Grab discounted tickets to see 13 Million Voices with discount code NEWTROPIC2015, just for our lovely subscribers and readers. Thanks for being awesome.
Sitting down with powerhouse brother and sister team Chris and Janelle Gueits was like talking to research librarians on Cuban-American relations as interwoven with contemporary arts — and ending up talking about everything.
The siblings’ new film, 13 Million Voices, debuts at the Miami International Film Festival on March 11. The film focuses on a 2009 concert for peace, the struggle for freedom of expression in Cuba, and the harsh socio-economic realities Cuban young people face. We sat down with the Gueitses to hear about how they came to make the film, and what they’ve learned in the process.
Janelle and Chris are entwined in their family’s saga. Their grandfather — a blind man — was falsely imprisoned in Cuba for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their cousin was one of the most famous spokespeople of contemporary Cuban-American politics.
Watching their cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez get lost in emotion on national television while trying to explain the pain of losing their young cousin, Elian Gonzalez, highlighted to them the image issues that Cuban-Americans face. Chris and Janelle thought that with a bit of cultural understanding and more explicit language to talk about the Cuban refugee experience in Miami, their cousin would not have been misunderstood and misrepresented.
“I was bartending in New York at the time and remember watching my cousin on tv and people were like ‘this woman’, and I thought ‘no, you don’t understand, these are humble people who aren’t ready for this media spectacle,” said Janelle. Coming of age during this thorny time of media blitz and public news attention was particularly impactful for the Gueits siblings, who have made it their life’s mission to work on media images and empowering Cubans. “It made me realize how ineffective of a job we were doing of telling our story, as a community,” adds Chris.
The Cuban-American identity in Miami is complex and includes mourning the loss of a homeland and the struggle of reinvention in a new culture. Re-shaping the narrative, even slightly, motivates the siblings. “There’s a difference between knowing your story of collective grieving and telling your story,” said Janelle. “This community has known its truth for a long time, but communicating that is different.”
They recognize that to people outside of Miami, Cubans here can sometimes seem out-of-control, erratic or highly emotional. The siblings aspire to shift that public perception. 13 Million Voices is an effort to take the unspoken, but deeply engrained Cuban-American mindset known so well in Miami and introduce it to the broader world, they said.
Finding their voices
Chris and Janelle both left Miami to pursue higher education in the Northeast, and their experiences prepared them to make 13 Million Voices.
Janelle’s artistic and professional career trajectory felt to her like a set-up to tell the multi-layered story around a concert for peace in Cuba in 2009 — a film not only about the concert, but also about the struggle for artists to express themselves. A dancer herself, Janelle decided to study media, society and the arts, after she realized that visual cues deeply influence how people interact. “Society evolves over communication and, shared experiences,” she explains. “The way that I define art is something that whether for a moment, or a lifetime creates change, and that – to me – transcends many media.”
For years before the 2009 concert that is the focal point of the film, Janelle and Chris made several trips to Cuba. They met with artists and made friends. They learned about the very real obstacles for their contemporaries on the island to create a life that reflects their true desires and potential. They formed a non-profit, Roots of Hope, or Raices de Esperanza, and their mission is to empower Cuban youth to build better futures for themselves. The Gueits siblings anchor 13 Million Voices in a fight for democratic values like freedom of expression, and shed light on the socio-economic struggle in Cuba.
For Chris, an interaction with Oliver Stone during the screening of Stone’s documentary about Fidel Castro at Princeton was life-changing. After sitting in the audience appalled at the one-sided depiction of Cuban politics, he knew deep within himself that he would have to walk forward during the Q&A and set the record straight. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe that that [one-sided version] was being told to that audience this with the future leaders of the country’… so [during the Q&A] I took one of the Cubans with me because she had a dramatic story and they give me the mic,” said Chris, then laughing and adding “a Cuban woman, a classmate,” and not a cigar. “Remembering that it was so hard for Marisleysis to have perspective, I knew I needed to be really conscious of how I presented myself, and I decided to stick with the facts and not use an emotional argument.”
