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BLOG: Cámara Chica Social Club

March 2014 | Cuba

Last year, Will Massa,our Film team's Senior Programme Manager, led a training project in Cuba, designed to train staff in community centres in the techniques needed to introduce children to filmmaking. This month, he's been back to see what happened to the young filmmakers - and he's been thrilled with what he's found.

I’ve noticed a change in the children I got to know last June in La Conchita, a small industrial town located ten kilometres outside Pinar del Rio in Cuba’s most westerly province. It’s the way they are talking about filmmaking; ‘using our camera’ has been replaced with more technical language about ‘takes’, ‘shots’ and ‘close-ups’. And Elisa (9 yrs old) no longer describes herself as someone who is simply taking part in the Cámara Chica project, she has started calling herself a 'producer', a role she has grown into over the last nine months and which suits her charismatic and energetic personality.

I tell them I’m impressed with the way their latest fiction – a simple story in which a group of boys have to swallow their pride and beg a group of girls for forgiveness after refusing to let them join in their football game – was shot, how cinematic it looked. ‘That was Alexander’, they all chime in, ‘he’s the cinematographer in the group’. Alexander beams proudly. When I last saw him he was eyeing up the camera we had left in his community, waiting patiently for his turn to shoot the next scene of the documentary the kids were working on.  I saw then how interested he was in the visual aspect of filmmaking, using the camera whenever possible and trying things out. So it's gratifying to see that the novelty hasn’t worn off and that he’s still keen to learn new tricks and develop his skills.

We’re in Havana attending a show-and-tell, hosted by the community leaders and some of the children who have taken part in the Cámara Chica programme since it started last summer. The event is part presentation, part celebration, part culmination, an opportunity for the children to see their work on the big screen and for the community leaders to explain what they’ve been up to to the attending public. Needless to say it is terrifically moving to hear them talk about the progress they’ve made, and a struggle to hold back the waterworks when the children are invited on stage to talk about what the project means to them.

Cámara Chica has come a long way in nine months, evolving in scale and ambition in a way we could never have imagined.  It’s fair to say that when we first landed in Havana on 1st June 2013, there was more than a little trepidation about what we had planned to do over the following three weeks. Working in partnership with UK young person’s filmmaking organisation First Light (now merged with FILMCLUB to form the newly created Into Film) and two of their regular mentors, we drafted a programme of activity designed to train six community centre leaders from across Cuba to teach filmmaking to children in their communities. Some missing boom poles aside, the six bundles of filmmaking kit we had sent out to Cuba in advance had arrived safely and were waiting for us in Havana, along with the nervous community leaders who had come from far and wide. Some of them had never used a video camera before, let alone contemplated learning, then teaching, filmmaking skills to a group of ten year olds.  In order to help cushion our great leap into the unknown, each community leader was assigned two students from the local film school, La Facultad Arte de los Medios de Comunicación Audiovisual (FAMCA), part of University of the Arts , to help with technical support.

The students and leaders circled each other tentatively, the former keen to try out the new kit, convinced that the project we were proposing was madness, the latter still getting to grips with the concept, nervous they wouldn’t be able to master everything in time. Luckily, the First Light/Into Film model is well established and our veteran trainers (the wonderful Barry Hale from Threshold Studios and Chris Kemp from Suited and Booted) have each been delivering work in this area for over 15 years, though by their own admission not in an environment as unique as Cuba.

Three days of hands-on experience and teacher training in Havana and then the roadshow began. Each leader went back to his or her community to start prepping the children for our arrival. The mentors and film students followed hot on their heels and over the next three weeks Chris and Barry covered three community centres each, some of them in very remote areas where access to digital technology and filmmaking equipment is rare if not unheard of. Mornings were given over to further training for the leaders, and the afternoons and weekends were spent working with the children.

I was lucky enough to witness the first week’s training and teaching in Pinar del Rio, and from the moment we arrived (to a fantastic song and dance spectacular put on by the children in our honour!) I  was extremely glad we’d had the courage to propose such an ambitious project in the first place. To say they took to filmmaking like ducks to water would be an understatement; these kids were smart, dynamic and enthusiastic, and by the end of the first afternoon they had learned to assemble the kit and were out on the streets of their town looking for people to interview. A tangible euphoria spread amongst the adults as gleeful glances were exchanged between the UK team, and between us and the community centre leaders: ‘It’s working! It’s working! They’re doing it! They’re making films!’ If anything the biggest and most immediate challenge was to get them to stop filmmaking for long enough so we could continue teaching.

It is commonplace to remark on the speed with which children pick up new skills, or how they can teach us as much as we teach them – but there really was something special about the children in these communities; the way they shared the kit and rotated roles, the way they respected each other’s ideas and approaches, the way they worked patiently and generously as a team supporting one other as they went along. Filmmaking only works when a team pulls together, but it was almost as if that went without saying as we travelled around Cuba working with the different groups of children.

The FAMCA students quickly transcended their roles as technical support and melted at point of exposure to the children. They became teachers and friends, and have been going back to the centres ever since, totally unprompted, many of them convinced they have found a new vocation.

Of course there is only so much we were able to cover in a week. Predictably word started to trickle back to us in the UK that the filmmaking was going on apace, but that the content was starting to build up on the laptops – the leaders weren’t confident with editing and post and were shying away from it. We had covered the basics but there was more help needed, particularly with regards to getting the leaders well enough trained to pass the skills onto the kids. We resolved to return and spend a further week with the leaders working on their editing skills at the end of March this year. Seeing them again, hearing about what they had tried and achieved since we left, their plans for the future and how the project was having a positive influence on their communities was a real revelation, and none of us had quite appreciated the impact Camara Chica was making across the island. The biggest problem the communities were facing, they confessed, was not how to keep the children engaged and interested, but how to go about including the growing number of children in their towns and regions who had got wind of the project and wanted to be involved.

Sadly one of the leaders had left the Havana community centre in the interim, but a replacement had been appointed to lead on the project and joined us in the capital for the editing workshop. We asked him if he wanted a separate session to go over the things that were covered in the initial training in June. ‘No need’, he said, ‘the kids have already taught me how to use the kit and told me all about how the programme works, so I can use this week to concentrate on the editing’.

The bonds we have made with the Cuban communities (not just with the leaders, but the parents and children too) are genuine and heartfelt, and it is an emotional strain to leave for a second time, especially not knowing if or when we might be back. Cámara Chica started as a training programme but has become so much more for all involved, a cultural exchange in the truest sense with a real relationship forming between two very different places, each grateful for the wonderful things the other can show it.

As I say a teary goodbye to my young friends from La Conchita I throw in a final test question to make sure it really is the kids that are running the show.  I ask Elisa how they are coming up with their ideas. ‘It’s easy! We meet up every Sunday as a group and come up with our filming idea for the week. Next up is a documentary about the people working in our local factory’. A smile creeps across my face and I feel stupid for asking. 

Emails and phone numbers are swapped, hugs and kisses exchanged. We’ll be keeping in touch, of course, and when we’re lucky enough to visit any of the communities again I suspect it will be the children teaching us new filmmaking techniques and not the other way round.