Here’s a funny thing about the Internet: In the pursuit to connect with one another online, we often become more isolated as a consequence. But to be connected at all is a gift. Given its seemingly limitless nature, boundless Internet access—especially at home—is something many of us take for granted. Nothing puts this more into focus than the fact that just last year, a slew of Cuba’s residents got a taste of the Internet for the first time in their lives when ETECSA, the national telephone company, installed Wi-Fi routers scattered throughout 18 public parks throughout Cuba.
Besides opening the virtual borders to the possibilities of the outside world, it’s also revolutionized the way that Cubans communicate with each other and their family outside of Cuba, as well as their studies and their social lives. And that’s precisely what director Zoe Garcia, a native to Cuba, sought to do with her Sundance short film, Conectifai (Connection), which was also selected for Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival.
The eighteen-minute-long doc provides a candid look at the everyday (but no less crater-like) impact that the Wi-Fi’s installation has had in Cubans’ lives. Garcia, who flexes credentials at the Higher Institute of Art in Havana, Cuba and at the International School of Film and TV, has worked in virtually every facet of filmmaking, as a director, producer, screenwriter and photographer. But for this project, she and her fellow producer Sheyla Pool Pástor, worked on three short films, including Conectifai, that she says started as part of a series at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV called Nuevas Miradas.
In the lobby shortly before a packed Sundance screening for Conectifai, Garcia tells me that the prompt for the series challenged filmmakers to take a look at the way that Cuban life has been drastically shifting in recent years. “Although the point of departure of the shorts was the transition in Cuba, we wanted to make sure that it was really about things that were more particular, and not exactly talking about things in an obvious way,” she says. “So basically in all of the shorts, they tackle the things that exist in Cuba today that didn’t use to exist. Things that are related directly—not with politics—but rather with people’s lives: The ability to have Internet, to be able to study English, to be able to sell their house.”
Garcia says that Wi-Fi, and the unprecedented connections it inspires within a community largely exploring it for the first time, felt like a natural thing to document on film. “The Internet is one of the things that’s most changing, and will change, the dynamic and the mentality in Cuba,” she tells Remezcla. “When I started making the short, there were very few parks with Internet. Now there are more,” she says, adding that there’s been a rumor flying around that at some point, people will be able to surf the web from the comfort of their homes. For now, though, access to Wi-Fi is entirely limited by location, and is available in public spots, like hotel lobbies, or parks.
Conectifai is rooted in the fact that Internet access in Cuba is public by design, and informs everything about how online culture bleeds into the quotidian. “The idea of Wi-Fi had that particularity of being in a public place, and in reality, that informs a lot the kinds of communication people have,” Garcia says. It also created its own culture, from Internet card vendors walking around yelling “conectifai!” to entire families gathered around a tablet, in awe of a photo or collectively waving hello to loved ones. The dynamic that the Wi-Fi routers created is something that Garcia admits both “moved” her and made her “indignant,” however. “Because of course, I felt, why did this have to be in a park? Why do people have to go talk in public, why can’t they do it at their homes?”
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Cuban Director Zoe Garcia sits in a theater at Sundance freshly after the screening of her short film,“Connection” (Conectifai). The film centers around a wifi park in Cuba, with all its bizarre oddities of Cubans connecting to the internet in a public forum. The afternoon in the park includes youngsters flirting, a family of 8 surrounding a small screen video chat, couples bickering, and various little subplots that will make you smile or shake your head in frustration. Cuba’s only telephone company, ETECSA, installed Wi-Fi routers in 18 public parks in 2016. For many Cubans, this meant being able to go online for the first time. “Connection” is a peephole into a day-in-the-life of a Wifi Park in Cuba. #thenewcuba #chasingwifi @sundanceorg
Through making the film, however, Garcia found that Wi-Fi’s public nature didn’t impede people from having intimate conversations with friends and family members, some of whom they hadn’t seen nor talked to in decades. What’s more, access to the internet is expensive, shaky and fleeting—dropped calls are not uncommon—so people are focused on making the most of their limited time. Even when people were mic’ed and knew they were being filmed from a distance for Conectifai, they either were so absorbed in their conversations that it became second nature. Or, they forgot about it altogether.
Garcia says that for now, Cubans have primarily used the Internet to make calls, but she says this culture has been shifting rapidly, too, especially where young Cubans are concerned. “I do think that for young people, for example, it does signify the arrival of music, hairstyles…it’s turned into entertainment,” she notes. “They go sit with a beer and relax. It does feel like it’s something that’s honestly changing the way people think, a lot. Now [people] can see things that they couldn’t see before. It’s a gap through which one can now see outside.”