Filming los Bailaríns de Cuba
While Cuba seems poised to encounter immense social changes in the coming years, many of the island’s traditions remain intact—including its reputation for training internationally acclaimed ballet dancers. This is the subject of Associate Professor of Film Mary Jane Doherty’s latest project. Over a span of three years, she is documenting the lives of six children between the ages of 9 and 15, all of whom hope to star in Cuba’s National Ballet. She chanced upon a newspaper article about Cuban dancers who had defected to the United States and realized that ballet in Cuba, with its strong visual and emotional appeal, would be an ideal topic for a documentary. “The movie came with visuals and music built in,” Doherty says. “I could show how Cubans move and hear music, the things you cannot describe in words.”
She compares ballet’s place in Cuban culture to that held by professional sports in the United States. Principal dancers are national celebrities, and for many children and parents, ballet represents a ticket out of a life in which ration cards determine access to basic needs. Based on the Soviet model, Cuba’s system of ballet schools provides talented youngsters with rigorous training at no cost. But it is extremely competitive.
“I could show how Cubans move and hear music, the things you cannot describe in words.”
Around the age of six, children audition for entry to local ballet schools. If accepted, they spend hours in the studio every day in preparation for another audition, at age 15, for entrance to the National School of Ballet. Over the course of the filming, several of Doherty’s subjects will try for a coveted place at the National School; for those who are unsuccessful, years of arduous training will come to an abrupt end, along with their hopes for a better life.
Doherty’s primary intention as a filmmaker is not to inform, but to engage. Like her previous films, this project is a “narrative documentary” that aims foremost to reach the audience emotionally. She avoids interacting with her subjects—whom she calls her characters—through interviewing or other methods familiar to traditional documentaries. The fourth wall, as it were, remains in place, although the narrative unfolding behind it is entirely real.
Narrative documentaries pose a distinct challenge to the filmmaker, who must capture significant moments in the characters’ lives and weave them into a coherent story line, without the benefit of pre-production or multiple takes. To do so, says Doherty, requires “an equal partnership between filmmaker and subject.” On each of her seven visits to Cuba in the first year, she has been greeted with a sense of trust and intimacy that she describes as “almost uncanny.” All six dancers have invited her into their homes to film their private lives. But in order to maintain this trust and portray their lives honestly, Doherty must be careful to remain an observer and avoid manipulating the film’s narrative.
Having found what she calls “a natural story,” Doherty sees little reason to interfere with the events unfolding before her. “For the first time in my life,” she says, “the film is walking into my camera by itself.”