Guest post by Jeanette Clausen.
Catching up with Cuba presents two films focused on the importance of mentors for children and youth. Conducta (Behavior, 2014) by Cuban filmmaker Ernesto Daranas Serrano shines a critical lens on Cuban education. The film was widely screened in Cuba and prompted discussion of problems in the education system. Ghost Town to Havana (2015) is a documentary by Eugene Corr about two youth baseball teams, one in a poor Havana neighborhood and one in inner-city Oakland, California. Roscoe, the Oakland coach, is a volunteer who wants to offer poor kids an alternative to the city’s rampant gang violence. Nicolas, the coach in Havana, is a professional paid by the state. While both films received favorable attention at international film festivals, the primary audience for Conducta is Cuba, while Ghost Town is primarily addressed to US viewers.
Shortly after its release in 2014, Conducta was described as taking Cuba by storm. It is easy to see why. The story of Chala, a 6th-grade boy who lives with his drug-addicted mom in Havana, is very engaging. The film is fast moving, superbly acted, and replete with dramatic elements that grip viewers emotionally. Chala tries to earn money for his mother and himself by raising pigeons for sale and training dogs to fight. His best friend and ally is his teacher, Carmela, who is nearing retirement age. Other people who touch his life daily are his schoolmates, whose taunts he counters with his fists; Yeni, a girl he has a crush on; Ignazio, a macho neighbor who organizes dogfights; and the teacher who takes over while Carmela recovers from a heart attack. Chala’s combative behavior results in his transfer to a “re-education” school, an intervention that Carmela vehemently opposes. Here is the crux of the problem: a well-intentioned but rigid bureaucracy that cannot accommodate “deviants” — boys like Chala, independent-minded teachers like Carmela, and families like Yeni and her dad, who fear expulsion because they do not have a legal residence in Havana. See the film to learn the outcome of the various dilemmas.
While Conducta tells a story that encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions, Ghost Town presents parallel stories that eventually come together, through the efforts of the filmmaker and the coaches. Initially, they facilitate communication between the two teams by exchanging videos. We get to know the personalities and goals as well as the problems of individual players. In Cuba, a couple of boys preparing to participate in a national competition must be pushed to improve their academics, in order to remain eligible. In Oakland, several players have experienced the loss of a family member to violence or had stints in foster care. Roscoe also undergoes a crisis when his wife leaves him and they divorce; yet he rises to the occasion and accompanies the team to Havana. Check out the film to learn the outcomes of the visit, including some bad news for one of the Oakland players. At the very end, we also learn what several players are doing a couple of years after the film was completed.
Throughout the film, Corr intersperses a running commentary to inform US viewers about the Cuban system of opportunities for all children to participate in organized sports, and presents a historical context for youth baseball, in part through reflections on his father’s coaching career. He also comments on the disappearance of youth baseball teams in predominantly minority areas in US cities:
“Economically-deprived Cuba offers multiple opportunities to its poorest kids to participate in organized youth sports. [In the US], college and professional scouts cherry-pick elite inner city athletes for the multi-billion dollar businesses of college and professional sports while ignoring the needs of the vast majority of inner city kids to play and participate in sports.”
Conducta was Cuba’s nominee for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It received awards for best film, best director, and best actress (Alina Rodríguez, who plays Carmela) at the Málaga Spanish Film Festival, the Havana Star Prize for best film at the 15th Atlanta Film Festival, and was recognized at several international film festivals as well.
Ghost Town to Havana won the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Audience Award, the Syracuse International Film Festival Sophie Award, and the Basel Shehade Award for Social Justice, among others. Roberto Chile, Corr’s co-director in Cuba, is a recognized cinematographer, photographer, and documentary filmmaker.
The film series Catching Up with Cuba is sponsored by CUBAmistad; School of Education; Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; Documentary Center for Research and Practice; Hamilton Lugar School of International Studies; La Casa, Latino Cultural Center; Cultural Studies Program; Hands to Cuba; Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry; Danny Smith Ballpark; Black Film Center/Archive; and IU Cinema.
Jeanette Clausen studied at IU in the 1960s, when the venue for international films was the Von Lee Theater on Kirkwood. She enjoys the many opportunities to support and participate in the arts in Bloomington, especially film and theatre. She is happy to have been a part of bringing two Cuban films to the IU Cinema this year.