By: Niki Fritz
Media School lecturers Steve Krahnke and Susanne Schwibs helped create a documentary Cuba: The Forgotten Revolution that is set to air in February through American Public Television. But this is really the punchline to this documentary creation story, a process that has been over five years in the making.
For years, director Glenn Gebhard had been collecting stories about the Cuban Revolution. The interviews he had gathered told a narrative much more complex than the Fidel-Castro-as-revolutionary hero story many of us briefly heard in our high school world history classes. When Glenn brought the interviews and the complex story of the other heroes of the Cuban Revolution to Krahnke five years ago, Krahnke was fascinated. As a rule, he never works on any documentaries where he actually knows a lot about the topic. Given that Krahnke knew almost nothing about the Cuban Revolution, or Frank Pais and José Echeverria, two forgotten heroes of the struggle, he decided to take on the project as the executive producer.
Since Krahnke’s forte is in managing and not in weaving stories, he asked Media School colleague Susanne Schwibs to come on board as the writer and editor. With hours of raw interview footage from family members, surviving revolutionaries and scholars, Susanne now had the complex task of trying to tell the unknown story behind the Castra-centric one man myth.
“With any film the real challenge is to know what to leave out,” Schwibs explains. “You don’t want it to be an assembly of facts and figures, instead you want to connect viewers with a few major themes, e.g. what makes people do what they do, or the idea that history is complicated, that it’s not simply a matter of the big personalities everyone remembers.”
For Susanne this meant telling the stories of Frank Pais, a mild-mannered Sunday School teacher who started an urban underground guerilla movement, and José Echeverria, an architecture student who started a powerful student group in Havana. While Pais and Echeverria had the same goal as Castro – overthrowing Batista – they had different ideals and different strategies. Both Pais and Echeverria were killed during the revolution, leaving Castro to fill the void.
As Krahnke explains, “It’s not the winners but the surviving winners that write the history. Pais and Echeverria were killed before the revolution was complete so they couldn’t participate in the telling of their stories.”
The fact that both the central characters of the documentary were dead and also little known made finding visuals for the documentary difficult. Fortunately some of the surviving family members of the forgotten revolutionaries shared old photos of these men. This visual element along with the voices of the surviving family members helped bring their stories to life.
Susanne also relied on experts and scholars of the time period to give her an overarching view of the story.
“The special challenge was that in many ways one has to get it ‘right;’ it can’t just simply be how I understand it, or the director sees it, or eyewitnesses remember it,” Susanne says. “I also realized quite quickly that eyewitness testimony was good for providing personal perspective, offering a visceral sense of a historical moment. When it came to explaining the larger picture, the political or historical ‘meaning,’ if you will, I quite deliberately limited myself to statements made by the historians and scholars. The person who lives the moment, has a different perspective from a researcher who has looked at all the evidence available.”
The mixture of two different men’s stories along with scholars’ interpretations brings complexities to the story the documentary tells. But Krahnke notes, with the PBS audience, that is not an issue.
“It is a film about complexity so it is complex. The PBS audience is smart. This isn’t a shark week show. That’s not what we’re doing.”
Krahnke explained that the documentary is multilayered. First the documentary tells the story of two men who mattered but had been forgotten. At the same time, the documentary also strives to teach people that revolutions are complicated and people should question the simple story the press tells; a fact that resonates especially now with the Arab Spring and revolutions across the Middle East.
It is a story that is also timely, as talk of the opening up of borders has just started. Hopefully this documentary, will show people Cuba is more than Castro.
“It is difficult when you are myth busting because people are tied to their myths,” Krahnke says. “We didn’t set out to make an anti-Castro film. We just wanted to say it’s more complicated; there are people that made real sacrifices that have been lost to history.”