South African Brian Tilley was the series director on Al Jazeera’s upcoming My Cuba, produced from Cape Town by Big World Cinema.
Tilley visited Cuba with Al Jazeera executive producer Sylvia Hines for research in October 2015, three months after the country restored diplomatic relations with America. He made three more trips between December and April 2016, directing four documentaries and mentoring a Cuban director on another two.
Each documentary follows a Cuban from a different walk of life, offering a rare glimpse of the country behind the headlines. The series features TV comedian Luis Silva (Pánfilo), ballet dancer Laura Rodriguez, community worker and Female Rumba Association founder Regla Gonzalez, rural shoe maker Alexis Martinez Pena, wedding and event planner Ailed Guevara, and Jose Enrique Gomez, whose job is to make sure his neighbourhood have the best fireworks, lighting and float displays at the Las Parrandas carnival, even if it means preparing 150,000 handmade fireworks
“Generally we all live in this bubble of globalisation,” says Tilley. “Cuba doesn’t. It’s still very different from the rest of the world. It’s always surprising, never predictable, and makes you think about a lot of things the rest of the world takes for granted.”
These differences are obvious watching My Cuba. Infamously, the internet is a recent arrival in Cuba, where it’s still only accessible to most people as wifi in public squares, which makes browsing the internet a social rather than solitary experience. Similarly, private phone lines are still rare enough in some areas that they can be rented out to the community.
“Cuba is fascinating in so many ways,” says Tilley. “The tourist industry is now booming but the country is still one of the few remaining socialist states, so a taxi driver will earn 30 dollars before lunch on tips and a doctor will earn 30 dollars a month. There are amazing things that work really well and other things that go against anything you’ve been brought up to believe.”
My Cuba is the follow-up to Al Jazeera’s successful 2015 My Nigeria series, which won a Bronze at the New York Festivals and was short-listed for a One World Media award. Tilley was the series director on My Nigeria, which was also produced from Cape Town by Big World Cinema.
The My … series was conceived and commissioned by Ingrid Falck, head of documentaries at Al Jazeera English, as part of the network’s commitment to giving people from the global south a platform to bring their own stories, in their own words, directly to the world.
My Cuba screens on Al Jazeera English from 22 August 2016. For more information, visit www.aljazeera.com/mycuba.
Episode summary and schedule:
Luis Silva: Being Panfilo (1830 SAST, Thursday, 25 August)
37 year-old Luis Silva transforms himself daily into 78-year-old Pánfilo Epifanio, who made international headlines in March 2016 with a sketch with Barack Obama. Luis was recently voted Cuba’s most popular entertainer, while his satirical TV show Vivir del Cuento is a weekly appointment for most Cubans. Watch and embed the teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj00QfqT7ZA.
Laura Rodriguez: To Dance (1830, Thursday, 1 September)
Laura and her boyfriend, Jesus, are both dancers with Carlos Acosta’s new company, Acosta Danza, in central Havana. The film follows Laura as she fights to recover from a serious knee injury so that she can dance with Acosta at his last ever performance in Cuba. Watch and embed the teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6dFABOPGck.
Jose Enrique Gomez: El Presidente (1830, Thursday, 8 September)
Jose is El Presidente of the El Carmen neighbourhood in Remedios in central Cuba. Every 24th December the sleepy town of Remedios turns into a massive party as the two neighbourhoods compete in a carnival called Las Parrandas. Jose has been coaxed back this year to bring glory to El Carmen after five years of depressing defeats by their fierce rivals San Salvador. Watch and embed the teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4XvwUORJrI.
Regla Gonzalez: Rumba Roots (1830, Thursday, 15 September)
Regla Gonzalez is the coordinator at the Nelson Barrera Community Centre in La Marina, Matanzas, a former slave port said to be the birthplace of rumba music and renowned for its Afro-Cuban culture. Having set up a choir for senior citizens and founded the Female Rumba Association, she now has her sights set on a percussion class for the children of La Marina.
Alexis Martinez Pena: The Countryman (1830, Thursday, 22 September)
Alexis Martinez Pena is a former teacher and father of two who swapped life in the city for a remote village, San Pablo de Yao, famous for its coffee production. Frustrated with what he felt to be the over-centralisation of the school system in Cuba, Alexis left his job to work as a shoemaker and clown.
Ailed Guevara: Wedding Planner (1830, Thursday, 29 September)
Ailed Guevara is a wedding and event planner who has climbed to a position where she seems to ‘do’ all the big Havana events. We see her preparations for a major wedding in the iconic Hotel Nacional between a second-generation Cuban American and his Cuban bride