Illuminating Cuban Lives

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

Just a few weeks ago, there were two announcements made by the U.S. government that marked a sharp step back from the policies of the Obama administration. The first was the State Department’s announcement that it would begin enforcing a portion of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 that had previously not been implemented. The results of this decision open the doors for lawsuits against many of the companies that do business in Cuba, from Cuban exiles whose property had been taken from them when they fled. The purpose: to wreak havoc on the Cuban economy. But even more devastating was the second announcement that same day by National Security Adviser John Bolton that there would be new strict limits on remittances—the money Cuban-Americans send to their family and friends in Cuba and on which the Cuban people depend for their survival. Travel restrictions, rolling back President Obama’s policies, are sure to follow.

It seems fitting that in this time of renewed Cold War tactics against Cuba, Provincetown residents Fermin Rojas, himself a Cuban-American, his partner Jay Kubesch, and Jeff Peters, owner of East End Books, are offering a glimpse of life in Cuba through their two documentaries at Waters Edge Cinema this Monday evening.

Peters, who is a film producer with several documentaries to his credit, will be showing the film Run Across Cuba, which follows competitive runner Alexis Garcia and his wife Marlene as they embark on a cross-country run from eastern tip to western tip of the island, more than 1,000 miles. Along the way, while Alexis runs, Marlene speaks with the ordinary people she meets about their lives and passes out new sneakers to children (and some adults) along the way. Each person they meet invites them in for coffee, opens up to Marlene and to the cameras, and displays not one ounce of bitterness. There is no energy for that; everything is about making do with what they have, working hard, and taking care of each other.

‘“We tried to show parts of the island that even a lot of Cubans aren’t able to see because you’re told you can’t just move from the village to Havana,” Peters explains. And certainly what we get to see is an incredibly beautiful place. The flip side of the economic devastation of Cuba’s isolation is the unspoiled environment so difficult to find in industrialized nations.

A still from Run Across Cuba. Courtesy of Jeff Peters.

“They’re kind of cut off, which is good and bad,” Peters agrees. “That kind of beauty that you see when we go out into the countryside is astounding… but it’s so hard to make a living. And because they don’t have what we have in the U.S.—you know, we can move around the country to try to get a better job, to follow our dreams, and they just don’t have that there,” he explains.

There is a moment in the film where a woman who has welcomed the film crew into her home says, “We are all paying for the politics.” The sentiment is echoed in Rojas’ film Alumbrones, which focuses attention specifically on working artists in Cuba. Here again, the resilience of regular everyday Cubans is reflected. Artists work around the usual problems of being an artist in the world, but add to that the rationed electricity (only a few hours a day), frequent blackouts, very little Internet access, poverty that keeps people hungry on a regular basis, and the instability of being in a country with sanctions from the U.S. government.

Asked if anything he remembers from his childhood in Cuba has stayed the same since he left when he was 6 years old, Rojas says incredulously, “Nothing has changed!” Rojas has been back and forth to Cuba over the years, the last time in 2017, and says he was able to find his father’s old hardware store, the family cemetery plot, and other markers of his childhood that remain unchanged in Cuba, except for the noticeable ravages of time and decay.

Rojas is visibly upset discussing the recent announcements, but also strongly empathizes with immigrants from Central America who are currently being detained at the US.-Mexico border. He recalls in vivid detail the ordeal of leaving Cuba and being processed for immigration in the U.S. and admits it was a much smoother process than what is happening at the border today. “As benign as that process was, it was so traumatic! I can’t imagine what we’re putting immigrants through now,” he says sadly.

Though the Cuban Movie Night was planned before these recent announcements, it makes the films all the more relevant. These are not films that look at the pros and cons of different forms of government or that outline the politics that have gone on these past 60 years. Rather, these are films that show us day to day life in an extraordinarily beautiful land with a population that is remarkable in its attitudes toward the dire circumstances in which they live. What emerges is a picture of an impoverished country, but one that also offers another way of life different from the one we have. And while few would sacrifice the relative wealth and security of our lives here, there is something to be said for a people who don’t need to look at their phones every three seconds, who let their children run and play in the marvelous outdoors, and who welcome anyone who passes through to come into their homes and talk about life, art, spirituality, the big questions of our time.

The title of Rojas and Kubesch’s film attests to this unique perspective. “Alumbrones” means “illumination” which refers to the response Cubans had to a blackout which is discussed in that film. “They said ‘we’re having an illumination’ instead of a blackout” Rojas explains, because in the dark of that night, the Cuban people carried candles to illuminate their world and get through to the next day.

Cuban Movie Night will screen at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., on Monday, May 6, 7 p.m. Admission is by donation (any amount) to Waters Edge Cinema. For more information call 508.487.FILM or visit watersedgecinema.org.

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