After graduating from Columbia University and toiling for years as a screenwriter, I finally made my feature film debut in 2013 with an independent, romantic comedy called “Missed Connections.” The film won multiple audience awards at festivals, reached number one on iTunes’ independent sales charts and The Playlist even suggested me as a “filmmaker to keep an eye on.” Things were looking up. I went to Hollywood, represented by a major talent agency, drank numerous coffees and pitched a myriad of ideas and yet something was missing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what it was, was telling stories that mattered to me and symbolized the kind of films I wanted to make. I was pitching ideas and working on scripts I thought could sell, all the while forgetting why I got into film in the first place — to tell stories of ups and downs, class and religious differences, self-identity, broken families, uprooting from one place to another. Actual life themes that had embedded to me like leaves to stone.
So after a series of false starts on various movie projects, I put writing on hold, moved with my new family from New York to Texas and focused on a tech entrepreneurial venture. Film would have to wait…only it couldn’t. Through some divine intervention, I happened upon this Indiewire article on Abbas Kiarostami’s workshop in Cuba. Abbas Kiarostami? Cuba? Here, along with Louis Malle, Eric Rohmer and Michael Haneke, was a master filmmaker whose films I was incredibly passionate about. I thought, what better way to be immersed in film, strengthen my filmic voice, grow as a writer and deepen my artistic practice, than with the master himself — in Cuba no less.
I knew I had to go on this journey so that I could find my passion again.
Weeks later, after arriving at EICTV, the renowned film school in Cuba, I was sitting in a theater, with 52 other passionate filmmakers, hearing Abbas Kiarostami, utter these words:
“I’m not here to teach, I’m here to remind you of what you already know.”
And thus began my 10-day filmmaking journey in Cuba as one of 52 participants in Abbas Kiarostami’s Workshop, produced by Black Factory Cinema in conjunction with EICTV. The program launched with a series of introductions, lectures and screenings, and culminated in each of us presenting our final short film in the Glauber Rocha Auditorium.
“Work begins with a theme,” Kiarostami told us through a translator. “It makes things easier.”
All of our films would be created with under the theme “Simply Cuba,” which was selected by Abbas himself. In 10 days, we would have to write, cast, shoot and edit our film, in addition to helping others in whatever capacity was needed. I worked as a camera operator, translator, script consultant, producer and assistant director. We would have to work under seemingly unattainable constraints, but Abbas’ certainty that we would be happy with ourselves, and our work, proved to be prophetic.
That night, we all gathered under a thatched roof on campus and shared our backgrounds, drinks and danced — a mélange of filmmakers and artists from all over the world, open to the possibilities that lay before us, each hoping to feel a pinch of Abbas Kiarostami’s magic.
On the second day, we had to “pitch” our ideas to Abbas in front of one another. “Shorts don’t necessarily give us possibility,” he said. “Keep them simple.” The purpose was not just to get his approval to move forward with filming, but for him to help us streamline our concepts: “If you can’t explain your story succinctly, you don’t know your story. Explain the image, the visuals. Who? How old? How do we see it? Imagine you’ve set the camera and are ready to roll.”
It was in the spaces between our pitches where I found most of Abbas’ pragmatic insights into filmmaking and storytelling: “Begin with the people and the location…match the characters to their real location…this doesn’t mean it will be a documentary, when you inject your story it becomes personal…short stories need an ending; you need a small adventure; something unexpected. Build the story image by image.”
That night my story would begin to take shape, fall apart more than once and transform into something new before shooting my first frame.
“Don’t fall into doubt,” Kiarostami advised. “If you see something you like, capture it.”
Black Factory and the film school arranged location visits to a tobacco factory and several neighboring villages. It was at these locations and with the locals that we were advised to find our stories. It was amazing to see how 50 different filmmakers found 50 different stories all in the same place, each of us searching for inspiration and truth both within and out. It made me think of the quote by Virginia Woolf, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
And so I listened to people’s stories, asked questions and dug deep within to guide me to my story.
