Like so many Cuban-American children of exiles, Miami-born Julian Yuri Rodriguez grew up hearing stories about the fabled island, about Havana’s narrow streets and Varadero’s endless white beaches, about a life long gone but certainly not forgotten.
His maternal grandmother, Luisa Almeida, was Rodriguez’s favorite raconteur. Though she has never returned to Cuba after leaving in 1958, before Fidel Castro’s rise to power, she created a world that sparked a young boy’s interest. Years later, the result of those storytelling sessions would give rise to Paisajes De Mi Abuela, (My Grandmother’s Landscapes) a short film that uses virtual reality technology to bring alive Almeida’s treasured haunts. It makes its debut Friday at the National YoungArts Foundation as part of the Borscht Film Festival.
“I grew up with the mentality that you don’t go to Cuba,” said Rodriguez, 26. “You don’t know why, but you hear these stories about an uncle who was a political prisoner for 20 years and that Fidel slit someone’s throat, and this place becomes like a forbidden island.”
Rodriguez did visit Cuba for his film, and he did so with an unusual set of tools. First, he recorded his grandmother in Miami telling stories of four specific locations that were special to her. He used binaural audio technology, which creates a 3D audio effect.
Working with longtime friend Andres Rivera, who has family in Santa Clara, he used a 360-degree rig with seven cameras to capture footage of those sites: the street where Almeida grew up; the building that housed the all-girls school, Colegio La Inmaculada, that she attended; the spectacular grounds of Havana’s Cathedral; and the famous azure beach of Varadero.
Back in Miami, the filmmakers then edited together the audio and 360-degree video and uploaded it into the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. They also documented Almeida as she revisited the places of her youth through the wonder of modern technology.
The result is a an eerily realistic film that puts the viewer in the middle of each scene, with the ability to look up at a cloudless Havana sky or down at the plaza in front of the cathedral or into the long rows of pews inside.
Rodriguez, Almeida’s only grandson, says the experimental film is his gift to an 82-year-old grandmother he admires for her energy — at 80, she traveled to Australia — and her verve.
“I wanted to do something for her, but I also wanted to connect with my roots,” he explained.
The project was also inspired by a fellowship at the Sundance New Frontier Lab in Miami, where Rodriguez was encouraged “to experiment, to go beyond what most people do in filmmaking.”
The immersive and interactive experience is certainly that, although the project was not easy to execute. Rodriguez had always wanted to visit the island, but it wasn’t until Rivera, 28, returned from his first trip there that the idea became a possibility.
“When I was in Cuba [in November 2013], I kept thinking, ‘Julian would love this,’” Rivera recalled. The friends agreed to travel to the island together, but initially there were no plans to film.
“Then one night I got a call from Julian at midnight, and he was full of energy and you could tell he knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Rivera called.
He did. He wanted to bring his grandmother’s world back to her. They borrowed the special equipment from the Borscht Film Festival office and flew down in April, spending a week in Santa Clara with Rivera’s family but traveling to Havana to shoot the film. They were surprised that they weren’t hassled while filming.
“You look at the equipment and it looks like a bomb, with its blinking red lights,” joked Rodriguez.
Back home, the editing proved tricky. “When you edit each scene,” Rivera explained, “you have to make sure you sync all seven cameras. It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.”
Watching Almeida’s reaction to the footage was its own reward. “Blew her mind,” Rodriguez said.
Almeida admits she was nervous when she found out what her grandson intended to do in Cuba. The result, however, was worth it. “It’s amazing, it’s incredible,” said Almeida, who previewed footage as a gift for her June birthday. “I cried. You feel you’re right there in the middle of things.”
Rodriguez, who also is rolling out another film, Lake Mahar, at the film festival, initially became interested in filmmaking as a teenager, but it wasn’t until two years ago when his mother brought him a camera that he actually began shooting. He directed music videos for local acts and worked on the now-canceled Starz series Magic City. The videos caught the eye of Lucas Leyva, one of Borscht’s founders, and the festival awarded him a grant to create C#ckfight, with Ariel Castro.
It proved a breakthrough work. C#ckfight got into 35 film festivals, winning Best Short Film awards in San Antonio and Toulouse, France. Other accolades came quickly, including a Knight Foundation grant and a Mastermind Award from Miami New Times. Rodriguez has also written and directed other short films, including Somos Chavalos, an adaptation of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem We Real Cool.
Rodriguez and Rivera hope to continue experimenting with virtual reality technology. Their next subject: the unaccompanied minor Cuban children who came to the United States through the Pedro Pan project.
“It has a lot of potential to bring young people closer to their culture and history,” Rivera said. “But it also allows the older generation to relive their memories through a visual representation.”
Both Rivera and Rodriguez say they hope the film “starts a conversation and opens the line of communications between families.”
Check it out
What: ‘Paisajes de Mi Abuela’ by Julian Yuri Rodriguez is one of the rides at The Multiverse, The Borscht Film Fesitval’s DIY sketch of a theme park devoted to some of the infinite realities Miami contains.
When/where: 7 p.m. Friday at the National YoungArts Foundation campus, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Cost: Event is free. RSVP to OTB@youngarts.org.
Film trailer: https://vimeo.com/97078421.