Documentary puts U.S. embargo on Cuba in the spotlight

By LAUREN SCRUDATO

New Jersey Herald

newsroom@njherald.com

NEWTON — Joe Guerriero tells the story of a journalist who could not acquire batteries to recharge her electric wheelchair while in Cuba because of the United States’ embargo against the country, which has been in place since 1960. The woman, a journalist/psychotherapist, had to resort to getting pushed by her husband or wheel herself to get around. This small act of inconvenience is among the many others Guerriero encountered while filming his first feature documentary regarding the embargo, entitled “Curtain of Water.” The premier of the movie is Thursday at Sussex County Community College. The nation’s ongoing embargo against Cuba 53 years after the Cuban revolution inspired Guerriero, an adjunct professor at SCCC, to produce a documentary addressing the opposing views on the topic. Guerriero, who also directed the film, has made 11 trips to Cuba over the last 14 years and has witnessed the impact of the embargo firsthand. According to Guerriero, “Curtain of Water,” or “Telõn de Aqua,” is timely because the public consciousness about the topic is rising. Last week, Cuban President Raul Castro assumed the presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in a demonstration of regional unity against U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government through the 50-year-old economic embargo, according to the Associated Press. Newly-sworn-in Secretary of State John Kerry has shown some openness to relaxing the tough U.S. stance on Cuba and Defense Secretary hopeful Chuck Hagel has called the U.S. embargo against the communist-run island “nonsensical” and anachronistic, the Associated Press also reported. The United States sanctioned the embargo, the prohibition of trade and business, against Cuba in 1960. “I was surprised by how many of my students didn’t even know what the embargo is,” Guerriero said. Guerriero, an adjunct professor at SCCC for the last seven years and a photographer for three decades, became interested in Cuban culture in 1999 during a photography workshop that focused on telling stories through photographs and documentaries. Through the workshop, Guerriero worked on a project regarding Chinatown Havana. David Alan Harvey, a photographer for National Geographic, initiated the first permitted educational photography workshop in Cuba in 1999, which Guerriero attended. The trip led to 11 more solo visits with a production license in hand to Cuba from 1999 until 2013 and included other various small projects. One dealt with the Santeria religion, which resulted in a book entitled “Babalawo: Father of Mysteries.” Guerriero’s trips to Cuba allowed him to witness the impact of the embargo firsthand. Over the course of two and a half years Guerriero interviewed 21 individuals from both Cuba and the United States, 15 of whom are featured in the film. When Guerriero first developed the idea for his film, he wanted it to demonstrate an activist’s point of view (he opposes the embargo), but upon further thought, he decided to keep the film balanced and investigate both sides. “I want people to watch it and decide for themselves,” Guerriero said. Guerriero focused on getting the perspective of local residents such as farmers, jewelers and carpenters who are both pro and anti-embargo. Another pro embargo source was Bicence Echerry, a well-known Cuban writer. He also spoke with officials and organizations in the U.S. such as Sandra Levinson, the director at the Center for Cuban Studies as well as members of Pastors for Peace. According to Guerriero, Pastors for Peace is a group of volunteers who collect donations around the country and have sent medical and educational supplies to Cuba every year since 1992. Their cause is illegal because they break the embargo terms, he said. Editing the film was a challenge for him. He found it difficult to maintain his focus because he had a wealth of multimedia that told stimulating stories of the daily lives of average Cubans. Guerriero’s wife, Diana, who is a teacher in Newton, aided Guerriero in his project by being the “fuel in my engine,” according to Guerriero. He described times when he wanted to call it quits but she pulled him back and made sure he continued to pursue his goal. Guerriero also credits his brother-in-law for focusing his vision as well as editor Drew Oberholtzer, who has worked for National Geographic and HBO, for polishing the rough cut. Guerriero said the main obstacles while producing his film were caused by the laws regarding the embargo. During one of his trips to Cuba, his camera was stolen right off the back of his chair in a cafe and he had no way to legally purchase another one because of embargo restrictions. He also had trouble getting Cuban locals to speak with him about anything related to politics. Guerriero funded the documentary through a Kickstarter campaign where he raised $9,000 that all went toward production costs and post-film editing. He said he does not anticipate making any money off his documentary, but, if he did, he would make a donation to the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City. Guerriero’s students at SCCC will be attending the premiere on Thursday and, he said, they are now very interested in the topic. The premiere is open to the public. “They (Cubans) have become stronger because of the embargo and have learned to deal with it,” Guerriero said. “But they wish it would go away.” Guerriero will be traveling back to Cuba this May to conduct a 10-day general photography workshop. Information about the trip can be found at joeg.com.

If you want to go

First screenings of “Curtain of Water,” or “Telõn de Aqua,” are at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, at Sussex County Community College’s Performing Arts Center. It also will include a photo exhibit of Joe Guerriero’s work during his trips to Cuba. Feb. 17: Film-release party at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.

Information about the 10-day workshop in May can be found at joeg.com. Information about the film can be found at http://www.curtainofwater.com.

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