Natasha Tsangarides, the newest member of the Rice N Peas team, talks about the making of the latest Cuba documentary and the notions of identity, freedom and democracy in a post-Castro Cuba.
What sparked your interest in documentary film-making and how did you end up with Rice N Peas?
I have always had an interest in documentaries but purely from watching them, and I enjoyed attending screenings and Q&A sessions with film-makers. When I came across Rice N Peas Films, I felt they really stood out in the field in terms of the balanced way stories were reported. RNP documentaries also don’t contain narrative, which is something that always bothered me about a lot of other documentaries. RNP documentaries are more objective; they tend to throw up questions, rather then give answers. I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers for some time, both abroad and in the UK, and am fascinated by the means of representation employed by the media. Good reporting on the subject is extremely rare, with the most common forms of portrayal at best being poorly researched, and at worst inciting xenophobia. I have been writing a research paper on asylum seekers in the UK with the aim of highlighting injustices within the system and influencing policy. However, recognising the power of the media and the desperate need to influence public opinion, I wanted to gain experience in film-making in order to produce a fair and honest portrayal of the subject in the future. I had a shot at producing a three-minute short film on London and ended up winning a Newsnight
competition. This gave me the impetus and confidence to enter the field of documentary making. Committed to making purely socio-political documentaries, I applied to Rice N Peas Films, attracted by their ethos, online magazine, and objective reporting.
What is the latest documentary about?
Our latest documentary is called With or Without Fidel
, which is basically a snapshot of Cuba at this fragile moment in history when Fidel is sick and the country will be entering a phase of transition. We capture the mood in Cuba, including people’s fears and aspirations for the future. The documentary can be seen as a debate, where a cross section of people from all layers of Cuban society thrash out their thoughts on the future, on democracy and what they conceive “freedom” to be.
What is different about this film to the previous Rice N Peas documentary on Cuba, Hasta Siempre?
was RNP’s first documentary on Cuba. It is a more humane film, where viewers build strong relationships with particular characters, gaining an insight into individual lives. With or Without Fidel
offers more of a critical analysis of politics and society, rather than an intimate portrayal of particular characters. The fact that we are looking at specific issues such as freedom of speech and political representation makes it a more highbrow film, which in a way, could mean we are appealing to a smaller audience. We have interviewed very prominent members of Cuba’s political and intellectual realms this time, creating what could be seen more as a debate than a “story.”
What is the mood of the people like? Are they worried for Fidel and can you feel this on the street?
I was very surprised throughout our trip to find life going on as normal despite Fidel’s sickness. In fact, no one was even discussing his health. When we asked people about it, the majority refused to acknowledge that he may well be dying. People would simply respond, “He is getting better.” For a nation who has known no other leader for almost 50 years, it is very difficult for people to conceive life without him. People are certainly worried but they are more hopeful. The man has been through a lot, including over 600 assassination attempts!.... So I think people believe he can survive this too.
Who did you speak to?
With the over-riding aim of producing a fair and balanced documentary, we carefully chose who we were going to speak to. We spoke to a wide range of characters including ordinary people, street sellers, intellectuals, the country’s most prominent dissidents, Mariela Castro, and the President of the National Assembly.
Did you have any problems filming?
At the beginning of the trip, we were quite fearful to start filming as we had entered the country illegally as tourists, hoping to skip the tedious bureaucratic line by gaining our journalist visas in country. Once secured, the problems we faced were two-fold: filming using available light sources and more bureaucracy! Both unavoidable, both deeply frustrating!!
Were you worried about the police?
The police and surveillance is a big part of the Cuban landscape. Having interviewed some of the country’s most prominent dissidents, we became worried about the police and intelligence services. There was one occasion when we met a group of Croatian journalists recently returned from Iraq, who talked of an Argentinean journalist who had conducted an interview with Ozwaldo Paya, the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, and had his car crushed soon after. Having interviewed Ozwaldo Paya ourselves earlier that week, we became even more paranoid than we were before. We had been stopped on a few occasions by both uniformed and plain-clothed police, following interviews with political activists, so we took precautionary measures which I won't mention, to secure our footage.
Why was there a need to make a second documentary about Cuba post-Fidel?
With Hugo Chavez making a public announcement about Fidel’s health, we decided that if anything were to happen to Fidel in the upcoming weeks, we should be there to record it. We wanted to capture the legacy Fidel will leave, the impact he has had on people’s lives, and how society will cope or react without him. Fidel is a controversial figure, almost a mythic figure, so we wanted to explore what has given him this status from the Cuban perspective.
