There are 11 million Cubans in Cuba, and two million in the United States. That makes 13 Million Voices, and they will be heard around the world when the new Miami documentary by the same name debuts at Miami Dade College's Miami International Film Festival 2015.
The film follows a group of young Miami natives and their Cuban counterparts on a decade-long journey that climaxed with the Peace Without Borders concert in Revolution Square that starred Latin music superstar Juanes.
Sister-and-brother director/producer team, Janelle Gueits and Chris Gueits, took time before the documentary's sold-out world premiere at MIFF to explain why they made the movie, the project's biggest challenges, and what it's like to be spied on.
New Times: How did 13 Million Voices come about?
Janelle Gueits: I was a professional dancer in NYC, straight out of film school, and I came up with the idea to make a film in Cuba. We went there and connected with the independent youth scene, the artists, the activists, the journalists. I started filming their stories and bringing them back to Miami to share with local media. We found that there's a massive disconnect between the perception of reality in Cuba and the actual reality, and we work to bridge those perspectives.
Did you think that you would be here now?
Janelle: Absolutely not. Honestly this was the most humbling humanitarian experience of my life. I was moved by all of the people in the film. Throughout the journey of making the film, we cofounded Roots of Hope and had the idea for a free concert with an international artist. And five years later, through a serendiptious alignment of the stars, Juanes and others were looking to bring his Peace Without Borders concert to Cuba. It was an alignment of interests, a fresh perspective, and a unique way to bring the story of Cuban youth to the world.
What was your favorite moment of the whole decade-long experience?
Janelle: You would think that standing in front of over a million people, breathless, listening to lyrics like "Find me an island in the middle of the sea, call her Liberty" would be it. There were 1.3 million people there, but it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Even though that was an extraordinary moment where you could die tomorrow and that was a life worth living, it was quiet nights in the countryside, walking through dark streets, and looking up at the sky, thinking about different worlds connected by people that care about things that happen in the world that I treasure most.
Describe your feelings in the moments leading up to the concert.
Janelle: I was carrying the HD camera, filming all the drama. There's nothing more challenging that truly going into Cuba and putting yourself in the hot seat. It's one thing to hear about surveillance and a whole other ball game to feel it. To have your conversations recorded, to have random strangers send intimidating messages. But the most challenging moment was the big breakdown right before the concert. I remember sitting there, paralyzed, with a little tear dropping out of my eye, thinking, "Man, if these international megastars have to face this reality, I can't even fathom what it's like to live in it as an average citizen where no one knows your name." I forgot to film for a second until one of our protagonists nudged me. I was right at the center of all this drama.
What did you think of Juanes and how mad he got, cussing, and snapping on people?
Janelle: He truly showed his character in that moment and we are immensely grateful for those efforts. It's one thing to talk about it, and it's another thing to face what's wrong and stand up for it no matter the consequences.
How did you get such great access?
Janelle: Juanes connected with the non-profit we cofounded Roots of Hope to help put on his Peace Without Borders concert in Cuba. I immediately expressed an interest in filming. I knew it would reveal something rare and unique, and about 72 hours later we had a meeting. I sat down with him at his house. From there, I became part of the delegation for the performance and I was filming behind the scenes.
What else happened that the cameras might not have seen?
Chris Gueits: We had been hearing in the 48 hours leading up to the concert that people were being detained, or were not being allowed to get to the capital. People were excluded and told, "You can't be here." There were even interrogations behind the scenes. From the outside, there's real fear. It can feel like a crazy dream. But we're not naive. You step into the fire, you can get burnt. That's why it's important for artists like Juanes to step up.
Janelle: We were not looked upon favorably by the government. In Cuba, you either stand in line and follow all their protocols and policies or, if you're independent, you're treated as a threat or potential enemy.
What did it mean to you to make groups like Los Aldeanos and Orishas central to the movie?
Janelle: That's our biggest accomplishment. When Juanes was exploring ideas to make the concert have more impact, we suggested featuring independent artists like X Alfonso, Orishas, and Los Aldeanos. We knew we had to provide Juanes the insight into how the Cuban government works so it wouldn't be co-opted.
Were people able to view the concert live outside of Cuba?
Janelle: Part of the contract was for the concert to be offered on a feed around the world in Latin America, the U.S., Japan, Korea, Germany, Thailand, Spain, Italy. It was an international phenomenon. It was so unique for the world to see Cuba for the first time in a long time.
How does the movie address the new U.S.-Cuba relations?
Chris: We finished just days before the announcement and this film has the extraordinary opportunity to speak to the power of engaging and the threats of engaging in irresponsible ways. This point in history is monumental. We were born and raised in the County of Dade. So this is, in many ways, a passion project, our life's work. And to be able to share it is a dream come true. It's an honor and we're excited.
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13 Million Voices. Directed by Janelle Gueits. Screening as part of Miami Dade College's Miami International Film Festival 2015. 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, and 4 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-643-8706; towertheatermiami.com. Tickets cost $13 via miamiff-tickets.com.
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