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Cuban documentary making sends UCL students spinning

1 November 2007

Footage of a spinning Cuban ballet dancer in a dusty building in the centre of Havana provides the opening to a film that exposes the massive contrast between British and Cuban ballet – and life. This image is from ‘Contrapunto’, translated ‘Counterpoised’ in English. The film soon switches into a to and fro that contrasts Cuban dancers’ life, strength and drive to escape poverty with British ballet’s affluence – a wealth that doesn’t always produce better results.

Ballerinas and director

It is one of two documentaries made by UCL students during an intensive UCL-run course at the San Antonio de los Baños International Film & Television School. The obvious affection its maker has for Cuba leaves me wondering what it’s like to be back in the UK after a month-long course by top filmmakers in the legendary country of revolution and sunshine: Cuba.

Back in Britain, the knock-on effects of the Cuban experience are apparent. This month the UCL filmmakers’ debut films were shown in public for the first time at a festival at the UCL Bloomsbury theatre. Excitement escalated on the first day of the ‘UCL Festival of the Moving Image’ when the great British filmmaker Ken Loach confirmed that he would attend. As if that wasn’t enough, the student films have been shown alongside films by old greats of Latin American cinema, including that of one of the founders of Latin American film: Fernando Birri.

Filmmakers, fellow students from the course and friends bustle around the UCL filmmakers during the break after the opening night’s films have been shown. And this isn’t just a flash in the pan. The students are planning to enter their films into this year’s Havana Film Festival. One of the students, Chantal Connaughton, who is now in her second year of an MA in Hispanics at UCL, is hoping to go to Lebanon to work on another documentary.

Chantal, whose film ‘El que se casa, casa quiere’, translated as ‘Home Sweet Home’, looks at where couples have sex given the housing shortages in Cuba, says: “Cuba was an amazing place to film in. Walking around Havana you could do a documentary about everything you see. We thought that our documentary would be a tongue-in-cheek exposé about the myth of Latin lovers. But after talking to people – and everyone’s got their story to tell – we found that there was something profound to say about the housing crisis in Cuba and the impact it has on sex out there. You can’t have sex at home easily because you usually share it with three or four generations of family. These massive households don’t offer much privacy and that changes how and where Cubans have sex.

Rebecca Radmore at Bloomsbury

“The course has given me an amazing opening that’s woken me up to the industry. So much time, planning and work goes into documentary making. It’s a real team effort. If I hadn’t got the bursary from UCL Futures I would have spent the summer dreaming my life away.”

The students received one-to-one tutoring with one of the most prolific figures in Cuban film and TV: Enrique Colina. After this initial training, the students had three days to film a ten-minute documentary and were assigned a professional crew including an editor, cinematographer, sound and lighting crew as well as a producer and translator.

Rebecca Radmore (UCL Modern Iberian Latin American Regional Studies 2007), the maker of ‘Contrapunto’, says: “We were given two weeks of intensive training that completely transformed my ideas on how a documentary can and should be made. Most of our time was spent at the school in the first weeks and later we had the privilege of taking classes at the ICAIC (equivalent of the BFI) in the centre of Havana. This was really inspiring because I’d already read and watched so many of the great works to come out of there during my degree course at UCL.”

Chantal adds: “During my MA year Professor Stephen Hart kept telling me I needed to start thinking about the mechanical processes of films. Since Cuba and making a film myself, I can’t sit and watch a documentary without picking it apart. I had no hands-on experience before going. I was a complete novice. Cuba was the thing I was waiting for.”

Attendance at the Cuban school was made possible by the financial support of alumni and friends giving through UCL Futures.

To find out more use the links at the top of this article.

By Alex Brew, UCL D&CCO

Image 1: Ballet dancers whose experience in a Cuban ballet school was documented in ‘Contrapunto’

Image 2: The UCL student documentary maker, Rachel Radmore, who received a bursary to attend the Cuban film school