filming in Cuba

In Conversation: Jauretsi Saizarbitoria Discusses Cuban Films at Sundance 2017

It is no surprise, given both the historic and present context, that Cuba earns an outsized impact at one of the world’s most important film festivals by punching way above its weight.

This year, Cuba’s gifts will even brighter at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. In addition to two documentary premiers, the island nation will be represented by a documentary showcase: “Made in Cuba” — a series of three Cuban short documentaries, presented in collaboration with the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, La Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV) and the Guardian Multimedia Program.

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The Cuba Journal caught up with Jauretsi Saizarbitoria of the New Cuba to discuss Cuba’s influence at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and her experience working in the Cuban film scene.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is featuring a number of Cuba-related films. Which of this year’s films are about Cuba or were shot in Cuba?

It’s a bit of a Cuba takeover at Sundance. All 5 films showing at the fest were shot in Cuba. Two of the feature films I worked on are having their world premiere, Major Lazer documentary and the Buena Vista Social Club sequel. One was directed by an American (Austin Peters) and the other a British Los Angelean (Lucy Walker). Then there are also 3 short films that were workshopped in Cuba last year by the Sundance Labs Program. I’m so thrilled that some Cuban-born filmmakers are able to tell their story, and morever that a US Institute nurtured these projects to fruition (although one of the short directors is Columbian I believe).

In essence, I feel that all these films bottled up 2016 in Cuba, which was a paramount year of engagement between US-Cuba, and these stories are a testament that we need to keep moving forward with Obama’s plan of normalization simply because we’ve all seen such a shift in only 2 years. It’s important to note that some of the changes in their system are not due to American engagement, but simply just a natural internal progression of their own society as they struggle to redefine the Revolution, repair their economy, and maintain certain ideals. This of course comes with tons of conflicts and contradictions that the Cuban people will need to solve for themselves. I feel that this particular batch of films tells a fresh perspective of the island culture today.

fast and furious cuba
From the Havana set of Fast & Furious 8. Image by Cuba Journal

You’ve been involved in the Cuban film scene for years. Did you work on any of this year’s Sundance films that are Cuba-related?

In addition to the two film I mentioned, I’ve been coming to Cuba for almost 20 years now and worked on my first documentary here in the early 2000’s. To be honest, that film (entitled “East of Havana”) informed me not only of contemporary youth culture in Cuba, but it was also a big education on the US embargo and how difficult it is for a well intentioned American to film in Cuba, and share stories between our cultures. It was the summer of of 2004 and George W Bush cracked down hard on the embargo, making it tougher to do projects in Cuba. Releasing a soundtrack proved difficult with the US laws forbidding us to pay royalties to the Cubans, so we so never released an album of the exact cuban rap movement we were covering. For both East of Havana, and the Major Lazer doc, you can see how music acts as a healing balm between both youth cultures. That first project truly woke me up to the urgency of both American and Cuban artists needing to work together. As an audience, we’ve also been robbed of US/Cuba body of work for the last 57 years. Albums like Perez Prado jamming with Rosemary Clooney all happend pre-1959-revolution. The original Buena Vista collabo (with Ry Cooder) recorded 20 years ago, was an exception to the rule. The new Major Lazer doc shows both countries cross-pollinating all over again and the powerful act of music diplomacy.

How is Cuba working with film projects that want access to the island nation’s amazing people, architecture and natural beauty? Is it easy to shoot on the island?

Well, some sectors are easier than others, it depends on the characters you choose to follow. Ultimately, Cuba is very strict about paperwork, for example, feature films require script approvals. Then there is location permits, equipment clearance, press credentials, work visas, etc. A filmmaker cannot push too many buttons regarding politics. The answer depends on what type of project you’d like to create down there. Conversely speaking, there is still a US embargo in place, which means there is a whole other slew of OFAC approvals and proper licenses that can also hold you back, punishable by major fines from the US State Dept. Its a big mine-field on both sides. The climate of relations and rules fluctuates according to who the US President is, and of course now Raul’s entrance. It’s one big game of tango that has lasted half a century. We seem to be on the better end of it now, and hope that our countries will continue to collaborate further in cinema, music, and the arts. (Crossing fingers Trump doesn’t squash relations and build a new proverbial wall with the island nation).

What draws you to Cuba?

The initial reason for my journey to Cuba was to understand my history, my culture, and heritage (as a Cuban-American). But the more I experienced Cuba, the more I was able to see the bigger picture, in terms of what their global contribution will be moving forward. Today I’m drawn to the island for all it’s potential. Cuba is dismissed as a place that is stuck in the past, and it can tend to be covered in the news with too many decayed pastel buildings and 1950’s cars. But if you can stop to look beyond all those cliche’s, the younger generation are very futuristic in imagination, unlike any other youth culture I’ve met. Perhaps it’s because they have been creating in a vacuum which can make their work seem to march to its own beat — from film to fashion to tech. I believe that given all the occurrences of 2016, they are entering a new era of creative expression… a renaissance of sorts. So its exciting to be watching this from the inside.

