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Wickham: Cuba filmmaker turns lens on African diaspora

DeWayne Wickham

Documentarian tells heart-wrenching story of immigrant experience of Haitians.

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BALTIMORE — I’ve long thought of Gloria Rolandosimply as a Cuban storyteller. But as the most recent work of this award-winning documentary filmmaker shows, she is much more than that.

She is one of this hemisphere’s leadingdocumentarians of the African diaspora — the community of people of African descent who were forcibly shipped, or migrated, out of Africa to the Americas.

A 2009 winner of the Medalla Federico Fellini, Rolando works mostly in Cuba, restrained in travel and access to equipment and audiences by the more than half-century old U.S. economic and political blockade of her country.

Though this isolation has slowed her down, it hasn’t stopped her from telling stories that have largely been ignored by historians beyond the shores of her native land. Her latest film, Reshipment, is one. It’s an account of the lives of thousands of West Indian laborers — most of them Haitians — who migrated to Cuba during the early decades of the 20th century to work in the sugar fields.

USA TODAY columnist DeWayne Wickham talks to Gloria Rolando, a Cuban documentary filmmaker, about the connections between artists of the African diaspora and her recent works.

Rolando uses the voices of these workers’ descendants — and of Caribbean historians — to tell the heart-wrenching story of these people whose dreams were dashed when they were forcibly returned to Haiti after Cuba’s sugar industry collapsed in the 1920s and 1930s. And she reveals that despite their eviction, their music, language and culture had a lasting impact on Cuba.

“My work is basically around storytelling and the voices of the people … that sometimes don’t appear in the official history. But it is very important that they talk because they made possible many chapters of the history” of the Africa diaspora, Rolando told me during her visit to Morgan State University — one of a dozen universities she’s visiting during her long-awaited U.S. tour. Among her stops were Indiana University, Rutgers, the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt University.

Rolando has been making documentaries for more than two decades, but her work has only recently been getting wide noticed in the U.S. You can credit Reshipment and1912, Breaking the Silence, her bone-chilling account of the massacre of thousands of members of a black political party in Cuba, for her heightened profile in the U.S.

The latter documentary tells the story of the life and death of the Independent Party of Color, the first black political party in the Americas outside of Haiti. That political organization was created in 1908 by Afro Cubans, who had fought in Cuba’s war for independence, to push for racial, political and economic equality in Cuba.

While it was the Cuban army that carried out the massacre, Rolando reveals that the Cuban government was pressured to move against the black political party by a U.S. government that worried about what influence the party’s existence might have on U.S. blacks.

Rolando also reached beyond Cuba’s borders in The Jazz in Us, a 2004 documentary about the love a group of young Cubans in the 1940s and 1950s had of American jazz. It uses interviews and wonderful scenes of Havana jazz clubs and house parties to show how these Cuban jazz devotees clung to the music of their youth — and to each other — through decades of change in their native land.

As with all good documentaries, The Jazz in Us uses precious nuggets to tell a larger story. Nothing makes clear the link between the documentary’s now-aging Cubans and the rhythmic influences jazz had on them than a scene in which a Cuban man hand dances with two women at the same time. He explains that he learned to do this in the 1950s while a student at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black school in Daytona Beach, Fla.

In her next project, Rolando plans to chronicle the role a Baltimore-based order of black nuns played in the lives of her mother and other Cuban women of that generation. Like so many others that she has taken on, it’s a story that cries out for telling.

DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.

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