Jessica Rodriguez says she is one of only four female directors in Cuba.
"It's mind-blowing to me that with such a rich filmmaking history, Cuban cinema still doesn't have a place for female directors," she says while collecting her long dark hair into a bun. "With this film, I'm sending a message about... how women are consistently held back."
The film she's referring to, Espejuelos Oscuros (Dark Glasses), is the director's first feature, premiering in the United States this week at the Miami International Film Festival. Rodriguez has gained wide critical acclaim for producing four exceptional documentary shorts. She now lives in Madrid but returns to the island frequently to visit family and work on various projects.
She filmed Dark Glasses in only four weeks with an extremely limited budget even though it boasts a star-studded cast, including Laura de la Uz and Luis Alberto Garcia. "I have no idea how we pulled it off," she says, adding she "was fortunate enough to work with some of Cuba's best actors."
Dark Glasses takes viewers into Pinar del Río, the lushly green valley town in the heart of provincial Cuba. From a dilapidated old mansion with faded stained-glass windows and a weathered wooden door emerges Esperanza (de la Uz), a blind woman who has answered a loud, desperate knock. "We're looking for this man, a fugitive," the visitor says. Noticing that Esperanza, a homely woman dressed in a Peter Pan-collared shirt buttoned up to her neck, is blind, he glances at his compañero and realizes their visit is futile.
Back inside, Esperanza is accosted by the fugitive in question, a brawny Garcia with dreadlocks and green eyes alight with recklessness. Esperanza is held hostage by her captor, and the only way to prevent him from taking advantage of her is to tell him her stories — tales of courageous women throughout three periods of Cuban history: the 1970s, when communist ideologies were fiercely at their peak; the late 1950s, when word of a revolution was brewing and Cuban citizens were torn into two factions; and the late 1800s, when Cuban rebels were battling for independence from Spain.
"Everyone has a story to tell, but once you've told it, your story ends and your character dies," Esperanza says. But she herself has a story to tell – and when she removes her mask, the audience finds the woman that lies beneath. "She's definitely unexpected in the sense that she turns on the audience," the filmmaker says. "The way she's portrayed isn’t who she is in reality, and I think that was really the point I wanted to drive home — that women can be kaleidoscopic and not always appear to be as they are."
Through three passionate female characters – all played by de la Uz – Rodriguez confronts the worn-out societal narrative of women in Cuba. Historically machista, Cuban society places women on a pedestal, where they can be protected and watched over. Even in a postrevolutionary landscape, Cuban society doesn't support female entrepreneurship. The stigma, Rodriguez says, is changing but still has a long way to go.
"We've been kept at bay. We're expected to behave in a certain way and act a certain way," she notes. "So I wanted to tell stories of women who have acted differently, who have gone against what is expected of them because of passion or love or bravery."
And by choosing to concentrate on three eras that defined the island nation, Rodriguez's Dark Glasses highlights the double life Cuban citizens have led since the dawn of the nation's struggle for independence — the secrets they've hidden behind the lenses of their dark glasses. Through carefully crafted narrative arcs, surprising revelations, and images of iconic Cuban architecture and dress, Dark Glasses is both nostalgic and artfully forward-thinking — a sign that Rodriguez is most definitely a rising star to watch.
Espejuelos Oscuros (Dark Glasses) Premieres Friday, March 11, at 9:30 p.m. at Cinépolis, 3015 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove. For tickets, visit miamifilmfestival.com.