"I went to Cuba for the first time in 1989, and have been back more than 50 times since then. A great deal has changed over the past quartercentury," said Ann Marie Stock, professor of Hispanic Studies & Film and Media Studies at the College of William & Mary, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette.
Stock has recently returned from Cuba where she was directing a study trip that included among her "students" the former manager of the Beatles, and the head lawyer of the Wall Street Journal.
No wonder that Cuba nowadays generates so much interest. Considering, Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest Spanish-Colonial area remaining in the Americas, has undergone extensive restoration. In addition, considerable changes have taken place in Cuba's film and media world.
"In fact," Stock said, "that's the subject of my book, "On Location in Cuba: Street Filmmaking, during Times of Transition."
She noted that there has been a significant change in U. S. awareness of Cuba. When she first traveled to the island, people would ask questions that revealed how little we knew about Cuba. Although, there is still limited access to balanced information, study abroad programs and study trips to the island contributed to more nuanced understanding of that country and its people.
Cubans remain very proud of their collective accomplishments, particularly in the areas of education and health care, she said. They literary rates are among the highest and infant mortality rates among the lowest on the continent. The island economy is also changing. Artists are permitted to sell their work from home studios, home-grown produce is sold at farmer's markets, "paladares" (family-run restaurants) serve tasty meals, and rooms or apartments can be rented to visitors.
But, what brings Stock back to Cuba time-and-again are the residents of, Havana, this "City of Imagination."
In a new book, she edited, "World Film Locations: Havana," Stock introduces readers to the city that fascinates her. "Havana is among the world's most iconic capital cities." she said. "With its rich history, renowned architecture, and tropical allure, it has attracted writers and artists and filmmakers for more than a century"
She also noted that access to Cuba by U. S. citizens is limited by the U. S. Treasury Department Embargo. "That limitation helps explain the city's mysterious and magical nature in our imaginations"
In one of the essays of the Stock-edited book, a Cuban writer describes a locally made film by Aram Vidal, who served as the first Swem Media Artist in Residence at William & Mary. It makes fun of the state's attempt to immortalize Jose Marti, the Cuban national hero, by countless multiplication of his torso.
I asked Stock whether she sees film-making in Cuba as a force in changing the regime's attitude toward permitting a more open society.
"I believe that film is a powerful medium. Films inform us and influence our world views. Cuba is no exception," she said. "Moving pictures were identified as important purveyors of a revolutionary consciousness at the beginning of the revolution. And they remain highly significant today."
She explained that in the U. S. we tend to think Cuban filmmakers and artists must all express a similar vision. But in fact, it's much more varied. When presenting a Cuban film at a festival abroad, she said, someone will ask, "How did that get made in Cuba? It's so critical."
A couple of months ago, Stock invited Carlos Rodriguez, a famed Cuban filmmaker to the College of William & Mary. He showed several of his films. One was particularly critical in depicting the precarious conditions in which some campesinos live.
"Carlos believes in the importance of showing many sides of his reality. So, film is used in Cuba to celebrate accomplishments as well as to criticize shortcomings."
To record it all, Stock, often visits the island. And in her forthcoming book devoted to the life and work of Cuba's most acclaimed filmmaker, Fernando Perez, she intends to sum up a quarter-century of lessons she learned about Cuban culture.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.