certainly the shops on Calle Obispo, the tourist street well-known for housing the Floridita Bar, would have some Obama paraphernalia—a shirt, a lighter, a Russian doll inside a doll inside a doll—but I saw none.

HAVANA GETS MORE INTERESTING ...& MORE COMPLICATED

The window in a Habana Vieja shop, highlighting some of the week's happenings. The first U.S.-Cuba baseball game since the 90s and of course, the Friday concert by Los Rollings (Stones, that is.)

The window in a Habana Vieja shop, highlighting some of the week's happenings. The first U.S.-Cuba baseball game since the 90s and of course, the Friday concert by Los Rollings (Stones, that is.)

My morning meeting was cancelled today due to road closures--it was impossible to get from my part of Havana to the section where Kadir Lopez, one of the most exciting artists around, lives. Frustrating, but when life gives you lemons....take a walk in Old Havana. 

President Obama and his family toured Old Havana yesterday in the rain, so I expected to see welcome signs, posters, etc. Nada. I saw no evidence that the Obamas were here. He is set to give a speech tomorrow in the classic Alicia Alonso Theater, to the Cuban people and civil society--but only a few have invitations. The closest I'll get is watching the televised speech tomorrow--if they ever announce the time.

A political mural Ken stumbled across.

A political mural Ken stumbled across.

The mural  close up.

The mural  close up.

Strolling on Obispo St., site of the famous Floridita Bar, where Hemingway held court and tourists now out on their bucket lists, I looked for Obama paraphernalia and saw nada, but I did catch a glimpse of Hall-of-Fame baseball player Dave Winfield, here as part of the Major League baseball delegation, and I passed one store that carried a few T-shirts of Los Rollings.

 Tomorrow, barring further road closures, I'll be filming Ivan Soca. Wish me suerte!

Your man in Havana,

Ken