Activismo: Art & Dissidence in Cuba

The Art created by Cuban artists embodies the freedom of expression, which is the heart of the creative impulse. With innovative public performances, they engage audiences to produce awareness of the tyrannies of censorship, prohibition of dissent, imprisonment of activists, and restrictions on the process of Art itself.

This documentary will educate viewers about the power of art to transform societies and improve human conditions. Featuring prominent Cuban artists, the film introduces those artists in particular, who became activists or dissidents by using conceptual and sometimes controversial artwork, not only to inspire and challenge, but also to advance the function and purpose of art.

Today, artists considered dissidents are becoming powerful, respected voices for social change (e.g., Ai Wei Wei of China; J.R. in Paris; Tania Bruguera of Cuba). By informing a larger public to alternative views and promoting the socio-political transformation of dysfunctional, authoritative regimes--their Art creates the necessary impetus for change. Although some of Cuba’s dissident artists have been jailed or imprisoned as a consequence of their actions, their artwork continues to inform European and American audiences about the political, social, ethical problems in Cuba. Dissident or political art is principally motivated by a higher aspiration to move societies toward enhanced human rights, sustainable environmental policies, personal and political freedoms.

  • Philip Sugden
    Director
    White Lotus
  • Carole Elchert
    Director
    White Lotus
  • Carole Elchert
    Writer
  • Philip Sugden
    Producer
    White Lotus
  • Tania Bruguera
    Key Cast
  • Jose Toirac
    Key Cast
  • Jose Angel Vincench
    Key Cast
  • Geandy Pavon
    Key Cast
  • Juan-Si Gonzalez
    Key Cast
  • Octavia Cesar Marim
    Key Cast
  • Elvis Fuentes
    Key Cast
  • Rachel Weiss
    Key Cast
  • Jason Baker
    Videographers
    Double Take
  • Alex Goetz
    Videographers
    Keepers of the Deep, Story of the Wild, Saving the Tasmanian Devil
  • Jason Baker
    Editor
    Double Take
  • TJ Cooley
    Visual Effects
    Dark of the Night, Knock Knock
  • Jason Baker
    Visual Effects
  • Tim Story
    Music
  • Project Type:
    Documentary
  • Genres:
    Activism, Civil Rights, Art, Humanitarian, Performance Art, Dissidence
  • Runtime:
    43 minutes 10 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    May 31, 2021
  • Production Budget:
    30,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    Cuba, United States
  • Language:
    English
  • Shooting Format:
    Super 35mm
  • Aspect Ratio:
    16:9
  • Film Color:
    Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    No
  • Student Project:
    No
  • Berlin International Art Film Festival
    Berlin
    Germany
    July 16, 2021
    World Premiere
    Official Selection
Director Biography - Philip Sugden, Carole Elchert

With a passion for human rights and a commitment to Art as it functions to transform societies, co-directors Philip Sugden and Carole Elchert initiated this project with five prominent Cuban activist artists in 2016. Their own artistic collaboration began in 1980s when Sugden-Elchert traveled to produce artwork on more than 15 working trips to Tibet, Nepal, and other Himalayan regions. The 1988 Cultural Arts Expedition inspired their first PBS collaboration: the ambient film, White Lotus: An Introduction to Tibetan Culture. With in-kind technical assistance from Bowling Green State University’s WBGU PBS TV and grants awarded by the Ohio Arts & Humanities Councils and the National Endowment for the Humanities, these Ohio-based independent filmmakers created their first film and a companion book comprised of scholars’ essays as well as some of the 26,000 images amassed on that trip, which allowed artists from 3 continents to produce work. On their second and current production—Activismo: Art & Dissidence in Cuba—Sugden and Elchert also pursued artistic collaboration. Initiated in 2015 with a trip to Havana, Cuba, for interviews of prominent Cuban artists, the project’s main purpose is to reveal how Cuban artists specifically engage through public performances that promote social-political change through risk-taking art-activism and dissidence. Sugden, a visual artist and Professor of Art, and Elchert, a writer-photographer, both with four decades of national exhibits and public presentations—were inspired by the Cuban artists who struggled during Castro’s rule and today under repressive policies to secure the freedom of expression, which is the lifeblood of all artistic pursuits. The Activismo film production team not only includes Sugden and Elchert but also the Director of Photography and Editor Jason Baker—a visual storyteller—and Grammy nominee Tim Story, who composed a soundtrack of music inspired by Cuba to complement the artists’ voices and ideas.

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Director Statement

This film project—Activismo: Art & Dissidence in Cuba—is the culmination of the directors’ combined professional pursuits. As avid travelers on working trips, Philip Sugden and Carole Elchert were committed to fostering in university students the “world wisdom” that can be obtained by travel experiences. As educators, Sugden and Elchert promoted the essential balance of creative and critical thinking in their coursework but observed a disturbing decline in both for other educational emphases. As exhibiting artists, they were drawn to the worldwide efforts of artists’ whose work was provocative, controversial—recognizing the transformative function of Art and necessity of activism and dissidence in societies. Thus, their personal histories lead them to create the 2015 Havana, Cuba, trip to interview some of Cuba’s most prominent activist artists working for artistic freedom and social change, including Tania Bruguera, Jose Toirac, and Jose Vincench. For eight days, the filming team—Jason Baker and Alex Goetz gathering video footage and still photography by Carole Elchert and Philip Sugden—managed to obtain 15 hours of video of cultural sites as well as artists’ studios with artwork and historic interviews.

From 2016 for four years, the production team of Philip Sugden, writer Carole Elchert, and filmmaker Jason Baker worked with the five artists’ interviews that included Cuban artists living in the US (photographer Geandy Pavon, multi-media artist Juan Si Gonzales) and scholars of Cuban Art—Elvis Fuentes & Rachel Weiss—who explained the historical relationship of Cuban history and politics with the activism and dissidence largely channeled through Art today. The soundtrack composed by Grammy nominee Tim Story reflects both the vibrancy of the Cuban culture and the tone of its courageous artists, who are notable for street performances and civic engagement in what they called “artivism.” At 45 minutes, this film conveys the critical and creative thinking exhibited, explained, and extolled by Cuban artists in their artwork and their individual visions of how Art can transform. In all aspects of the film—text, quotes, interviews, news reports, historical information—the focus of production phase was Activismo’s educational, artistic, historic, aesthetic value as well as its capacity to reveal a coherent story for viewers’ appreciation.

Finally, once the Activismo film is reviewed and recognized at film festivals, the distribution phase must extend the viability of Art Activism to the widest possible audience: to students of art; to museums and galleries whose purpose is to disseminate artwork that exemplifies progressive visions; and most importantly, in the current state of international unrest, to those groups, countries, and activists worldwide who utilize protest, dissidence, and public engagement in their efforts to obtain freedom of expression, social justice, or democratic reforms. The content is not only timely for addressing social-political problems creatively, but is also instructive as an educational tool for individuals, schools, universities that wish to promote the visible, viable possibilities of critical thinking, art activism, practical dissidence. Thus, Carole Elchert will offer Public Presentations and workshops to educational institutions with the Activismo film and other project materials (artist interviews). Major exhibits of participating Cuban artists may be scheduled along with public screening of the film on a promotion schedule. Promotion might include overseas venues, esp. a major event at Tania Bruguera’s Institute for Civic Actions, dedicated to Hannah Arendt, in Havana, Cuba, with ongoing international workshops that extend the purpose of the film to a worldwide civic engagement and activism on the ground.