Making It in Cuba is a 90-minute documentary film currently in production, profiling the ingenuity of Cuba’s 21st century makers. These computer coders, inventors, biohackers, artists, craftsmen and amateur radio operators continue to “make it” in Cuba, by taking on the everyday challenges that exist in Cuba. They power the creative engines of Cuban culture.
Cuba is famous for its vivid colors and classic American cars but daily life on the island nation is starkly different from much of the western world. Cuba’s free access to education from elementary school through to university, an adult literacy rate of nearly 100%, and more doctors per capita than any other nation, makes it a global leader in both education and healthcare. However, despite this, Cubans still struggle to access food, medicine and other imported goods. Instead, they must improvise or fabricate the conveniences and necessities that most westerners take for granted.
New digital technologies are bringing opportunities to an island of Makers and inventors. In December 2018, the Cuban government-owned telecommunications company rolled out a new 3G mobile wireless internet system, giving many Cubans their first experiences of internet connectedness. Despite these new possibilities, the U.S. trade embargo remains, and Cubans still face many of the same challenges that they have battled for decades.
Globally, the Maker movement is empowering ordinary people to solve problems themselves with technology. There are virtual social media communities of coders, tinkerers, 3-D printing enthusiasts and thousands of others with similar “do- it-yourself” (DIY) interests. They are discovering how to design and make the technologies they need. In 2018, nearly a quarter of a million Americans attended Maker Faires in New York and San Francisco, with tens of thousands more visiting smaller events throughout the world. More than half of new internet of new things (IoT) devices have been developed by companies that are less than three years old.
While this DIY technological revolution is a relatively new phenomenon in most of the Western world, for decades Cubans have been creating their own solutions to uniquely Cuban challenges. Continually striving to find ways to progress and excel despite limited resources, 21st century Cuban Makers epitomize the indomitable nature of the human problem-solving spirit.
Students at Escuela Taller de La Habana, a vocational school in Havana, learn skills necessary for the fabrication of parts used in the upkeep of the city. (Levi Maaia)
The film features a broad spectrum of Cuban Makers – from those developing organic and electronic solutions to use at thriving urban farms, to artists working in visual, electronic and musical media. It also explores what happens when Cuban ingenuity and powerful online digital tools combine for the first time!
MAKING IT IN CUBA
FORMAT & STYLE
Told through the voices and personal experiences of present-day Cuban Makers, Making It in Cuba focuses on their remarkable capacity for creating simple solutions to complex problems. We profile our Makers’ successes through innovation, improvisation and adaptation amidst the challenges unique to the modern Cuban experience.
The opening of our film establishes the big-picture backdrop of “ingenuity born out of adversity”, providing context for the inspiring human stories to follow. Through narration and on-screen interaction with our subjects in their own creative spaces, documentarian Levi Maaia consistently weaves together these compelling stories of ingenuity, creativity and survival.
Shifting back and forth between the subjects’ lives inside and outside and of their creative spaces, the documentary examines how their role in each of these places impacts the other, including their audiences and colleagues. To truly understand our subjects’ journeys, we also meet several Cubans who benefit from the Makers’ designs and creations. From this front-row seat, viewers have the opportunity to witness the new Cuban Maker movement taking shape.
Our shooting style pays respect to Cuba’s beauty and complexity with scenes fluctuating between the gritty and the polished, much like the contrast between the island’s aging infrastructure and the people’s sophisticated history of arts, culture and education. By adjusting both our camera and narrative “lenses,” we pull in tight on our Makers’ passions and the details of their crafts while widening our view to enjoy the beauty and enchantment of the Paradise of the Tropics.
MAKING IT IN CUBA
EXAMPLE MAKER PROFILES
Art and culture evolved
La Fábrica del Arte Cubano doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside the aging cooking oil factory, with its now-dormant smoke stack, is a hotbed of Havana’s modern art and music scene.
In English its name means “The Cuban Art Factory” but locals call it simply “FAC.” Cuban rocker X Alfonso opened FAC in 2014 as a “community project” in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. This special status means it is neither privately owned nor state-run and is able to operate with a fair amount of autonomy and free expression. The venue hosts avant-garde art exhibits and fashion shows, live music and film screenings. Over the past five years,it has become a hub of art and culture in Havana.
La Fábrica del Arte Cubano is the brainchild of Cuban musician X Alfonso. (Levi Maaia)
Connecting with radios & computers
Joel Izquierdo is an engineer by training but more recently he has made his way by driving a taxi in Havana. When he returns to his Cotorro home at night he can often be found tinkering into the early morning hours in the small corner of his living room that is set up as an amateur radio station.
Joel (or CO2YQ as he is known on the air by his government-assigned callsign) belongs to Radioaficionados de Cotorro (Amateur Radio Operators of Cotorro). Club members assist each other by sharing parts and helping one another erect huge homemade antennas atop their houses. It is a hobby they share with three million other amateur radio operators across the globe. However, Joel and his colleagues face some uniquely Cuban challenges to getting their signals out on the air.