Here is Jauretsi’s description of each film:

Give Me Future: Major Lazer in Cuba”  – Director: Austin Peters / USA – FEATURE FILM

In the spring of 2016, global music sensation Major Lazer performed a free concert in Havana, Cuba—an unprecedented show that drew an audience of almost half a million. This concert documentary evolves into an exploration of youth culture in a country on the precipice of change. World Premiere U.S.A., Cuba.Austin Peters is a director living in New York. Raised in Los Angeles, he went on to study film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has directed two short-form documentaries: Braids, starring Lupita Nyong’o for Vogue, and NYC, 1981, a companion piece to the recent film A Most Violent Year. His music videos for Chvrches’ “Empty Threat” was named one of the 10 best music videos of 2015 by Rolling Stone.

“Buena Vista Social Club Doc / ‘Untitled'”- Director: Lucy Walker / USA, UK-FEATURE FILM

The musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club exposed the world to Cuba’s vibrant culture with their landmark 1997 album. Now, against the backdrop of Cuba’s captivating musical history, hear the band’s story as they reflect on their remarkable careers and the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together. World Premiere.Lucy Walker is an Emmy Award–winning director and two-time Academy Award–nominee. She is renowned for creating riveting, character-driven nonfiction that delivers emotionally and narratively. Her films—including Waste Land, The Crash Reel, Devil’s Playground, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, and The Lion’s Mouth Opens—have won over 100 awards and honors. Her new film, the untitled Buena Vista Social Club documentary, is her fifth feature (and ninth film) to screen in official Sundance Film Festival selection.“Connection” or “Conectifai” – Director: Zoe GarciaETECSA—Cuba’s only telephone company—installed Wi-Fi routers in 18 public parks in 2016. For many Cubans, this meant being able to go online for the first time. Now connected to a technology that is entirely new to them, we see how Cubans explore social media, online dating, and the ability to reconnect with family members living just 90 miles away. U.S. Premiere
Director Zoe Garcia graduated in mass communication studies, specializing in photography, at the Higher Institute of Art in Havana, Cuba. In 2008 she took a course on documentary cinema and TV at the International School of Film and TV in Cuba. Garcia has worked as a screenwriter, assistant director, and photographer.

 “Great Muy Bien” – Director: Sheyla Pool

After the United States restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, it was no longer unrealistic for Cubans to dream of one day living and working abroad. Citizens of all ages, with diverse aspirations, enroll at the makeshift Big Ben English school in Havana in order to prepare themselves for a future of normalized relations between Cuba and the United States.

Director Sheyla Pool graduated from the University of Havana in Hispanic languages and in sound from the International School of Film and TV at San Antonio de los Baños. She wrote and directed Protege a tu familia and Frágil. Pool was a consultant for the script of Esteban. Currently she is working on the script for Vínculos.

“Casa en Venta” or “House for Sale” – Director: Emanuel Giraldo

After over 50 years, the ban disallowing citizens of Cuba from selling their own houses is lifted. Three Cuban families invite us into their homes as a showcase to prospective buyers — to hear their “sales pitch.” Filled with memories, souvenirs, and family members, these intimate spaces are filled with affection, highlighting a country on the verge of historical change.

Director Emanuel Giraldo Betancur was born in Medellin, Columbia in 1989 and graduated in film directing from the International School of Cinema and Television. Some of his projects are 1,2,3. . . Let’s Dance! and Amapearte. In December 2015, he participated in Nuevas Miradas in Cuba with House for Sale (2016 Sheffield Doc/Fest), which was supported by Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program.

About Jauretsi Saizarbitoria

Jauretsi is “a New York based Cuban Culture Hunter”  (Billboard Magazine)

Her mission:
I am a Cuban-American who has been visiting the motherland for nearly 20 years, just as long as I have been living in New York, where I excelled in the field of Media. Over the years, my print and media clients have included Conde Nast, eBay, Pharrell Williams’  I Am Other , The Standard Hotel, and a bevy of Luxury clients. To view my American media work, visit On the side, I have always been deeply impassioned by my Cuban roots (as Cubans do so well), thus my complicated journey back to the island with all the joy and sorrow it brought.

In Conversation: Jauretsi Saizarbitoria Discusses Cuban Films at Sundance 2017 was last modified: December 27th, 2016 by Simons Chase