By Jennifer Redfearn, Schepp Scholar, 2001 – 2006
In early 2012, I set out to make a documentary film in Havana, Cuba. I was drawn to Cuba because of its rich culture, complex political history and fierce independence as a small island nation. As the country stands on the brink of inevitable change, most Americans see little of the daily life behind ubiquitous images of Fidel Castro and crumbling buildings. I traveled to Havana looking for something unexpected and different.
In the Cuban paper “Rebel youth,” I found an article about a cinema club for the blind and visually impaired, which is featured in the film, and attended a screening. I was immediately struck by the vibrancy and ingenuity of Havana’s blind community; they warmly invited me to attend other events – baseball games, musical performances, and backyard parties – where I met the characters we ultimately featured in the film. as i got to know Margarita, Mily, and Lis, I realized a meaningful and engaging film was to be found in their layered and compelling personal stories. The blind community of Havana, and the city itself, offered a captivating background to their personal narratives.
I filmed with Margarita, Lis and Mily for three years and followed their stories as they unfolded over time. The result is a 72-minute intimate, character-driven film about love and independence.
Each time I returned to Cuba, the women and their families invited me deeper into their lives, and the common themes of struggle and independence emerged in all three stories. In a country and a culture steeped in the tradition of struggle, these women chafe against strictures that are as much a result of the inevitable push and pull of love as of any physical condition. As witnesses to the women’s stories, I felt that Cuban tradition of struggle reverberate through their lives. it echoes too in the daily life of Havana, in the symphony of the city. It’s seen in the way people greet one another and the Revolutionary slogans painted on city walls; it pulses through their music and art.
Yet as intensely personal as they are, and as rooted in time and place, the struggles these women and their families face are universal. While making this film, I lost two important people and watched my family wrestle with similar issues of illness, care taking, and how to respect a loved one’s dignity while they are losing part of their independence. Making this film during a time when i was processing my own grief, I felt I was crossing a cultural bridge to exchange personal stories of love and loss. This deepened my understanding of the Cuban families’ pain as well as my grasp on my own. I am very grateful that the families trusted me and had the courage to share such personal moments on camera.
Early experiences living and working overseas changed the course of my life. Discovering the extraordinary beauty, diversity, and complexity that exists in the world opened my mind to new ways of seeing and understanding, and made me hungry to trade preconceived notions for firsthand encounters wherever possible. My aim as a filmmaker and photographer is and has been to share with others something of this experience of surprise and revelation.
My hope is that this film gives audiences a picture of life in Cuba that is irreducible, as well as warm, illuminating and deeply human.
NOTE: Jennifer Redfearn is an academy award nominated director and producer. She directed and produced the film, SUN COME up that was nominated for an academy award and the international Documentary association’s pare Lorentz award in 2011. TOCANDO La Luz (Touch the Light) premiered at the Full Frame Documentary festival where it won the Charles E. Guggenheim award. She was also a field director, consulting producer, and additional camerawoman for the 2015 SXSW film, LANDFILL HARMONIC. The film follows the Recycled Orchestra, a Paraguayan musical group that plays classical music with instruments made entirely out of trash. Jennifer has directed and produced television documentaries for PBS, the BBC, National geographic, CNN, and the Discovery Channel. Projects she produced and edited at Media Storm were nominated for the World press photo, anthropographia, and Webby.