Cuba’s Illogical Temple the Subject of a Student Academy Award-Winning Film
A fine Student Academy Award-winning documentary made several years ago by University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, is the focus of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com). If you get a chance to see the film on your local educational television or public access channels, I highly recommend it.
Cuba’s Illogical Temple the Subject of a Student Academy Award-Winning Film
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The illogical nature of Cuba is explored in a Student Academy Award-winning documentary made by area student journalists whose reporting odyssey there reveals a people in love with their country despite its oppression. The risk of practicing independent journalism in Cuba is dramatically discovered by the students, who find some sources are government spies and one reporter profiled is among many dissidents later jailed.
The documentary is the result of an ambitious in-depth reporting project that sent about a dozen University of Nebraska-Lincoln student journalists to Miami and Cuba last year. The film offers a micro-macro view of the small island nation that’s loomed so large in U.S. politics and in Cuban exiles’ hearts and minds. The reporting team conducted more than 180 interviews with a cross-section of laborers, journalists, politicos and business leaders for the honored film, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, and a Pulitzer-nominated magazine, Cuba: An Elusive Truth. The film also won the national Eric Sevareid Award.
The film is the first UNL entry to win an award in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ national competition. The hour-long film by Lindsey (Kealy) Gill and David Pittock is a complex meditation on the rich dichotomy of the last Communist hold-out in the Western Hemisphere. About the award-winning film, Gill said, “I guess I’m most proud of the sheer magnitude of what we took on in reporting on such an amazing, strange country.” She and Pittock were in the Los Angeles area last week for film industry-related activities culminating in the Student Oscar ceremonies on Sunday, June 13 at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. That night, the pair learned their film won a bronze medal in the documentary category and a corresponding cash prize of $2,000. The silver and gold medals (with cash prizes of $3,000 and $5,000) went to filmmakers from the University of California-Berkeley.
An award can create buzz in the industry. Already, such major film companies as Lion’s Gate and First Run Features have expressed interest in seeing the film. Gill and Pittock hope it’s selected to play a major festival, where it could get picked up for theatrical/video release. Some PBS stations have already acquired it.
As the Cuba project’s only broadcast majors, Gill and Pittock were its designated filmmakers. They collaborated in producing, directing, shooting, editing and writing the film. Gill, a UNL grad, is now a KMTV Channel 3 associate news producer, while UNL grad student Pittock is finishing up his master’s. Both want filmmaking in their future. “Travel the world and make documentaries. That would probably be my dream job. I love the fact it combines filmmaking and journalism,” Gill said.
“This experience makes me want to do more. To see the world and to document people, their lives and their personal stories. I would love to work on a narrative film. It’s opened up a lot of doors,” Pittock said.
The film explores Cuba from many perspectives, including that of rank and file Cuban nationals and government officials, Cuban exiles, U.S. officials and the students themselves. For most of the students, who studied the country’s history and culture prior to the trip, this was their first time in a nation with a state controlled media and where the penalty for crossing the party line can be grave.
The oppressive Castro regime is an ever-present character in the film. The high risk run by reporters daring to tell the truth is personally brought home when one of two independent journalists profiled turns out to be a spy. Upon their return home, the students discover the man posing as a journalist works for the government and is responsible for denouncing the other reporter as part of a large roundup of dissidents that occured after the UNL group left. The reporter who was betrayed by his supposed colleague is now serving a jail term of 20-plus years.
“That came as a huge shock,” said Gill. “It was appalling. Heartbreaking really, because the journalist now imprisoned was such a nice man. We were in his home. When we see people like him being persecuted for what we do on a daily basis, it’s sad. We take our freedom of speech so much for granted here.” Fellow student journalist Jill Zeman says in the film, “It was always in the back of my mind…if I use this person’s name or face, they could be thrown in jail. For once, I could see how my journalism would affect one person’s life. That’s a lot of pressure to have.”
Following their return, the students also uncover they were targets of Cuba’s insidious disinformation-agitprop campaign. Gill says in the film, “We thought we were getting the truth in Cuba and most of the time we did, but it was frustrating when we got back and found out that some people had outright lied to us. Even government officials. We knew the higher up government officials were feeding us a line. They told us a lot of the things they probably thought we wanted to hear.”
Much of the film focuses on Cuba’s stark contrasts. In one sequence, Cuban exile Felix Dominguez, now living in Norfolk, Neb., tells of the harrowing journey he made by boat in fleeing dictatorship for democracy. He saw many others who did not make it. His story is contrasted with that of his daughter, Jenny, whom he left behind. Now a single mother, Jenny lives in relative Havana squalor but fiercely defends her nation and lauds the free education and health care it provides. However, the film asserts nothing is really free in Cuba, where wages are so low that nearly everybody works scama, hustles or the black market on the side.
Despite crushing poverty, strict food rationing and pervasive material shortages made worse by the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, the film shows Cubans’ spirit and passion in their celebrations, warmth and wry wit. Then there’s the hypocrisy of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro criticizing the inequities of capitalism while welcoming North American-European tourist trade whose dollars create a cruel class system of tourist and non-tourist workers.
Everyday Cubans are seen and heard guardedly telling American visitors the harsh facts of life. The face of a disenchanted government worker is blurred to protect his identity. The palpable fear of speaking one’s mind is embodied in one man who, looking into the camera, says in hushed tones, “Your tourist guide was right behind you. Maybe I’m telling you things he don’t want you to know.”
The “guide” is among the functionaries assigned the Americans in restricting them to the official red carpet itinerary, complete with its press conferences and photo ops. Despite pressures to tow the line, Pittock says he and others managed to “go off and do our own thing” — interviewing people in the streets or in private homes.
The comments of an artist identified only as Gregorio inspire the film’s title and theme. “Cuba is an illogical temple,” he says. “You have to be Cuban to see it. It doesn’t make any sense, but I love my country.” Project participant Matthew Hansen, now a Lincoln Journal-Star reporter, says in the film that to grasp Cuba is “to be able to see the illogical temple. Things can be bad in a place… poor…its people oppressed. But that guy Gregorio still loved Cuba. He didn’t want to leave. He wouldn’t leave. In a sense, that’s illogical. Well, it’s not supposed to make sense. It’s about something deeper than logic or reason. It’s about loving Cuba.”
- Cuba Wraps Up Dramatic Year Of Economic Revival (huffingtonpost.com)
- Miami Archbishop Holding Pilgrimage To Cuba For Pope’s Visit (miami.cbslocal.com)
- Castro slams ‘fracking’, frets about nuclear war (msnbc.msn.com)
- Censorship isolates Cubans (ecopoliticstoday.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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