Afro-Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando is best known for her documentaries on the African diaspora in the Caribbean, and her latest film, Reshipment (2014) continues this theme.
It reveals the complex story of Haitians lured by the tens of thousands to work in Cuba’s sugarcane fields during World War I. These early 20th century immigrants were enticed to leave their island nation—home of the only successful slave revolt in the Americas—for the promise of a better life. Some of them were fleeing the oppressive U.S. occupation. Others were seeking better economic conditions. But what awaited most of them in Cuba was racism and strife.
After the sugar industry experienced a market crash in the 1930s and Haitian labor was no longer needed, an unspeakably inhumane tragedy befell these immigrants and their descendants. In 1937, Cuba began its policy of “reshipment.” Haitians were boarded onto ships returning them to Haiti, forcibly and sometimes so abruptly that family members were left behind.
Reshipment (in English subtitles) captures the resiliency of the Haitian returnees and their relatives left in Cuba. It also documents Haitians’ enduring contributions to Cuban culture. On Fri., March 27, 6:30 p.m., Reshipment will have a free screening in New York City at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, as part of the “Women in Film” series of the African Diaspora International Film Festival. ADIFF will also show Rolando’s film, Oggun, about the Yoruba Orisha, during its Candomble & Santeria Program (click link for cost), Fri., March 27, 8:00 p.m.
This writer interviewed Rolando during her fall 2014 U.S. tour of Reshipment. Here, the Havana-based filmmaker discusses the importance of preserving history and her commitment to telling stories showing connections among African descendants in the Americas.
Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna: How have audiences responded to Reshipment?
Gloria Rolando: Well, some people were a little familiar with the work that I have been doing before, and they [were looking forward to my next documentary on the topic of migration of the Caribbean… I am really happy with the response. [Viewers] understood my intention: to [pay] tribute to those who migrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century with many hopes and how terrible a situation they had as poor, black foreigners [who] arrived to make some money and then go back home and improve their lives.
NCT: Many of your films explore inter-Caribbean migration. What are a few others?
GR: I made Cherished Island Memories: A History of Cubans and Cayman Islanders about the people of the Cayman Islands who migrated to Isle of Pines in Cuba and My Footsteps in Baragua about the people from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad who migrated to Cuba.
NCT: Are you finding that audiences are generally familiar, or not, with Reshipment’s subject matter?
GR: When we talk about the African diaspora, sometimes people don’t know very much about what happened in the history of the Caribbean—and Cuba is a Caribbean island that shared many destinies with other Caribbean countries. Even if we speak Spanish and others speak French or English, we have many things in common. So I think that the expectation, the interest and the reaction that I see [in U.S. audiences] are because people want to know what happened with the rest of the blacks in the continent.
Normally, they say, “We didn’t know anything about this; we didn’t know anything about that.” Through my films, they get a little bit. I cannot cover in a documentary of one hour the whole complexity of the history of the Caribbean countries, of our history as black people. But at least people [can] get some elements that allow them to continue studying or [doing more] research, especially the young generation.
NCT: What are a few of the highlights from the tour?
GR: Most important for me is [learning] how much we need [films about] our history. There are so many chapters that we don’t know between each other. This surprised me. [Then again, it did] not surprise me because I know that sometimes, in official history, we don’t appear.
I [also] like the contact with the young generation—to open their eyes and to see how much they want to learn. My English [is] not so good, [but] I try to give them what I know. Also [through] the questions that they [ask] me, I learn about the necessity to explore a certain aspect [of history] that I didn’t realize before.
NCT: How did you learn about this chapter in Cuban history?
GR: Through the literature—a filmmaker needs to get in touch with literature, with other films and with history. …I am not the only or the first Cuban filmmaker to talk about Haiti. Many others before me did the same in fiction, documentaries—docudramas more recently—or old, Cuban films.
NCT: Can you give examples?
GR: The Spanish translation of Haitian writer Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew [was an inspiration to Rolando]. And in Cuba, we have a beautiful feature film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea based on Roumain’s novel: The name of the film is Cumbite (1964).
So what I am doing is a continuation of their work, especially now that many years have passed and the generation that grew up inside that Haitian community is getting old. [The descendants] are Cuban now, but in the past, when they were children, they had the same life, the same destiny as their parents.
NCT: The music in the film is at times hauntingly beautiful, especially the opening song. Was it hard or easy to find songs that would complement the story?
GR: In the case of the choir—the vocal group Dessandan—they are Haitian descendants [who live] in Camaguey. I knew about them because sometimes they have presentations in Havana. I could not exclude them from a film like this, because it was an important voice, and they are the people who maintained this tradition.
And the song, “From Haiti to Cuba,” by Ebenezer Semé, [that opens and closes the film] was made before the film. … Semé played that song in one cultural activity [that she attended] in Camaguey. And when I listened to that song, I jumped from my chair and said, “This is the theme for the film.”
NCT: Why have you made documenting African descendants’ contribution to Cuban society your mission?
GR: It’s part of the Cuban history. It’s part of [what Black people] living in the African diaspora need to do. We have many, many faces; we [must] try to present our contribution to the history and the religion and the spirituality. And I am fascinated by it.
1912, Breaking the Silence, Parts 1–3 (2010–12): This three-part documentary series tells what happened during the Massacre of 1912 in which more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color, the Western hemisphere’s first black political party outside of Haiti, were killed by the Cuban Army: 50 minutes each with English subtitles.
Cherished Island Memories (2007): This documentary is about the founding of Jacksonville, Isle of Youth, Cuba, by immigrants from the Cayman Islands: 38 minutes with English subtitles.
Roots of My Heart (2001): This feature film—about the Cuban Army’s massacre of more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color, the first black political party outside of Haiti—follows a young woman as she finds out about her family’s roots, which include disturbing revelations around the 1912 Genocide: 51 minutes with English subtitles.
My Footsteps in Baragua (1996): This documentary tells the history of Cuba’s extensive West Indian community, including Jamaicans, Barbadians and many others: 53 minutes, in English or Spanish with subtitles.
Oggun—An Eternal Presence (1991): This documentary is about the Orisha Oggun, the god of war and peace, metals and civilization, as experienced in the life of Lazaro Ros, the prominent Cuban Yoruba singer and founding member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional: 52 minutes, with English subtitles.
Learn more about these films and purchase the DVDs at AfroCubaWeb.coma.
Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna is a cultural journalist based in Washington, D.C.
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