Behind the Scenes

Interview with Filmmaker Julie Cohen

Julie Cohen, Director & Producer

How did you learn about Pedro Ruiz’s collaboration with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and come to make a documentary about it?
This was one of those rare great projects that came to us. Pedro and his supporters at The Windows Project — the group he formed to promote U.S./Cuba cultural exchanges — approached Executive Producer Mary Lockhart about the idea of doing a segment for WNET on his trip to Cuba. Mary immediately realized this could be something bigger, a complete stand alone film. I’ve directed four other arts documentaries for WNET over the past few years, so she asked me to do this one, too. Usually you mull these things over for a while, but for this I said yes on the spot.

Had you traveled to Cuba before working on this project?
I had never been to Cuba, and I was dying to go. Actually, myself and the rest of the crew – Field Producer/Editor Alex Lowther, Director of Photography Rich White and Audio Engineer Jack Norflus – had pretty much the same feelings about going to Havana that the Cuban dancers had about coming to New York: you’re ordinarily not allowed to go, so we really wanted to go! It’s a fascinating place to visit – the weather is gorgeous, the people are extremely warm and energetic, the old architecture and the old cars are amazing to look at. The thing that strikes you first is the lack of advertising and brand names. No Hilton, no McDonald’s, no Starbucks. But more basic things are lacking, too: stores have very little on the shelves (even compared to other places I’ve visited in Latin America, Africa and Asia); internet service is slow to non-existent; even toilet paper is hard to come by. Whether that’s the fault of outside stresses like the U.S. embargo or the Castro government failing to provide for its own citizens is an argument for another website.

Did the embargo pose any complications for Ruiz, the dance company, or you and your crew?
There is a lot of bureaucracy involved in bringing a U.S. film crew to Cuba, both on the U.S. end and the Cuba end. We weren’t 100% sure that the project would happen until we’d made it through customs at the Havana airport. And of course there are all kinds of complications doing work in Cuba. The biggest issues are financial: American ATM cards and credit cards are of no use in Cuba, and there are limits on the amount of cash you can bring, so it was a challenge to shoot an hour-long film without running out of money.

What was the most challenging aspect of completing this film?
Definitely the work in the field. We made two trips to Cuba (we were there for the first five days of Pedro’s visit and the last 8 days). We had A LOT to shoot and we were dealing with subjects who were extremely busy rehearsing so we had to work around their schedules. The process of combining the dance, the interviews and the other footage we gathered in Cuba and New York into one narrative was so much fun, I would almost say it was easy.

What are your thoughts around the decision to include the dancers performing in public spaces?

Well, the pretentious answer would be that I was trying to juxtapose the beautiful movement of the dance with the landscapes and cityscapes of the country that inspired it. But the true answer is just that I thought it would look really cool. We had a lot of fun picking out locations that would work. Then we would take the dancers to the location and ask them to dance for 1 or 2 minutes. The couples would huddle for about 5 minutes to adapt Pedro’s dance to the space we gave them and then they would do it perfectly. It was really impressive. (Check out Carra and Osnel doing their “street dance” in downtown Havana below.)

Can you share any memorable off-camera moments from your time in Cuba?
Our cameras were rolling pretty much all the time, so most of my favorite moments from Cuba are in the film! Probably the most interesting experience (both the on camera and off camera moments) was our day in Santa Clara, Pedro’s hometown, which is about a three hour drive from Havana. His godfather Eduardo was so surprised and moved to see him and seemed pretty excited to see the camera crew too. Then Pedro took us to the street where he lived as a kid and teenager. He hadn’t been there in 30 years, and his return caused a big stir. When he knocked on the door of the house next door to where he used to live, not only was his former next door neighbor inside, but her daughter who had been Pedro’s best childhood friend happened to be visiting and there were five or six other people who knew him as a kid. Word of his return spread very quickly and by the time he came back outside people were coming out to greet him. The neighbors were impressed that he was being followed around by a film crew. As his old friend Maruchi put it: “Look at you, with the video camera and lights. Such a big life!”

Did you have a chance to sit in the audience and experience “Horizonte” without worrying about the cameras?
When we were in Cuba, I was pretty anxious about getting everything that we needed so I didn’t watch Horizonte like a normal, relaxed audience member. But when Danza Contemporanea came to New York we weren’t shooting the performance. My husband and I saw the dance twice and it was even more spectacular than I had remembered it. I’ve seen the full dance performed live six times now and I can honestly say I’ve liked it more every time.

Julie Cohen is a veteran television news and documentary director and producer, and the founder of BetterThanFiction Productions. She has directed six other documentaries for public television, including The Jews of New York and The Unforgettable Hampton Family. She has also produced hour-long programs for Dateline NBC, segments for the PBS newsmagazine Need to Know, webisode series for Lifetime and opening videos for the 2011 World Science Festival.

Julie has received a DuPont Columbia Award, 5 Emmy nominations, Special Jury and Audience Choice Awards at three 2011 international film festivals, and an Individual Achievement Award for Best TV News Producer from American Women in Radio and Television. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul M. Barrett, an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of the forthcoming book Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.


Composer Aaron Jaffe on the Music of Horizonte

Aaron Jaffe, Composer

Musically I chose not to focus on incorporating traditional Cuban styles in Horizonte. Rather, I was more interested in using electronic and acoustic instruments, and some Afro-Cuban influence, in a way that expressed my own ideas as a composer and producer within the context of what it must be like to dream of new horizons while living in a repressive society.

I created the music inside a world of electronica, ambiences, morphing textures and even crying pleading electric guitar; anchored by organic performances on real percussion, nylon & steel string guitars, and blended by vocalists and cello.

Each piece spoke its own identity from the initial attention grabbing drum of the open, to the dance of cello and guitar that accompany the romantic duet, to the tribal calls of the ocean goddess Yemaya, to the lush arrangement of the adagio.

The journey of Horizonte begins with the opening of a wing; the music inspiring the dancers to take flight and inspiring us all to take flight with them to new horizons.