Film director Bruce Donnelly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, and currently helms Lost Boy Productions in New York City. His most recent project is Alumbrones, a documentary film that follows twelve contemporary artists living in Cuba. The artists range in age from 18 to 65, and come from varied sociopolitical backgrounds. One of the film’s strengths is its multi-dimensional appeal, one that combines a love of art with the enduring curiosity that many people have about life in Cuba. But far from having a political agenda or influence, the film retains a neutral stance and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about life on the enigmatic island. It does this by focusing only on the artists themselves and their lives in direct relation to their art.
Although he is an avid filmmaker, documentaries weren’t always a part of Bruce’s career plan. He was more influenced by iconic films like the 90’s classic American Beauty. “I didn’t have a plan to get into documentary filmmaking,” he confesses. In fact, his first foray into documentaries was done as a favor to a friend. “A friend of mine is an artist in New York. He asked me to do a short film on his work to help him exhibit his collection of sketches and drawings,” he recalls.
But his career would take a distinct turn after a visit to Massachusetts. “I went to Boston to visit a friend, and he took me around to some of the art galleries in the city. We just happened to go past a gallery called Galeria Cubana, which deals exclusively with artists living and working in Cuba.” While at the gallery I fell in love with the artwork and the unique story that each piece told. The significance and the meaning behind the artwork really moved me.”
Although Bruce is from South Africa, Cuba played a surprisingly influential role in his childhood. “When I was younger, my parents traveled to Cuba quite a few times. I never traveled with them, but every time they came back I would hear their stories and see all of their pictures. I became more and more curious about Cuba, and as I got older I began to read about the country’s people, history and politics. Then, when I walked into the gallery, it was like everything came together.”
Donnelly was excited to direct the film, but some questioned whether he was the right person for the project, given that he is a South African with no real ties to Cuba. “When they first mentioned it, I thought that they might be right, because it’s true that I’m an outsider,” he confesses. “But then I realized that this was exactly why I was the perfect person for the job; because I didn’t have a particular agenda. My purpose was to learn, gather as much information as possible, and leave it to the audience to put everything together,” he explains. Donnelly isn’t fluent in Spanish, and depended on Galeria Cubana employee Fermin Rojas to act as translator for the film. Donnelly credits Rojas’ Cuban roots and affable nature for putting the artists at ease and making them feel comfortable in front of the camera. This was especially helpful in a country where people are decidedly cautious about what they reveal for fear of government reprisal.
“There is this strange contradiction in Cuba that just amazes me,” Donnelly admits. “You have the warm weather and the island lifestyle that is very laidback and free, and yet you have this very controlling political system that is anything but laidback and free. And this type of rigid system just seems so foreign to a country whose lifestyle should be carefree and relaxed.” Speaking of politics, I ask Bruce if any of the artists featured in the film have ever been in trouble because of their art. “Pedro Pablo Oliva is one of the artists we interviewed for the film, and when we first arrived in Cuba we thought he wasn’t going to be available to talk to us because he was in hiding,” he reveals. Apparently Oliva had created an artwork that portrayed Fidel Castro in an unflattering way, and this had upset certain people in the government. Luckily the situation was resolved during Bruce’s stay, and Oliva was able to participate in the film.
I am curious to know if the artists have the opportunity to receive formal training, so I ask Bruce if there are any art schools in Cuba. Surprisingly, there is an abundance of art schools throughout the country. “When the revolution happened in 1959, one of the most important things in Fidel Castro’s agenda was to open up art schools all over Cuba. And he really pushed art and creativity,” Bruce explains. With art being such an integral part of Cuban culture, I ask Donnelly if any of the artists he interviewed come from artistic families. “Yes, a few of them,” he replies excitedly. “One young guy comes from an established family of artists. His mother was an actress and his father was a painter. Another artist, who did the poster for the film, also comes from a distinguished family of artists,” he recounts. “But another woman we interviewed, who is in her forties, picked up a paint brush for the very first time when she was in her thirties.”
Are any of these artists able to make a living from their art, I wonder? Bruce explains that a law passed in the mid-nineties allows Cuban artists to sell their works outside of Cuba. Previously, this had been forbidden. “A lot of them live quite well, by Cuban standards. But unfortunately you can’t really do much with the money that you earn, even if you are making money outside of the country, because there isn’t much to spend it on in Cuba,” he explains. “Generally speaking though, artists in Cuba have a good future if they are talented and ambitious.”
Although the artists have access to schools and potential buyers, the real challenge in Cuba is finding art supplies. “There are almost no art supplies, or very, very limited amounts,” Bruce tells me. “One of the main things that we discuss in the film, especially because it affected all of the artists we spoke with, is the idea of recycling art supplies.” Why, I ask, are there no art supplies? “Well,” Bruce replies, “when the Soviet Union collapsed Cuba lost 90% of their trade in one day.” Coupled with the United States embargo, this meant no imported goods. “This is what makes Cuban artists so particularly creative and resourceful,” Donnelly says appreciatively. “When the supplies stopped coming in, they began to recycle and use non-conventional items to make art. The lack of supplies didn’t stop them from making art. They simply reused, recycled and reinvented to continue creating,” he explains.
Despite the country’s economic and political troubles, there continues to be a bustling art scene in Cuba. “In Havana there is a huge art festival where artists open their studios, and there are art exhibitions in the street,” Bruce reveals. “There are many art galleries in Havana, and in general art is a big part of their culture.” Perhaps this is why so many of the artists remain optimistic about their futures. “We interviewed four young men who were sharing a one bedroom apartment with no electricity, and they had no income or food,” he shares. “But they are such talented, happy and energetic guys, and so passionate about what they do. They were so clear-headed and motivated, it was really inspiring.”
Cuba is indeed a unique mix of cultures, and this interchanging dynamic is reflected in the country’s art. “There is obviously a strong Latin influence, and there is also an African influence, but there is a strong European influence as well,” Bruce observes. Religion, spirituality, poverty, communism, daily life, and even escapism are also subjects depicted in Cuban art. For the moment, artists in Cuba have limited access to the outside world, and this gives them a truly unique perspective and ensures that their art remains uninfluenced by outside trends. Moreover, a lack of dependence on technological devices like cell phones and the Internet helps to preserve a real connection between the people and gives the artwork an authentic intimacy. But sadly, Donnelly predicts that this will eventually change as regulations loosen and the country becomes more westernized. “Things are likely to change in Cuba quite soon, and I think that these changes will be big and happen quite quickly,” he surmises. “This will definitely influence the art, for good or for bad. So I feel like this film has really captured an important moment in time.”