I co-founded the documentary department at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in Cuba in the late 1990s. During my time at the film school I accompanied documentary students to various filming locations as we pushed, sometimes naively, at the envelope of what was and was not permitted to be filmed in Cuba. The subjects of cigars, rum, architecture, old American cars, dance and Cuban music became the staple diet of these wannabe documentary filmmakers. Also, all things Ernest Hemingway were seen as safe documentary propositions that would get green-lighted by the tightly controlled film school.
During one of these student documentary scouting trips, I visited Cajio Beach, a small rundown fishing village that was off the tourist track on the unfashionable south coast. Here, the beaches were covered in red mud rather than white sand and a solitary hotel had long ago been blown away by a typhoon. Dozens of lithe, weather-burnished fishermen rowed tiny skiffs with peeling paint, each with an identifying number daubed on its bow, out into the bay of Batabanó, only returning once their iceboxes were full of snapper. It was a scene Ernest Hemingway might have imagined when he penned The Old Man and the Sea in 1951.
I had first read Hemingway's novel at age 8. As I surveyed the scene at Cajio Beach, I realized its elegiac atmosphere and epic themes had stayed with me.
Fast forward to 2014. A film about adoption I was working on had collapsed, and I was looking for another subject to steal my heart, rob me of five years of my life and leave me teetering on the edge financially. Most things I do aren't really planned--they just happen. That's when my Cuban interpreter's name popped up on my Skype window. We hadn't spoken for years, and we reminisced about my time at the Cuban film school and our days fishing in Cuba. I've always been a keen fisherwoman.
There I had it, my next project--fishing, Cuba, Hemingway and a reacquainted Cuban friend to arrange it. My years working at the Cuban film school enabled me to wangle unfettered access under the guise of a cultural exchange. That December, after President Obama announced to the world that America and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations, my Cuban fixer friend left the island along with thousands of his compatriots. Cuba was once again in flux. This triggered us to get on the ground in Cuba as fast as we could, as we knew every documentary maker and their dog would soon converge on Havana.
Years later, I was back at Cajio Beach. Tiny fishing skiffs bobbed in the cobalt blue bay. Nothing had changed. It was as if I'd drifted back into Hemingway's world, but this time with a camera. I met and befriended Orlando, an enigmatic Cuban fisherman, his much younger wife Mariela and their four children. I entered their simple, proud, pre-industrialized world that was bereft of technology, but rich in family values. On the horizon, however, the specter of change loomed in the shape of the American illusion. Whereas Hemingway's old man fought to hold onto a giant fish, I would soon discover that Orlando would fight to hold onto his values and loved ones.
-- Kim Hopkins