The chasm between the rosy image that some foreigners have of life in Cuba and the reality that has led more than 200,000 Cubans, many of them young people, to flee by any means necessary—that’s 2% of the country’s population that has left in this calendar year alone!—is not often reflected in film produced outside of the island.
The current migration crisis that has swept over the island has surpassed the Cuban Rafter Crisis of the nineties and all other migration waves since 1980, combined. These collective waves aside, a great irony is that the areas in which Cuba and its Revolution have excelled are often the very pathways that enable individuals to leave the island, through the performing and visual arts (including dance and music) and athletics.
In the case of the short film VIVA, Emmy Award-winning director and South Florida native Esteban “Steven” Petersen presents the story of Lorena, an 18-year-old ballerina trying to escape Cuba by any means necessary—ideally through excelling as a dancer, but she doesn’t rule out taking her brother’s homemade raft across the Florida straits. VIVA is a proof of concept for a feature film that Petersen hopes to make that would reflect the daily struggle and hardships faced by everyday Cubans, through the story of a Korean-American businessman who goes to Cuba for work and ends up meeting a dancer and learning that there’s much more to Cuba than what meets the eye.
“VIVA” has already picked up the “Best Actress” honor at both the PAMA festival in Paris, France and the DTLA Film festival in Los Angeles, as well as “Best Foreign-Language Short of the Season,” “Best Drama Short” and “Best Original Screenplay” at the Indie Short Fest, Los Angeles International Film Festival, and “Best Foreign Short Film” at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The full-length version is scripted and was ready to go just as the pandemic hit. The only thing missing to pick up the project now? Financing.
Petersen contacted us at Startup Cuba because he had seen a write-up we did about the history of the Korean community in Cuba and the related film Jeronimo. Turns out that Jeronimo Lim himself was Petersen’s great-uncle! We recently had a chance to connect with Petersen through (what else?) Zoom, to learn about his motivations behind making the short film, and his aspirations for a feature.
The following interview is edited for length and clarity.
Startup Cuba: When did you start getting reconnected or connected at all to the experience of going to Cuba?
Esteban “Steven” Petersen: I live in Los Angeles now, but I’m from Miami originally, and Miami’s always been very connected and close to Cubans and the Cuban community there. We still have so much family in Cuba. So even as a kid, when our relatives would be able to get travel visas and come to visit Miami; they would stay in our house. So you know, seeds were planted. I don’t have any siblings, it’s just me. And I love family. So, knowing I had all this family in Cuba was always this window into a world of family that I could access at some point… Around the late nineties I started taking trips there to visit, to connect with all of my cousins and aunts and uncles.
Startup Cuba: Do you have a message through the film that you want to give Americans who are hoping to go to Cuba?
Esteban “Steven” Petersen: The whole point of this film is that I don’t think that most Americans know about the reality of life in Cuba, the reality of life for the people in Cuba. The day-to-day is a terrible struggle. There’s so much suffering and the Cuban people need our help. I would love for a general audience to know that the Cuban people desperately need our help as a place so close to our border that has been so intertwined in our history and our politics for so many years, and, I think, is, widely misunderstood—the perception of it, I believe, is so different from the reality of it, which is really fascinating.
Cuban culture is so beautiful, and it’s so colorful, and it’s so rich, so vibrant. So it’s hard to imagine how a place that has all of that could be a place of suffering. How could it be in such need of help? So I think that it’s like the things that make the pillars that make it beautiful and incredible are also the things that I’ve kept people in the dark about the truth going on there… I found when I was trying to fundraise for the feature that people were like where is this? This is like back in the fifties or or sixties, or I was like, no, this is happening today, and people didn’t believe me. So hopefully, it raises awareness that leads to some kind of action or movement.
That’s what I hope to share and shed light on with an American audience.
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Startup Cuba: Some of the main ways people find a pathway out of Cuba are through either the performing or visual arts, which include dance and music, or through athletics, where you could be part of a team that travels internationally and then perhaps stay in the country where they’ve competed. I’m curious about how you landed on ballet in particular. Was that because you wanted to show the Cuban tradition of ballet? Or did you have a connection to that community? How did you decide that that was going to be your vehicle to show people’s desire to escape through individual talent?
Esteban “Steven” Petersen: I’ve been fortunate to go to art school throughout my background. Growing up in Miami I went to an art school there called New World… I was in the theater program. A lot of my friends have always been dancers. And when I went to Syracuse University for theater, I was always connected to friends that are dancers, and so I had a little tiny window into that world. … And then, as I would go to Cuba to connect with family, I have a relative who is a dancer and that was his way out, to join the ballet, and then try to eventually get on the touring company and escape So I just thought that was so fascinating, because also, you know, being in South Florida, a lot of the news, especially growing up in the eighties and nineties, it was always about the rafters, and the folks that try to escape, or were caught by the Coast Guard, and all these tragic stories about deaths at sea. And then there was Brothers to the Rescue and these different organizations that would try to bring to light the desperation of Cubans trying to escape.
But then there’s this other path, whether it’s through art or sports. Like if you’re a kick-ass baseball player, and you’re able to get drafted, and you’re able to get out that way. Or then there’s this other way. I thought that was beautiful. It’s like these people that have this talent and this spark inside of them. Dance is this other path which is kind of a more elegant way, and it’s a long shot, but it’s almost like truly gambling on yourself and your own abilities and in this big competition of all the other talented people, your peers that know you’re in this dance company to use that, to try to escape. So it was a mixture of seeing it and being around it and then also having somebody in my family who chose this as his way to try to get out of there.
Startup Cuba: Did you film the short in Cuba? What are your plans for filming the feature?
Esteban “Steven” Petersen: I tried to film in Cuba and I wasn’t able to because the Cuban government refused to give me a permit after evaluating my script. I ended up shooting in the Dominican Republic…. The project is ready to go and we plan to film in Cartagena. I had the cast and the financing ready right before the pandemic, and we were supposed to shoot in May 2020 and when the pandemic obviously stopped all that, travel and production and everything shut down. That was also a time where the funding was pulled for the actors. I had a window to do my project, and their letters of intent expired. So with the little money I have once production started up again at the end of last year I got together with the other producers, and decided to make a proof of concept. Often it’s easier for somebody to just watch something for a few minutes than read a script … So this short is supposed to be a little tiny sliver to represent the tone and the style and the message, and the heart, to try to raise money for the feature.