How long did the film take to make?
The production phase took six weeks, which really is not a very long time. Within six weeks in Cuba, we had successfully negotiated access, researched locations, infiltrated the intellectuals’ circuit and secured interviews with some of the most high profile people of Cuban society. The editing process, together with organising screenings and marketing, which is all done in-house, has taken another two months.
This is your first film with Rice N Peas. What have you learned and how has this experience differed do you think from working in a conventional production house?
This is a big question! I have learnt so much that it is difficult to synthesize. Because the company is not conventional, I have been involved in every stage of making the documentary. This includes pre-production research, setting budgets, arranging interviews, conducting the interviews, filming, sound, digitising footage, assisting on creating the storyboard, sitting in the edit, marketing, and the list goes on… This is not simply due to financial constraints but rather due to the democratic nature of decision-making and the Director of Rice N Peas, Ishmahil Blagrove’s, drive for each RNP member to be an all-rounder, guerrilla film-maker.
The budget for the making of the film is also different from conventional practice…so low that others would actually find it unbelievable. Put it this way; what other companies would spend on hotel expenses alone paid for our entire trip. We had a very strict budget, which meant that we walked 12 to 15 kilometres a day with all our equipment, in order to save $10 on taxis. Being on a shoestring budget actually helped us make the story though. Food and drink expenses only extended to “Cuban only” places, enabling us to infiltrate society more easily.
On the ground, Rice N Peas always travels light. In Cuba, for the most part it was just Ishmahil and me. On the one hand, this is an amazing experience because you really are pushed to the limits and forced to learn fast and think quick. On the other hand, we would always feel a slight pang of jealousy when we would see big production teams with, for example, a sole person on sound! When you are just two people, you have to be more versatile, and sleep less! We didn’t have money for basic things like a fixer so it was down to us to be opportunistic, infiltrate events, build networks, and secure access. To be so grassroots in your approach to film-making, I believe, worked to our advantage: people trusted us and respected us for our commitment to the product and our innovative techniques.
How does the blockade affect the population?
The blockade is an inescapable and omnipresent force that affects every sphere of public life in Cuba. It has economic, social and cultural effects and hurts every member of Cuban society. It impedes trade, limits tourism, and curbs industrial expansion. Fidel has described it as an “economic genocide,” because it attempts to strangle Cuba’s development. It makes the goals of the Revolution hard to attain; with limited pens and paper in circulation, schools are forced to develop efficient recycling techniques, and many doctors we spoke to talked of the frustration they felt in having to purchase important medical equipment from markets further a field. Mariela Castro, who is Head of the National Sex Education Society, explained how buying condoms for the population of Cuba is three times as expensive because they have to buy it from Europe and Japan, rather than the US.
Together with the socialist ideology, I think it has shaped the character of the nation; people are resilient and innovative, with a strong and urgent sense of solidarity as they continue to fight and resist against imperial tactics.
What are your ambitions for the film?
The documentary throws up questions to do with identity, democracy, and freedom, which are relevant not only to Cuba but really have a universal message. I hope the film encourages people to really think about what these sorts of issues mean, rather than what one is told to think about them. Cuba gets a lot of negative press, particularly in the US, so I hope the film will work to correct some of the negative propaganda and give some insight into how people really live and what people think about things like political representation. I would really like the people in Cuba to enjoy the film. It is extremely rare to hear the points of view of such a varied mix of people, discussing similar issues.
What else is RNP up to?
We have a few ideas in the pipeline, which are in the pre-production research phase. I don’t want to give too much away, but themes include the experience of the Aboriginal population in Australia, an exploration of mercenaries, and asylum in the UK. We are also going to publish a book on Cuba, which goes into more detail about the issues covered in our film.
What do you believe will happen to Cuba post-Fidel?
This is a difficult question. I think that Fidel’s status in Cuba will rise even more, becoming a martyr figure like Che Guevara and Jose Marti. Cuba is in a position now where the internal contradictions such as consumerism and inequality are at odds with the socialist pillars of the Revolution. I think that there will be enormous pressure to resolve the economic problems plaguing the country as this seems to be the most pressing demand within society. Our documentary explores what people want in a post-Fidel era and how people hypothesize society developing in the future. I would recommend people to come and watch the film, take on the multitude of opinions on offer, and make up their own minds!
With or Without Fidel
PREMIERE + Q&A: 29th June, 6.50 pm
Tricycle Cinema, 269 Kilburn High Road, NW6, BOX OFFICE: 020 7372 6611
1st June 2007