Joel’s transmitter is a combination of modified commercial radios and homemade amplifiers connected to his Windows Vista PC. Using a few simple homemade antennas – including one he built from sugar cane – and a homemade computer interface, Joel has made more than 16,000 contacts with radio operators in more than 100 countries including all 50 U.S. states.
New electronics can be hard to come by in Cuba. Amateur radio operator Joel Izquierdo (far left) built this homebrew shortwave amplifier (above) to send his radio signals around the world. (Levi Maaia)
Organic urban farming has changed how Cubans, particularly city dwellers, access food. (Chris St. Peter)
Organic urban farming
Farmers across the world are known as some of the most ingenious problem-solvers but Cuban farming calls for even more ingenuity, patience and, sometimes, an artistic flair.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost its main source of agricultural imports: food, fertilizer, fuel and farming equipment. Without support from across the ocean, Cubans had to improvise once again during what was known as “the special period.”
In 2002, the Cuban government began the Program for Local Agricultural Innovation (Pial) in order to support the development of small organic urban farm plots. It wasn’t so much a desire to eliminate chemicals from the food supply as a necessity because of the absence of imports. This forced farmers to rely on ancient methods including natural insecticides and use of worms bred for use in quickly converting manure into fertilizer. More than 10,000 urban organic farms like Vivero Alamar at the edge of Havana have sprung up in what one might call the ultimate farm-to-table movement. The closer food can be grown to its consumers, the easier the supply chain is to manage.
While organic urban farming can’t solve all of the island’s food supply issues, these tiny cooperative farms are putting a significant dent in the problem with small-scale, sustainable farming in some unlikely spots.
Urban farming makes some tasks easier than they would be on a giant ranch but keeping aging equipment running is a problem that plagues all industries in Cuba. Cuban farmers need to be mechanics, botanists and chemists.
Organic urban farming has become Cuba’s food future, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables back to the Cuban dinner table.
MAKING IT IN CUBA
Levi C. Maaia
Director / Documentarian
Levi is a passionate educator and entrepreneur. He earned a PhD studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His ethnographic and cultural research has focused on the Maker movement. He currently serves on the education committee for a NASA-sponsored STEM outreach program aboard the International Space Station.
Levi is the recipient of a Cablefax Top Op award for his executive leadership in the cable television and broadband industry. He produced “A Beautiful Sound,” a PBS/WSBE documentary on the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School. He hosted and produced “Intents & Purposes,” an hour-long community affairs radio program on KCSB-FM focused on in-depth interviews with artists, researchers and scientists.
Noah is an award-winning showrunner, producer, writer and director. He has produced series for broadcast and cable television networks including ABC, Fox, Fox Sports, Discovery, Food Network, National Geographic Channel, and Comedy Central. He brings an unparalleled passion for storytelling to a variety of formats including competition shows such as “The Ultimate Fighter” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” scripted comedy including “The Showbiz Show with David Spade,” documentary series, talk shows, magazine shows and build shows. He directed the 2014 Fox Sports biopic “Anthony Pettis: Showtime” about the champion mixed martial artist.
Noah is a member of the Television Academy and the Producers Guild of America.
Shayne strives through her work to illuminate the beauty, interconnectedness, and depth of the human experience through poignant storytelling. She has a distinguished career as a television producer, writer, and editor with extensive experience working on international productions. Born into a multilingual family, and raised in Miami, she remains deeply connected to the rhythm and culture of Cuba.
Shayne has produced award-winning television series and documentary programs for network and cable TV including National Geographic, Discovery, BBC America, OWN, and Animal Planet. Her skills extend from the screen to the page; Shayne is a published writer focused on contemporary and Cuban fine art and is the editor of a recently-published entertainment industry memoir. Fluent in English, Spanish, and French, she has an extensive travel résumé.
Cinematographer / Editor
Brad has extensive experience in documentary film-making and reality television – from cinematography to supervisory editing to producing. The adventure and human connection of filming and producing in the field fuels Brad – as he experienced while working on the feature-length Ski Channel documentaries “Winter” and “The Story.” Brad has worked in the field as a producer-shooter on series and in development for History Channel, Discovery, National Geographic, A&E, Lifetime, Animal Planet, HGTV, and others. He served as a hands-on executive producer and showrunner for Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters” for six years and also was an executive producer for Discovery’s “Epic Mancave Builds,” National Geographic’s “Cabin Fever” and TLC’s “Home Sweet Bus.”
Chris St. Peter
Chris has spent many months studying in Cuba since his first trip in 2003 for a college study abroad program focused on Afro-Cuban culture and civilization. This class began what would become his fascination with the island and its people. After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in aviation management, he returned to Cuba to attend the University of Havana’s Foreign Language Program in 2004. Since then, he has traveled back to Cuba more than a dozen times, participating in cultural exchange programs and relief efforts. He has written for various publications on his Cuban travels and remains connected to the many friends he has made on the island.