Janelle Gueits is an artist, filmmaker and change-maker. Her career has spanned across artistic and social pursuits across the U.S. and worldwide as a feature film director, network television producer, choreographer, social activist and international speaker. Gueits has produced and managed television productions for VH1, CW, TruTV, Discovery and Telemundo and was part of the producing team of seasons one and two of “The Voice” on Telemundo. (Press materials)
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
JG: “13 Million Voices” is a beautiful, 10-year (2004-2014) journey of intertwining storylines in Cuba that collide in one of the biggest concerts ever and a record-breaking peace event that changed the course of history. The story involves Cuban youth, global rock stars and Cuban politics. Much of the film is personal to me as a Cuban-American, and the footage is a result of my work on the island alongside my peers and the film’s protagonists.
You will see guerrilla-style footage I’d shot over the years, a rare, all-access look behind the scenes of the international concert and interviews with Cuban change makers. This concert was a tipping point in Cuban history. It was total synchronicity when days after I finished wrapping post-production on the film, Obama announced the new era of Cuba/U.S. relations. True story!
While the film is about Cuba, it is international in scope with a universal message. It is a moving and exhilarating film driven by a deep social purpose. I am merely an instrument to the rock stars in the film, who are not only musicians, but also youth activists working behind the scenes to change Cuba’s reality. These are the change makers who deserve the world’s attention and admiration.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
JG: As a Cuban-American, I wanted to better understand my identity and my grandparents’ history. However, growing up in Miami, we are often told to keep a safe distance from the island. It was not until my days living in New York City, during and after college, that I fell in contact with Cuban youth during an unexpected trip to the island. Meeting my generational peers on the island was transformative.
Walking through the Cuban countryside and seeing the world through their eyes — their sense of isolation, their oppressive struggles, their hopes and fears — changed me. It made me realize just how lucky I was to be born in the U.S., but also how complacent we can become here. I felt I needed to challenge, expand and activate my freedom towards greater good.
In the last decade, I formed a non-profit (along with my brother and some of the film’s protagonists) that works with Cuban youth. The story emerged from what I have seen through that lens, literally and figuratively. I was drawn to address this senseless struggling. This is my contribution towards peace and the betterment of my culture and its implications on the world.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
JG: Wow. Everything! This has been a psychologically, emotionally and financially challenging project that has tested everything in my personal and professional life. Behind-the-scenes political pressure and other pressure to stop the film has affected cast members, and in doing so, troubled me deeply. Largely unknown to the American public, anyone who works with the island independent of the Cuban government comes under Cuba’s moral, ethical and psychological attacks. I could write volumes on this phenomenon.
However, at the core, the biggest challenge was truly the weight of responsibility to honor “13 Million Voices.” How do you do that?! For me, this involved crafting multiple complex, parallel storylines and featuring over 50 cast members while portraying a balanced story that accounted for diverse, international perspectives and staying true to my personal pursuit of truth.
Despite the trials and tribulations, though, I thank my lucky stars to work on a project that allows me to be an artist and social-change maker. I set out to serve others, and in the process, I have gained a richness that transcends material goods and have become the woman I am today.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
JG: To write to us and stay involved! Ultimately, I prefer for people to come to their own conclusions. Now, if I did my job well, the visceral experience will call them to ask questions and connect directly with the Cuban people — and not the “Truman Show” version of Cuba prepared for tourists. Whether it’s traveling to the island through socially conscious means or supporting the change-makers in the film, there are many ways to more consciously explore a curiosity for this exotic island that does not hurt the people. Beyond Cuba, I hope to inspire people to challenge the status quo [and to seek] peace and freedom in their own lives. If freedom is a gift, what are we doing with it?
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
JG: Follow your heart, sharpen your craft and allow no one to sway you from your calling. Then be crazy, dream wild, work your tail off and create something that matters!
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
JG: They probably don’t tell me! I suppose it is that any of this is glamorous, easy or has brought me any financial benefit to date. The reality is that this has been a lonely, heart-wrenching journey.
I have been extremely blessed to offset my sacrifices with the help of my brother (the producer), who put his dreams on hold to support mine. I have also been fortunate with editors, post teams, family and volunteers who have selflessly gone way beyond the call of duty! With all that said, you are always the last woman standing (or laying down), but always the last one… still working!
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
JG: My film was by and large bootstrapped by myself through creative endeavors such as renting units through Airbnb. It has been further supplemented through an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign with over 200 individual supporters and family who, while financially burdened, have also made sacrifices to come to the film’s aide. We also had a small grant from Roots of Hope and contributions from individuals.
Beyond finances, time and energy are the greatest resources there are. My brothers, editors, post teams, talent and volunteers have invested their talents and time because they believed in this film’s mission.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
JG: First I tackled Cuba, next is women. I have not comparatively studied female-directed films per se. I have been on a workaholic bender on this Cuban film for the better part of five years and working with the subject for ten. When I’m not working, I like to disconnect with meditative experiences and other creative media.
However, women are very present in my mind, and for my next project, I am looking at female-centered stories. I look forward to devoting this time to study more of the works of my female peers and predecessors.
Furthermore, the more I am exposed to statistics on the very low representation of women in cinema and Hollywood, the more I realize it’s my duty and that of others to come to women’s support. I feel females in general have such an extraordinary perspective, intuition and sensibility. The world would benefit greatly from honing in on the perspectives of women to help enrich the developments of our society.