Chris feels passionately grateful for the opportunities that life in the United States afforded to him and his sister to follow their own creative journeys. “We both were able to craft our own road in terms of finding our own voice, and this has allowed us to develop ways to do that for others. What these reflections [as portrayed in the film] are doing is allowing us to support that kind of development in others,” he explains.
The mission of the siblings, via the non-profit and via the film, really comes down to helping Cuban individuals to tap into their own creative capacity for release and problem-solving – “to use something innate in us that allows us to not succumb to the pressures that surround us,” Chris said.
Silvio Rodriguez is typically put forth as a positive example of famous musicians in modern Cuba. But, as the siblings explain, the revolutionary singer/songwriter is a poster child in a savvy public relations game being played by the Cuban government.
What is less known is that local musicians in Cuba must remain under-the-radar, they say. They create music that is shared on underground channels, and their very names evoke a spirit contrary to the mission of the Cuban state.
Working with Juanes
Following the success of his first concert for peace along the Colombian and Venezuelan border, Juanes set his sights on Cuba. He searched for inroads to Cuban musicians and strategies to work with the government. Because of the work that Janelle and Chris were already doing, Juanes reached out to them for some help.
“We tried to give him messages that would be more socially conscious for him to include in the concert… Juanes lives in Miami and understood how brave this was, because he has his feelers into the Cuban-American community here,” said Janelle.
He marched forward, undeterred. The months leading up to the concert left many in doubt as to whether it would actually take place. Protests occurred. Threats from the government too. Artists started to pull out of the lineup.
“But at the last moment, there was a groundswell… I had a seat on the plane and went with the intention of helping to make sure that the government wouldn’t co-opt the message. I had no money and no crew, worked with basic commercial cameras but I went and captured behind the scenes,” said Janelle.
Though the concert itself is the focal point of the film, the story is also about artists like Los Aldeanos, a Cuban rap duo that is banned by the government because of their blunt and honest talk about the Cuban reality. That Juanes wanted to include them was seen as an act of liberation for many Cuban youth, Janelle said.
On September 20, 2009, 1.3 million people showed up for the concert. Compare this to Woodstock, which drew 200,000, and the impact of the event – held on the same Revolutionary Square where Fidel Castro addressed the nation for years – is undeniable.
Filming and production continued through 2014, as more people came forward to connect, and dynamics shifted quickly down on the island. Janelle’s deep sense of artistic integrity and yearning for a complete film led her to keep digging. Final post-production officially ceased on December 14, 2014, just three days before President Obama announced a new era in Cuban-American relations.
“This film was a manifestation of all this current going on in Cuba and it became a tipping point for the trajectory of Cuba’s future and when we saw Obama make that announcement, I thought ‘the film is destined for this moment’,” said Janelle.
New policy, new future
The siblings feel adamantly that Cuba is still rugged terrain, full of complex dynamics that shift frequently. They find the surge of interest in traveling there, from people who see it as the next Cancun or party destination, well, strange.
“Roger [one of the film’s protagonists] went from university back to his home village… and when I met him he walked toward me carrying a goat,” recalled Janelle. “But despite living in such a simple and poor village, he knew so much about the developing Cuban society and blew me away with his sophisticated and intellectual way of explaining.”
Because appearances are far from one-dimensional in Cuba and the society is at such a vulnerable place, Chris and Janelle urge careful reflection when visiting. Their own hopes for their work and the film remain humble. “We hope to plant seeds of doubt that things are the way they seem,” said Chris. “Hopefully we can shift public opinion from negative to neutral.”
Maya Ibars is an attorney who has written for Miami New Times, Latin Finance magazine, and more.
Editorial note: A phrase in this story has been modified to better reflect the interviewees’ characterization of how media portrayed Marisleysis Gonzalez.