How Do Visual Artists Survive and Thrive in Cuba? 'Alumbrones' Documentary Shows Us How

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For centuries, Cuba has produced some of Latin America’s most illustrious artists. From poets to surrealist painters and of course, music, the relatively small island has managed to assert itself as a global cultural powerhouse. But for the last few decades, Cuba has been virtually left out of the rich cross-cultural dialogue that feeds so much artistic innovation, cut off in many ways from international trends and markets. Yet artists within Cuba continue producing fascinating work in dialogue with their own peculiar reality and feeding off of other Cuban artists to create their highly personal pieces.

South African filmmaker Bruce Donnelly recently took on the Cuban arts scene as the subject of his new documentary Alumbrones that premieres today at the Quad Cinema in New York. In this small, unpretentious documentary we bear witness to frank conversations with Cuban artists about everything from politics to aesthetics to everyday life in Cuba.

In advance of the film’s premiere, we sat down with Donnelly to talk about his lifelong fascination with Cuba, collaborative filmmaking, and unfriendly customs officers.

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What’s your background as a filmmaker?

My passion for films and filmmaking has existed my entire life. As a kid growing up in South Africa, I’d fantasize about my future as a filmmaker, without ever being sure how I’d get there or when. South Africa felt a million miles from the action and opportunities and it felt like I had a long way to go to find my place. I harbored this strong desire as I was growing up, without being sure of the path ahead. As I prepared to go to college, I began convincing myself that a business degree was the smart way to go (that may still be true). But, that voice would soon be knocked clean out of my head, when I went to see American Beauty as it was released in theaters. I sat in complete awe, so riveted and inspired to keep following the dream I always had. I knew from that experience that my passion was to be a storyteller.

What type of relationship did you have with Cuba before beginning this documentary?

As much as I spent my childhood years dreaming of a film career, so too did I obsess about Cuba. To this day, I cannot explain my fascination and preoccupation with the island, except that there seemed to be something so intriguing and completely intoxicating about it. Everything that came out of it was so unlike anywhere else. It had a sound, an atmosphere, a look so beguiling, I was determined to go there and experience it. I come from a family of avid yachtsmen, who’ve spent many years sailing around the Caribbean. My parents sailed around Cuba many times when I was growing up, always returning with gifts, music and photographs that fueled the fire even more.

How long were you in Cuba shooting Alumbrones?

Alumbrones was shot over approximately 4 months. During my first trip to Cuba, I met Pablo Bordón, the son of the couple in the film, Edel and Yamile. He is a hugely talented photographer and filmmaker whose work I quickly came to love. As I was preparing to leave Havana to continue my pre-production work on the film, I decided to leave a camera with him and told him that I’d like him to come on board as an assistant photographer, so we can see Havana through the eyes of someone who knows the city inside out. When we returned to film, he presented me with 3 months worth of incredible footage that was really the insider’s view of life in Cuba and something so completely invaluable to the film.

Did you run into any problems during production?

Shooting anything in Cuba is a challenge to begin with. In the highly likely situation that you would need to replace, repair or buy equipment or supplies, there is simply no place that exists to do that. So, the challenge is ensuring that you are prepared for any such eventualities, which is where being over-prepared and somewhat pessimistic can be a good thing.

So prepared were we, that our initial plans to look like a low-key production, were soon thwarted by our many bags and supplies. Customs were none too friendly upon our arrival at the airport, but two hours of thorough questioning and bag searching later, with us flashing endless permits and letters, we were eventually allowed in.

Where did this idea come from? What inspired you to profile the visual arts scene in Cuba as opposed to other countries?

In 2010, I traveled up to Boston to visit a friend. On a tour around the South End galleries, I noticed Galeria Cubana, which deals exclusively with Cuban art. As I walked in, I was immediately taken by the art on the walls, representing a number of the artists that would later appear in the film. Their work was so unlike anything I’d ever seen and also, so different from each other’s. With all the work originating in Cuba, I knew that there were stories behind each painting and every artist. It was days later that the idea for the film struck me. It felt like the perfect collision of the things I love.

What can American audiences learn from the Cuban artists profiled in this film?

Having shown the film all over the United States already, I can tell you that Americans have everything to learn from this film and the artists in it. That’s not to sound arrogant, but rather to say that the response each and every time from them is how little they feel they know about Cuba and how surprised they are by what they see in the film. They connect to these artists in a very human way, understanding how alike we all are and that in the end we’re struggling for the same things. Love of family and home are vital. Passion, hard-work, and creativity are what drives them.

Alumbrones is playing at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan September 12 – 18.