Images of Exile

No money. No filmmaking experience. No hope for commercial success. Minor details didn't stop Joe Cardona and Alex Anton from exploring their Cuban heritage.

A Cuban rafter sits on a bed in a darkened room, legs tightly crossed and arms folded together in a position that is almost fetal. He is leaving the next day. "When dreams can't go forward, they fall into the past forever," he explains to an unseen video journalist. "And if you settle for less, you'll never achieve what you desire. That has been my philosophy my whole life. You risk your life, but if you make it, you have the opportunity to start all over again. It's crazy, but sometimes craziness is the only way out."

The unnamed rafter, who is sublimely calm, appears in a documentary by local filmmakers Joe Cardona and Alex Anton called ?Adios Patria? The film, which will be screened this week at the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, explores the reasons more than one million Cubans have left their homeland since the 1959 triumph of the revolution. It mixes poignant footage from the island with personal testimony from exiles and commentary by historians, politicians, and anti-Castro activists. Later this month the film will also be featured at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

The title ?Adios Patria? (Goodbye Homeland?) poses the question so many exiles have asked themselves. Will they ever go back? Could they go back? "We didn't want to make that decision for others, or even for ourselves," Cardona explains. In the case of the anonymous rafter, and for many others who have attempted a sea crossing, going back isn't an option. Cardona says the rafter in ?Adios Patria? never made it to this side of the Florida Straits. He disappeared during the crossing and is presumed drowned.

"Think of the surrealism of that interview," Joe Cardona exclaims. "Here he's brave enough to go out to sea in shark-infested waters, but he asks to be interviewed in the dark. There is obviously something he's afraid of that prevents him from talking openly. Maybe repression? I don't know. I wonder what he's afraid of. That shows you the mindset of the people in that country. We wanted to get to the root of what drives you to do something that crazy."

Cardona's and Anton's project itself has been a little crazy. The two young men, both born of Cuban parents and reared in Hialeah, came to filmmaking by chance and without formal training. The only other documentary they've attempted left them deeply in debt, and ?Adios Patria? is unlikely to break even, much less turn a profit.

Though Cardona and Anton have been friends since junior high school, it wasn't until they'd both graduated from college that a newly developed preoccupation with their heritage led them to pool their meager resources to produce a video documentary about the dissident movement in Cuba. The result, a 1993 film called Rompiendo el Silencio (Breaking the Silence), was shown on Spanish-language television and widely screened by international human rights groups. But the productions costs far outstripped any income it generated.

Saddled with debts, Cardona and Anton nevertheless undertook ?Adios Patria? as their second project. This time, however, heavyweights from Miami's Cuban business community such as Sedano's supermarkets, Bacardi-Martini U.S.A., and Zubi Advertising Services agreed to help underwrite the film's production. "We saw them as being very young and clean, with lots of ideals," says Tito Argamasilla Bacardi, vice president of public relations for Bacardi-Martini U.S.A. "They were doing this for Cuba, not for monetary reasons." Dozens of other members of the Cuban exile community also signed on, their enthusiasm fueled in part by a sense of gratification that, after years of being tuned out by their Cuban-American offspring, Cardona and Anton were sincerely interested in listening and learning.

With financial backing they were able to hire professional cameramen and film editors and to pursue interviews with national figures such as former secretary of state Alexander Haig, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Says Stuart Alson, executive director of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival: "Not only is the film very powerful and very moving, but there is a great story about how the film was made."

Cardona and Anton grew up as typical children of Cuban exiles in South Florida -- playing high school sports, hanging out, speaking English, not giving a lot of thought to being Cuban. It wasn't until they left town for Tampa's University of South Florida that they began to rediscover their cultural roots. Cardona became fascinated with the exile community in Ybor City, a Cuban settlement dating back to the 1860s. "I met some old people at the Union Marti-Maceo who time seemed to have forgotten," he recalls. "They took me in. I was a young kid and homesick for all the things I never thought I would be homesick for. It's funny -- you do so much to get out of here, but once I got Miami into focus, all of a sudden I wanted to come back."

Idealistic students, Cardona and Anton were sympathetic to the anti-apartheid struggle and participated in the campus movement urging the university administration to divest its holdings in South African companies. One day, while Cardona was sitting in the makeshift shanty town students had erected, the conversation drifted to Cuba. When Cardona criticized Castro's record on human rights, no one seemed to care. "We had some very heated discussions," he recalls. "It was very uncomfortable. I was made to feel like I was right wing because I was anti-Castro, and I was like, 'What do you mean I'm right wing? I'm sitting here with you!'

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