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.

"More so than other ethnic groups, we Cubans haven't done a good job of telling our story to a mass audience," Cardona continues. An inveterate documentary watcher, he had learned about Jewish history from Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Holocaust; and about U.S. history from Ken Burns's The Civil War. There was no comparable work about Cuba, though a few filmmakers had documented human rights abuses.

Amiable and levelheaded, more apt to dampen conflict than ignite it, Cardona moved back to Miami in 1987, enrolled at FIU, and embarked upon a project of self-education. While teaching English as an adjunct professor at Miami-Dade Community College, he sought out Ricardo Bofill, founder of the human rights group Comite Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos, the first exile group to espouse a nonviolent struggle against Castro. "I was intrigued by him," Cardona explains, "because he was the antithesis of what the macho Cuban man was all about."

Meanwhile, Anton was reading Armando Valladares's memoir about the 22 years he spent in Cuba prisons and watching Nadie Escuchaba (Nobody Listened), a documentary about human rights abuses in Cuba made by Jorge Ulla and Oscar-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros. "Those works had a big effect on my life," Anton says. More impetuous and obsessive than his friend Cardona, Anton quickly embraced the issue of human rights with a passion that soon dominated his life.

As a candidate for a master's degree in political science at the University of New Orleans, Anton grew disillusioned with the faculty. "My professors had no idea who Gustavo Arcos or Elizardo Sanchez [well-known dissidents in Cuba] were, but they all knew Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa," he recalls. Anton resolved to write his thesis about the origins and development of Cuba's internal dissident movement.

On Cardona's suggestion, Anton went to see Bofill. Their first meeting lasted five and a half hours. "I said to myself, 'God, this is such a fascinating story,'" Anton remembers. Because there was very little written material about the dissident movement, he based his thesis on interviews with exiles like Bofill and phone conversations with human rights activists in Cuba. His thesis, which was completed in 1993, won an award from his department as the best of the year.

Anton, however, wasn't content with educating a handful of academics in Louisiana. "I met people who were in prison," he exclaims. "That's a serious moral responsibility. You're like, damn, these [dissidents] are risking their lives. What happens is, you talk to someone on the phone, and the next you hear they are in prison. Before you know it, you are on a serious moral crusade to inform the international community what is happening."

Inspired by Almendros and Ulla, Anton had videotaped some of his thesis interviews. He had also persuaded Beltrand de la Grange, a French journalist, to let him use 26 hours of interviews de la Grange had filmed of dissidents on the island. He asked Cardona to help him shape the material into a documentary.

The aspiring filmmakers received support from Eduardo Palmer, a Cuban exile who had once owned a film company in Cuba. Ricardo Bofill put the three together. "I was surprised and touched by their interest," Palmer recalls. "It was nice to know that young people were willing to carry the flag, to bring democracy back to Cuba."

A former journalist, Palmer had filmed Fidel Castro's triumphant entry into Havana. In exile he owned production companies in Miami and the Dominican Republic, and possessed one of the most extensive collections of film footage from revolutionary Cuba. Palmer offered Cardona and Anton full use of his equipment, from video cameras to editing machines to film library. He also invested $20,000 in the production.

Cardona remembers discussing Palmer with Anton: "I said, 'First off, this guy isn't for real, he's a crackpot.' But it turned out to be true. He gave us everything -- and he didn't charge us a cent." Neophytes at filmmaking, Cardona and Anton spent 400 hours editing the 44-minute documentary at studios Palmer owned near the Palmetto Expressway in Miami. Cardona says he would need less than a quarter of the editing time today, but Palmer was patient. More than that, Palmer was willing to pay an editor, who gave the duo a crash course in filmmaking and offered subtle tips to his proteges. Cardona and Anton say Palmer did not meddle in editorial decisions. "What I taught them is about the process of making the documentary," Palmer notes. "About the contents, yes, I made some suggestions, but fundamentally it was their baby."

Rompiendo el Silencio was finished in the fall of 1993. Technically rough, it is essentially a compilation of interviews with dissidents such as Gustavo Arcos, Elizardo Sanchez, Oswaldo Paya, Ynadmiro Restano, and Luis Pita Santos. The filmmakers also included comments from Latin American political leaders Violeta Chamorro, Cesar Gaviria, and Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as from exile figures such as Jorge Mas Canosa, Huber Matos, and Mario Chanes de Armas.

Ricardo Bofill says the documentary represented the first time serious attention had been paid to the nonviolent opposition. "This film went a long way toward helping the Cuban exile community understand our activities and realize that there existed an opposition that believed in different tactics than that of the traditional armed struggle," he says. "[Cardona and Antón] had access to a whole segment of the community that we had not been able to reach."

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