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Pace Students Chronicle Cuban Transformation With Documentary Film Trip

Student and faculty members of Pace's Cuba documentary trip. Photo Credit: Tianjin Li
Pace students traveled to Cuba last month as part of the university's documentary film class. Photo Credit: Tianjin Li
The film, which will debut this May, examines the island nation's transformation in the modern era. Here, Jonathan Forsgren films a scene on a rural farm. Photo Credit: Tianjin Li
Students conduct an interview on a Cuban farm. Photo Credit: Tianjin Li
Heidi Clorofilla shoots footage in one of Havana's many squares. Photo Credit: Tianjin Li

PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y -- What do President Obama, the Rolling Stones, and a group of Pace students and faculty have in common? Here's a hint: it involves palm trees and spring break.

Students of Pace University's Producing the Documentary course were in Cuba this March, as part of their upcoming documentary, which focuses on how the island of Cuba is preparing for expanded American tourism. Their trip took place over Pace's spring break, and coincided with President Obama's landmark visit to the island nation, as well as the Rolling Stones free concert in Havana late last month.

Prior to their trip, students in the class conducted extensive pre-production reporting and research, including interviewing American experts on Cuban history and environmental conditions. Once in Cuba under an academic visa, the filmmakers met with Cuban historians and experts in environmental and architectural conservation, explored farming on the island and toured a botanical garden. 

Getting to the travel-banned country was no walk on the beach, however. "The first problem that came up was the fact we wanted to make a video, which you cannot easily do in Cuba," said Maria Luskay, EdD a professor in the Department of Media, Communications and Visual Arts within Pace’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, who began planning the trip more than a year in advance. "Videographers generally must hire a fixer or handler to set an itinerary and smooth the path, but we didn’t have the funds." 

The trip was almost cancelled due to the increased security surrounding President Obama's visit, which happened to coincide with the class' trip. "But that is what makes the course such a good learning experience though; learning how to be adaptable and how to ask questions that may not have been scripted ahead of time," said Professor Andy Revkin, Pace's senior fellow for environmental understanding and a co-organizer of the trip.

On the screen, the documentary promises a look into daily life on the island. "The film is more about social sustainability more than environmental sustainability," said Revkin. "The students detail the best of Cuban culture and tradition even as modernity invades."

Over the last five years, the popular Producing the Documentary course has taken Pace students from Baja to Belize, and Portugal to Curaçao in an effort to help budding filmmakers see environmental issues from a unique perspective. 

"This is an exceptional opportunity for our communications students" said Luskay. "This class offers a significant opportunity for them to gain real-world experience they cannot get anywhere else. We make these trips every year and students are thrown into real documentary film production."

The documentary will premiere on May 10 at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville.

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