Miami-based documentary filmmaker Orlando Rojas feels a bit anxious. His first film in nearly 15 years is having its world premiere at the grandest venue of Miami Dade College's 33rd-annual Miami International Film Festival: the Olympia Theater. Nearly two weeks before the premiere, Rojas was still tinkering with the sound for Queen of Thursdays.
When he's not making movies, Rojas selects the films for the Tower Theater in Little Havana and is one of MIFF's longtime programmers. He also has several feature films under his belt. But that doesn't make him any less jittery about his documentary's premiere. He also anticipates more than a few members of the Cuban exile community will be ready to scrutinize his work. "I'm very nervous because the [Cuban] community is very particular," he admits with a laugh, "and I'm very anxious to know what they think."
The film examines the life of Rosario Suárez (also referred to as Charín), who is the former prima ballerina of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It follows her early life as a teenage dancer performing in the shadows of the Ballet's founder — dancer and choreographer Alicia Alonso — who was appointed by Fidel Castro himself. Suárez later came to be known as the "Queen of Thursdays" because she led performances at the ballet Thursday nights. Tensions with Alonso and a family crisis ultimately led to a life in exile in Miami and a struggle for relevance in the United States.
Rojas creates an extremely intimate portrait, using archival footage, voiceover narration, and one-on-one interviews with Suárez in Miami. This seeming one-sided perspective — which features only Suárez speaking, with a narrative voiceover written by Rojas and coproducer Dennis Scholl — is by design. The director says he prefers not to have anyone else on camera to either criticize or apologize for his subject.
"I like the American school of documentary," he offers, "but I hate this lack of subjectivity that is most common. I think it's very boring, to bring all the elements, all the information, everything. They want to show the whole iceberg, and that's impossible."
Having known Suárez when both were teens living in Cuba, he shares a close bond with her. Their connection, however, never made it easier for Rojas to talk to Suárez about her life. The dancer comes across as a rather intense figure, haunted by her past and disillusioned about her future.
"She's difficult," Rojas admits. "She is not a diva, but she is a diva," he adds with a laugh. "She is humble, but she has a particular philosophy — it's very difficult to move her in that because she is always hesitant about the future... Most artists are very hesitant vis-à-vis the future."
It's a perspective well understood by local art champion and coproducer Scholl. He too is a documentary filmmaker (Deep City) who has also executive-produced many noteworthy local films, from the popular 2012 short Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke to the latest feature by Monica Peña, Hearts of Palm, which also has its world premiere at MIFF this year. On top of the personal story of an artist, Queen of Thursdays also tells a universal story that is distinctive to the heartache of the Cuban exile.
Rojas and Suárez are indeed kindred spirits, but not only because of their personal history. "I've known her my whole life. I know her philosophy. I know her way of thinking, even the way she reacts… [but] in the end, [the documentary] is also about me."
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He mentions the optimism Cubans felt after Castro's revolution and that same optimism when he arrived in the United States. He says a similar feeling of renewal and possibility filled the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. However, he believes that too much hope often leads to inevitable disillusion. It's something he says the Cuban Revolution and the American dream share in common, and this also informs the tension in Queen of Thursdays.
"It's difficult to be an artist," Rojas says. "It's difficult everywhere. The relationship between power and art is very complicated. Some have criticized Suárez for her lack of know-how to deal with Cuban socialism and American capitalism. At the bottom of all this is an inability, an incapacity to deal with the whole system that is metaphysical in her because she doesn't have any lucid response for that. She only tells, in her own special way, her personal problem. It is up to the audience to analyze and discuss."
Queen of Thursdays
Starring Rosario Suárez, Paula Roque, Alicia Alonso, and Fernando Alonso. Directed by Orlando Rojas. 79 minutes. Not rated. World-premieres 7 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Rojas, Scholl, and Suárez will attend the screening. Tickets cost $16 via miamifilmfestival.com.