by Simons Chase
For a brief moment last week, entering the towering nave of the Basilica San Francisco de Asis, a 16th century baroque chapel in Havana, led not to a pious religious ceremony but to a gathering around the high altar of “diplomacy through technology” that has been woven into the fabric of U.S.-Cuba relations since President Obama reengaged with the island nation in 2015.
Completed in 1591, the chapel – or what most people would describe as a cathedral – has experienced alternating religious and secular uses over the centuries, and on Thursday, January 12th, it was the scene of the Havana premier of “Nuestro Martí” (Our Marti), a short film commissioned by Google and produced by RYOT Labs (now a part of the Huffington Post).
The film and related efforts to highlight awareness about Cuban history represent a joint effort by Google and the Office of the Historian of Havana – along with a number of other institutions and artistic contributors.
The film’s subject matter leaps back (over Castro’s 1959 revolution) to a historical figure, José Martí, who is today considered one of Cuba’s national heroes for his commitment to and vision for Cuba’s independence during the tumultuous final years of the 19th century. Martí is referred to as the “Apostle of the Cuban Revolution” and his zeal for independence coincided with a love of the United States, where he spent more than half his life.
“With the support of Google, a window opened to the world through which may circulate our imagination and other countries. This collaboration establishes a bridge and a door that no one can close,” said Eusebio Leal during the event. He is considered the main architect of the restoration of the Old Havana’s historic center and one of the most notable defenders of the country’s cultural heritage. Leal also narrates the six-minute film.
Google representatives present at the event included Brett Perlmutter, Google’s chief of strategy and operations in Cuba, and Lisa Cohen Gevelber, VP Marketing, Google.
360-degree virtual reality, the technology used to tell Marti’s story, represents a leap forward and a place where Google no doubt intends to lead its flock. Yet the film’s editorial message has more to do with replacing suspicion with trust in U.S.-Cuba relations and comes much closer to human value than to material payoff in an effort to pull the mantle of darkness away.
The film, the technology and the subject matter fit into an orchestration of events that are part of a final layer of urgency to annul the vexing complexities in U.S.-Cuba relations days prior to President Obama’s handing off of the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump’s battalion of deal makers.
Google has been cultivating a relationship with Cuba for years. Its most recent milestone came last month in an announcement it had concluded an agreement with the Cuban government to install servers on the island to support easier access to its own products and services in-country.
The Cuba Journal caught up with HuffPost RYOT and the film’s director to discuss the unique challenge of developing the film using advanced virtual reality (VR) technology.
Maria Lauret, an VR Stitcher Editor at HuffPost RYOT, says, “As filmmakers and editors we felt that the best way to tell Martí’s story in ‘Nuestro Martí was through VR. Our goal was to take the audience to all the places where José Martí had been – we wanted the viewers to experience being in the exact location where he gave his speeches and influenced so many people.”
Angel Manuel Soto, the Puerto Rican director of the film, described the principal challenge as fitting three film locations (New York City, Tampa (Florida) and Cuba) and complex historical context into a six-minute short film.
That’s where editing plays a much bigger role in producing VR films than in traditional films. According to Lauret, ‘Editing virtual reality has its distinct challenges. In VR, we put a particular focus on giving the viewer an immersive experience through film, unlike in linear filmmaking where the focus is in generating an emotion out of the viewer.”
The film will premier in New York on January 28th to mark the 164th anniversary of Martí’s birthday.
Use your VR headset to view the video below. Otherwise, Google’s Chrome browser works best. You can also view the video here.