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Meet the 2011 LA Film Festival Filmmakers | Alysa Nahmias' and Benjamin Murray's "Unfinished Spaces"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire June 15, 2011 at 1:56AM

In 1961, in the heady first days of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro asked three visionary architects to build the Cuban National Arts Schools on what had been the golf course of a country club. Before construction was completed, the Revolution became Sovietized, and suddenly the project was denounced as bourgeoise and counter-revolutionary. The story has many more fascinating twists and turns, as these radical, magnificent buildings become a prism through which we see the turbulent, ever-shifting history of Castro's Cuba and follow the fates of the three architects, now in their 80s, who would get a second chance to revitalize their utopian project. [Synopsis courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival]
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In 1961, in the heady first days of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro asked three visionary architects to build the Cuban National Arts Schools on what had been the golf course of a country club. Before construction was completed, the Revolution became Sovietized, and suddenly the project was denounced as bourgeoise and counter-revolutionary. The story has many more fascinating twists and turns, as these radical, magnificent buildings become a prism through which we see the turbulent, ever-shifting history of Castro's Cuba and follow the fates of the three architects, now in their 80s, who would get a second chance to revitalize their utopian project. [Synopsis courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Narrative Feature and Documentary Competition at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

"Unfinished Spaces
Documentary Competition
Directed By: Alysa Nahmias, Benjamin Murray
Producers: Alysa Nahmias, Benjamin Murray
Cinematographer: Benjamin Murray
Editors: Kristen Nutile, Alex Minnick
Featuring: Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, Roberto Gottardi

Responses courtesy of "Unfinished Spaces" directors Alysa Nahmis and Benjamin Murray

Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what's it about?

Castro invites three exiled architects to return to Cuba to finish their Utopian architectural project, which the Revolution left to ruin.

OK: Now tell us what it's really about...

In 1961, three young, visionary architects were commissioned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to create Cuba's National Art Schools on the grounds of a former golf course in Havana, Cuba. Construction of their radical designs began immediately and the school's first classes soon followed. Dancers, musicians and artists from all over the country reveled in the beauty of the schools, but as the dream of the Revolution quickly became a reality, construction was abruptly halted and the architects and their designs were deemed irrelevant in the prevailing political climate. Forty years later the schools are in use, but remain unfinished and decaying. Castro has invited the exiled architects back to finish their unrealized dream.

The story of "Unfinished Spaces" is that of the Cuban National Art Schools, as well as the story of their personal experiences as artists in Cuba who believed in the possibility of utopia, began to construct it, but never completed it. Now, forty-five years later, they have a chance to complete that work. Unfinished Spaces features intimate footage of Fidel Castro, showing his devotion to creating a worldwide showcase for art, and it also documents the struggle and passion of three revolutionary artists.

"Unfinished Spaces" is as much about nature and human nature, as it is about architecture. It depicts the organic aging and inevitable decay of all people, places, and politics over time.

Nothing is too wonderful to be true...

Both of us went to college at NYU, where Ben studied film production and Alysa studied art history and architecture, and we met in an art theory course.

After Alysa took her first trip to Cuba in 2001, we began making "Unfinished Spaces" together because of a shared love for the characters in the story. We are drawn to documentaries because, as Lawrence Weschler says, "nothing is too wonderful to be true."

For the past ten years as we've worked on "Unfinished Spaces," Ben's been finishing films as an online editor, and Alysa has completed a masters degree in architectural design/history/theory.

A journey inspires...

In Spring 2001 in Havana, we first had the opportunity to visit the National Art Schools – organic, modern, brick buildings, now in ruins, but still home to Cuba’s best and brightest art students.

After touring the campus, we met architect Roberto Gottardi. Roberto brought with him an old file full of photographs and press clippings, weathered documents that illustrated the story of his most monumental architectural project, the first and most impressive construction of the Cuban Revolution.

Roberto struck us as a modern day Don Quixote, whose creative visions were ahead of his time and larger than the world around him. The architect and his buildings paralleled the Cuban Revolution itself - from utopian vision to tragic ruin, and ultimately to an uncertain future.

We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to follow Roberto and his fellow architects of the National Art Schools – Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garatti – on the final leg of their emotional journey.

On opposite sides of the spectrum, the films "Blue Water," "White Death" by Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb; and "The Kiss" by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle were inspiring for their stunning visuals and for their themes of outrageous dreams and practical realities.

And then there's a film like "My Architect" by Nathaniel Kahn, which we admire because it told a very human story about an architectural subject.

On what's next...

It was a huge challenge to maintain a production value and quality in the film that would match the beauty of the Cuban environment and architecture that was our subject.

We hope audiences will connect with our characters and the story of three artists who have held on to their visions for over fifty years.

Alysa is directing a multimedia documentary project in collaboration with The Listening Archive, and she is also in development on a feature film about one of the first American explorers to enter Tibet.

Ben is in development for his next feature documentary about an American man of letters.

Check out these prior participants in the Los Angles Film Festival, courtesy of SnagFilms [Disclaimer: SnagFilms is indiewire's parent company]
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This article is related to: Features, Interviews, Los Angeles Film Festival