By the following (fourth) day, and what already seemed like months, I was working on two other filmmakers’ shorts, translating and AD’ing during the day on one and camera operating that night on another. It was like being in film school, attended only by collaborative pros, and inhabiting a romantic character in one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels, who co-founded the Cuban school with Fidel Castro in 1986.
Everything felt magical, surreal, and I could literally feel my abilities as a filmmaker growing, and an experience, unlike any other, manifesting before me.
However, this dreamlike haze would be short-lived. The following day, I lost my location and actors in a series of Kafkaesque episodes that ended with a definitive “no” from the powers that be at the tobacco factory (aka the Cuban government). As if that wasn’t enough, I was committed to working on another film (a wondrous tale about a grandmother, her granddaughter, a cow and a farmer) the following day, so for a moment it would seem that I would be leaving the program without a film.
But in Cuba, sometimes it’s best to let things take their course. So while on set the following day, I spent time during lunch talking to some of the people in Pueblo Textil and happened upon a story that resonated with me, a story about the sacrifices people make for their families. That night, drinking Havana rum and enveloped in a canopy of humidity, sounds and ideas, I wrote the script.
The following morning I put together my cast (professional actors were brought in for auditions at the school the previous day), found a location, consulted with Abbas and liaised with my producers so I could shoot the following night. While I directed professional actors in my short, many of the participants did work with non-actors, and Abbas offered some pearls of wisdom to those: “Get close with kindness; forgive their early mistakes; don’t direct them too much; let them lead their lives and record; you need to direct them in a way where they don’t feel it, and you will get what you want.”
And the beauty about this advice is that I heeded it for my film as well. I created an environment where the actors could inhabit the world and the emotions of the story I had written. All I did was block the movements, set the camera and watch in awe as they worked.
The second half of the workshop we spent editing and finishing our films. Some finished quickly and jutted to Havana an hour away, while others, myself included, spent countless hours obsessing over every cut, every line of dialogue and every minute detail. As any filmmaker knows, it’s in post where the ingredients come together. And it was here, during post, where the words of Abbas began to take shape; the aphorisms, poetic asides and words of wisdom began to reveal themselves in the film I was making. “If you learn the formula you will be a copycat,” Kiarostami told us at one point. “The art is in the variety.”
Not only had I written and directed something unlike anything I had previously made, but I had also done the cinematography, a challenge I feared, but ultimately came to face. In the end, I think every filmmaker in the workshop came to face a unique obstacle and each came away having grown because of it. Of the 52 films presented on the final day, no two were alike. There were dreamscapes, stories about friendship, a lost dog, sexuality, hope, fishing, broken families, love, a myriad of stories that define who we are and who we want to be all beautifully wrapped in a ribbon of what was, “Simply Cuba.”
As the lights descended in that same Glauber Rocha theater where it all began, and the first film came up, a tale about a sister on a voyage to deliver her sick twin ropa vieja, I couldn’t help but smile, with a tinge of sadness that it was coming to an end. The magic, lunacy and beauty of the past two weeks — the friendships built, the experiences shared, passions reignited and the knowledge imparted by our friend and teacher Abbas. So while I would like to believe that the result of my film “Cinco Años (Five Years)” was what was in me, in my “capacity,” I can’t help but acknowledge that it was also a result of Abbas Kiarostami’s time with us.
Nevertheless, he was humble about the process. “I have nothing to teach you,” he said. “The result is what was in you.”
In closing, I’m reminded of the photo I posted on Instagram of my three-month old daughter the morning I left for Cuba. I wrote “with heady anticipation I depart for what I hope to be a life transforming experience — 2 weeks in Cuba to make a film as a participant in Abbas Kiarostami’s workshop. My goal is to leave this trip a better filmmaker, artist and person.” While becoming a better artist and person remains to be seen, I can certainly say, I came away a better filmmaker.
Thank you to Abbas Kiarostami, Ahmad Taheri, Liliana Diaz, Estephania Bonnett and Juliana Revelo from Black Factory Cinema, Yaite Luque, Tanya Valette, and all the others at EICTV, the beautiful people of Pueblo Textil, and of course, my actors and fellow filmmakers for this tremendous experience and gift.
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