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!'

"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."

According to Bofill, the documentary, which was produced in Spanish with English subtitles, also opened doors for the nonviolent Cuban opposition around the world. Rompiendo el Silencio was shown at numerous international human rights forums and by student organizations from Russia to Uruguay. Eventually it was translated into German, Polish, French, and Portuguese. Copies were smuggled into Cuba, and in October 1994 the documentary was broadcast on Channel 23, the local affiliate of the Spanish-language Univision television network.

Aside from Palmer's investment and contributions from a few other private individuals, Cardona and Anton had financed Rompiendo el Silencio with money from student loans and on their credit cards. Emotionally and financially drained at the film's completion, they were hardly in a position to undertake another project. But the summer of 1994 brought the balsero crisis, and Anton and Cardona felt a moral responsibility to act.

Cardona recalls his frustration: "I didn't know whether to cry, pee in my pants, or scream -- because it's like the world isn't listening. Whatever your opinion is, get involved, learn, don't just sit back and smoke a cigar. There's some serious shit going on in Cuba. It's not about music and cigars and fun in the sun. It's about a human crisis."

Appalled by the superficial treatment the rafter exodus received in the media, they decided to make a second film that would analyze the political, social, and economic forces driving the crisis and would put it in historical perspective. "The decision to leave the country was as difficult in 1950 as it was in 1960 or in 1994," Cardona says. "Just talking to people who are going out to sea on a raft doesn't provide the full picture. You have to understand what has gone on for 36 years in that country. We didn't get to the balseros overnight."

Impressed by Rompiendo el Silencio, various high-profile civic leaders such as Leslie Pantin, past president and founder of the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana and current president of the Orange Bowl Committee; Roberto Suarez, then-publisher of El Nuevo Herald; and Eduardo Padron of Miami-Dade Community College volunteered to help raise funds for the new project. "We saw the quality of the other film they had produced and we liked their historical approach," explains Cristina Mateo, interim dean of administration for Miami-Dade's Wolfson campus. "We felt there was a need for us to be involved in educating the community."

Cardona and Anton successfully solicited financial support from businesses and private individuals, but they eschewed political groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation, and warned potential donors that they would not be shown a script or have any editorial input. With a total budget of $180,000, the filmmakers launched an intensive research effort in November 1994, reading everything they could find on Cuban history, searching through old photographs, and reviewing hundreds of hours of historic footage.

They revisited Palmer's film library and delved into archives at the Wolfson Media History Center. They also journeyed to the United Nations in search of footage of Castro's speeches before that world body, and they pored over old news clips. Some of the most moving material in the documentary, like the interview with the rafter who drowned, came from journalists, photographers, and video buffs who had clandestinely filmed street protests or somehow obtained film from Cuban government archives.

Cardona and Anton spent hours in front of their VCRs, searching for scenes that would best convey the passion and the pathos of key historical moments. One night Cardona happened upon images recorded outside the Peruvian embassy in Havana in 1980, when thousands of Cubans mobbed the building hoping for political asylum and precipitating the Mariel boatlift. "When you find something at 4:00 a.m., and it is exactly what you are looking for, you are like, 'Aw man, yes!'"

Another find was the documentary that showed a young boy arriving alone in the United States with a battered suitcase. He was part of the Pedro Pan airlift, which began in 1960. Thousands of Cuban parents sent their children ahead of them to the United States, unsure of what they would encounter there but convinced it would be better than keeping them in Cuba. The scene, which is included in ?Adios Patria?, shows a social worker questioning eight-year-old Eduardo Roberto Gonzalez Dorta. His father is a bricklayer, he reports proudly. His mother is a laundress.

"And do your parents have their papers ready so they can come?" the social worker asks.

Eduardo smiles and shrugs. "I think so."
"Do you want to see them?"
Eduardo nods yes.

"I cry every time I see that, and I have seen it six or seven times," confides Alejandro Rios, who wrote film criticism in Cuba for eleven years and now works as a spokesman for Miami-Dade Community College. "At that age I didn't know what my father did or how old my mother was. They taught him everything because they didn't know when they were going to see him again."

Rios says ?Adios Patria?'s strength lies in its revealing historical material, including statements by Gen. Vernon Walters, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that he met with Fidel Castro during the Reagan administration in an aborted attempt to initiate a dialogue.

Walters is one of the national figures Cardona and Anton persuaded to cooperate. After months of coaxing, they also convinced Jesse Jackson to speak with them. At the last minute, Jackson wanted to cancel, but Cardona and Anton had already set up their equipment in his Washington office. The interview with Jackson provides one of the few anti-embargo voices in the film.

?Adios Patria? has been criticized for being too one-sided. At a screening on the campus of Oxford University, for example, students denounced it as propaganda. In response, Cardona and Anton say their goal was to tell the stories of the million Cubans who left, not to analyze the reasons why the majority of islanders have stayed.

Exile stories are often heart-wrenching, and Cardona and Anton consciously toned down some of their material so it would be more accessible to audiences outside Miami. "There's a stigma to being Hispanic in the United States," Cardona asserts. "Everyone is looking for melodrama. I'm not ashamed of my passion, but I know how I am being perceived."

Cardona also severely cut the story of Rita Le Sante, a Miami seamstress whose husband William was executed in 1961 for causing a power outage in Havana. The Le Santes were a middle-class couple with two small boys. William worked for the municipal power company in Havana. In ?Adios Patria?, Rita Le Sante recalls the day her husband was put on trial for sabotage. The proceedings began at 4:00 p.m. and lasted nine hours. Thinking that the trial would continue the next day, Le Sante returned to her home. Not long after she arrived, in the early morning hours, she received a call from her husband's lawyer: William was dead.

