Cuban Filmmaker Jessica Rodriguez Shows Life Through a Different Lens

The filmmaker.
The filmmaker.
Courtesy of Jessica Rodriguez

You may not realize that Cuban filmmaker Jessica Rodriguez makes documentaries. The Havana-born, Madrid-based 28-year-old has a gift for making her subjects forget they're telling their most personal secrets to an unknown audience. "I think people only tell us what they want to, and the things they don't say are often much more interesting," she says. "I like working with people who feel like talking, feel like telling things to the world."

Rodriguez's selection of short films, presented during an Emerging Cuban Filmmaker showcase at the Miami International Film Festival, seek to tell a story of four disparate lives, each story intertwined with the other as the director seeks to unravel the human condition. "I don't like textbook characters; I prefer to humanize stories in a way that shows what the human experience is; vulnerable, and imperfect," Rodriguez says. I think that the 'textbook' story has been told a million times, and I think it's far more interesting to explore uncharted territories, and seek out those stories and anecdotes that people don't often share."

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Rodriguez's first selected work, Tacones Cercanos, was released in 2008, before the filmmaker made the move to Madrid to earn an advanced degree in Scriptwriting for Film and Television. Tacones Cercanos tells the story of Marcel, a Cuban transvestite going by Mariposa. Mariposa, growing up in anti-homosexual Cuba, where homosexuals were imprisoned for their preferences, was able to come out to her family with hardly any hiccups. Soon after, she began cross-dressing, and describes her first encounter with prostitution as practically an accident. With her charm and unmistakable Cuban accent and mannerisms, Mariposa dazzles her audience when she tells us "she loves to prostitute herself." We come to know a woman who is completely in charge of herself and her body, only to have that confidence ripped away when she becomes the victim of gender violence.

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Similarly, Crac! profiles the lives of two women who were victims of gender violence. Mar and Almudena live two seemingly opposite lives in Madrid. Mar is empowered; she works out daily, she graduated from college, she has a bustling and active social life and a lifetime of memories tucked away in boxes in her closet. Almudena, by contrast, is a God-fearing, self-described housewife, a village woman married off and brought to live in Madrid at eighteen. Watching the film, the viewer identifies with one or the other woman, but certainly not both. As the film unravels, you question how these two women could possibly be intertwined. In the end, the filmmaker delicately reveals an unexpected twist, one that circumvents all of your preconceived notions of how certain women behave in the face of abuse. Throughout the film we thought we knew Mar; but by the end, Almudena was the unsung hero.

"I really wanted to focus on this story because it deals with a widespread problem in our society; this notion that woman without an education or a means are the only ones that find themselves victims of gender violence," Rodriguez said. "I didn't want it to come off as propaganda, or cast the protagonists as the 'typical' victims of gender violence, but rather illustrate the complexity of our actions as human beings."

In Ahlam, Rodriguez explores the life of an Egyptian woman in the context of the Spring 2013 protests in Alexandria. In a culture where women are marginalized and treated as lesser, Ahlam walks the streets unnoticed; to earn money, she belly dances at an out-of-the-way club, donning a wig and heavy makeup to disguise her identity. Ahlam, along with her best friend, longs to join the masses and rally for democracy and freedom in Egypt, though the extent of how that freedom will affect her life as a woman in Middle Eastern culture is circumspect.

The female voice is rare in cinema, and it's one that Rodriguez tends to focus on. All of the director's female protagonists, though you may not realize it right away, do what they need to in order to survive. And it's Rodriguez's intention that their strength of will not seem obvious. "I like to question the female role in our society, but I like to do some from an introspective point of view, and provoke that dialogue without resorting to the same old discourse on feminism."

Rodriguez turns the lens around in El Mundo de Raúl, taking a look at gender roles by focusing on the male perspective. Raul describes himself a good man; good worker, loving son, ordinary life. Raul's story unfolds as he unapologetically recounts his twisted perversions. El Mundo de Raúl attempts to demonstrate that someone whose actions are at once disgusting and completely unforgiveable, are not necessarily the actions of a monster or societal pariah.

Again, Rodriguez seeks to tell a story without judgment, that lets the spectator decide whose side they're on. "With this film, I wanted to address a revolting phenomenon that's very common in Cuba, 'pajusos,' or people who masturbate in public to harass women. I decided to speak from the perspective of a single character, and take a neutral approach to the material in order to get answers. I wanted to show viewers that by taking this neutral, non-judgmental stance towards a person's actions, you will find a person that is in conflict with themselves despite their justifications."

With her short films, Rodriguez seeks to explore the underlying extraordinary in an otherwise ordinary person. "People only tell you a part of their history, the part that they want you to know. If I told these stories only with words, I would be producing a work of literary fiction," she says. "I think that by making these films, and using stylistic devices to draw that story out, I am showing you who a person is without having to tell you."

What's most extraordinary about Rodriguez's work is the way she coaxes her subjects into unleashing the hidden person within. Therein lies Rodriguez's gift: she redeems the bad deeds of the socially unaccepted, and lends a voice to the marginalized. She finds characters riddled with internal conflict and draws them out into the light, in order to redefine our understanding of humanity, in a way that's beautiful, moving and impactful.

Rodriguez's first full-length fiction feature film, Espejuelos Oscuros, is set in four different eras of Cuban history and focuses on the lives of men and women who have decided not to be what society expects them to be. Currently in production, Rodriguez will preview clips of the movie during her showcase. "For me, [this film] was a one-of-a-kind experience, we had a very talented team and wonderful people on board," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez will be joined by some of Cuba's most notorious emerging filmmakers- including Marcel Beltrán, Claudia Calviño, and Carlos Machado Quintela- for the Showcase at the Tower Theater, held from Saturday, February 28 to Wednesday, March 4. Rodriguez will screen Tacones Cercanos as part of the Opening Night Collective Showcase; you can catch the rest of her film and preview for Espejuelos Oscuros on Sunday, March 1. For more information visit miamifilmfestival.com

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