"They didn't let him say goodbye or see his children," Le Sante recalls in the documentary, speaking calmly, almost without emotion. "They said, 'Leave a note,' and that's what he did. It said, 'Now that death summons me, I want you to know that I am not afraid. The only thing I am worried about is the situation in which I am leaving you and the children. But at the same time, I die peacefully, because I know that you know how to be both mother and father. Take good care of them. Don't raise them with hatred or bitterness, and if you can, raise them in a better world."

Not included in the film is Le Sante's fight to view her husband's dead body before burial, and her own subsequent imprisonment. The filmmakers decided to concentrate exclusively on the lack of civil procedure. "How do you take 30-odd years of history and pick out the highlights?" Cardona asks. "What is important? You can vehemently disagree with ?Adios Patria?, but it is as honest a piece as we could put together."

The film had its first screening this past October at the Gusman Center in downtown Miami. The theater, which seats 1700, was packed, and the filmmakers received a prolonged standing ovation. "I felt like the entire audience was in tears," says Oscar Rivero, a Cuban-American attorney who took his mother to the screening. "I was in tears. It was very emotional. It hit me -- boom -- right in the face."

"The documentary deals with a history that is heartbreaking," observes Pepe Horta, former director of the Havana Film Festival who now owns Cafe Nostalgia on SW Eighth Street. "It has defects -- it is a little too long, and I think the truth within Cuban history is much more complicated and has more elements. But this is the vision of these filmmakers."

The 86-minute film is primarily in Spanish with English subtitles, though some of the interviews, particularly with U.S. politicians or academics, were conducted in English. The Spanish narration is done by salsa star Willy Chirino; a shorter, 56-minute version is narrated by Andy Garcia in English. Both Chirino and Garcia donated their time.

Cardona and Anton hope the Public Broadcasting System and foreign television stations will air the shorter version. In an effort to generate a buzz, Anton and his wife Betty embarked on a whirlwind bus tour of Europe this past January. It was Anton's version of a honeymoon. In order to save money, the couple signed up for a package tour. They prearranged screenings before human rights organizations and student groups in cities along the way.

"It was funny as hell," Anton remembers. "Everyone was a tourist, and here we were carrying all this material on the human rights situation in Cuba." They showed the film before small audiences in Spain, France, Germany, and England. Wherever they went, the Antons made sure they carried copies of Amnesty International's 1996 report on the human rights conditions in Cuba, which documented arrests of dissidents and allegations of mistreatment in jail.

Anton believes the tour was essential in raising consciousness about Cuban human rights violations. Still, the personal and financial costs for him and his wife have been high. They have spent tens of thousands of dollars in phone bills alone. "Here is one bill," Anton grimaces, displaying a BellSouth monthly statement with more than $4000 in long distance charges. "This is not a hoax," he groans. In order to pay the bills, Betty has taken out a loan on their home, which she owns. "We're gambling a lot," Anton continues. "But otherwise the film would have just died.... Joe and I in that sense are risk takers, because you don't do this film without taking humongous risks. This is not for the faint-hearted."

Purchase of the film by PBS and international broadcasters would help defray some of the mounting costs of distributing the film, as would sales of videotapes. The two men say they have already spent the $180,000 they raised. Cardona estimates he invested $20,000 of his own money, much of it from a second mortgage he and his wife took on their home, and he is also carrying more than $10,000 in debt related to the film on his credit cards. Anton puts his involvement at $20,000 minimum.

This is the downside to documentary filmmaking, Cardona points out. He said he'd like to visit college filmmaking classes and warn students about the less glamorous side of the industry -- the busted credit ratings and frayed relationships.

But neither Cardona or Anton have serious regrets. "This is a choice we made," Cardona says. "I'm not a martyr or anything." Anton exuberantly reports that the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission will host a screening of the film this week during the commission's annual meeting in Geneva. ?Adios Patria? was broadcast two weeks ago on Channel 23, and though the time slot wasn't ideal -- it showed at 11:30 on a Saturday night -- it drew a large audience. The station, which paid $35,000 for broadcast rights, plans to air it again late this year or early next year. It is also slated to be shown on television in Puerto Rico.

While Anton continues to push ?Adios Patria?, Cardona and his wife Amy Serrano have embarked on another documentary. They are calling the project Our Generacion! Voices of Exile's Children. "It's about growing up Cuban American and what that means to different people," Cardona explains.

As part of the film, Cardona recently invited fourteen Cuban Americans for a Sunday lunch at Yuca restaurant on Lincoln Road. The second floor nightclub was temporarily transformed into a dining room and film studio. Cardona gave simple instructions: The guests, between 21 and 35 years old, were to gather around a table, eat, and chat. He prompted the conversation by calling out various subjects, from frivolous quince birthday celebrations to weighty matters like racism and human rights. He instructed them to speak in English, Spanish, Spanglish -- whatever they felt comfortable doing.

After amplifying the voices of dissidents on the island and of those who went into exile, Cardona needs to hear from his Miami peers. He wants to capture the contradictions of their fractured identity and to fit the pieces together into something coherent. Unlike his other documentaries, which were motivated by a sense of moral urgency, he is making this movie for himself. And although he has calculated a budget of $80,000, he is realistic about the film's narrow market appeal.

He and Serrano plan on holding fundraisers, and they have already persuaded some businesses to act as sponsors (Yuca, which hosted the lunch without charge, is among them). But Cardona is determined to make the movie regardless of backing. His experience has yielded a simple moviemaking axiom: "You start making the film, you go into debt, and then you hope and pray that money comes in. If it doesn't, you're screwed, but you have a film. That's the important thing.

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