BY MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY | Opinion Journal
“We would meet every evening at midnight at a tourist location in a bathroom and give the tapes under the stalls. We didn’t want to take any chances.”
Sound like a James Bond novel? Try a day in the life of a foreign filmmaker in Havana. A filmmaker other than Oliver Stone, that is. The tape handoff was just part of what American director Heidi Ewing went through last summer, when she and her Italian cameraman, Marco Franzoni, and her co-producer, Rachel Grady, went to Cuba to film its most prominent dissident, Oswaldo Pay�.
The product of those four days, a 20-minute documentary called “Dissident,” artfully captures Havana’s physical and spiritual struggle against totalitarianism. The film screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last weekend even as Mr. Stone’s originally scheduled puff piece on Fidel, “Comandante,” got scratched. That is its own testament to the waning popularity of the Cuban dictator in so many formerly friendly venues.
Ms. Ewing had visited Cuba several times before the National Democratic Institute in Washington approached her about doing a documentary on Mr. Pay�, who is under 24-hour surveillance. She knew that any hope of coming home with uncensored celluloid would depend on outsmarting the regime. And she did.
Mr. Franzoni’s lens captures the kindly face and attractive demeanor of Mr. Pay�, making him a sympathetic underdog to the finger-waving Fidel. There is no malice when Mr. Pay� speaks of the regime’s tools of repression, only determination. He wants change “peacefully.” He confesses to knowing fear but has also pledged that hate or fear will never rule him. To those who keep watch for Fidel, outside his family home, his message is clear: “You are my brother. . . . I don’t hold the only truth and neither do you. Let’s look for the truth together. But don’t impose your truth on me.”
There are hundreds of identifiable Cuban dissidents. But Mr. Pay� has won international recognition for his Varela Project, which he began in 1996. It takes advantage of a loophole in the Cuban constitution that allows for legislative initiatives for any petition with 10,000 Cuban signatures. His petition, which asks for open elections, free speech, free enterprise and the release of political prisoners, has garnered 11,020 signatures.
Mr. Pay� is an impressive figure in the film. But it is the few ordinary Cubans who agree to speak candidly who make the film extraordinary. They bravely share what few foreigners ever hear—the resentment, loathing and fear of a “static” system that abuses its own people. “It is an indignation for a government to do with its people whatever it wants,” says one thin elderly woman. “Fidel is more afraid of ideas than of weapons. He is armed up to his teeth. But ideas? Ideas are dangerous.” A young man in a bar vows to beat up anyone who criticizes the Comandante. But when Ms. Ewing asks him about dissent he tells her to cut the camera. Ten minutes later he is back to say: “These are things you cannot discuss here. Because you get to leave here. But I have to stay.” His eyes speak fear.
In an interview in New York last weekend, Ms. Ewing and Ms. Grady explained how they managed to fake out state security. A key to their success was that Ms. Ewing speaks Italian. She and Mr. Franzoni posed as a European honeymoon couple. Ms. Grady traveled as a U.S. tourist but never met with Mr. Pay� and was never in public with her partners. When it came to getting the tapes out Cuba, she was the perfect mule.
“The exterior shots we did with a telephoto lens. I would be speaking Italian into the camera like an Italian tourist [sending greetings back home], and Marco would be using the telephoto lens shooting over my shoulder, shooting Pay� in the street.”
Those shots take the viewer on a tour around tragic Havana, a picturesque, if horribly rundown, colonial jewel. The contrast is stark between the courageous Mr. Pay� optimistically on the move and so many Cubans loitering on corners and stoops. Mr. Pay� speaks of hope and change, but the city appears discouraged and fearful, and resigned to do nothing more than pass time until Fidel dies. “Nobody trusts anybody, nobody trusts their neighbor,” the director said. “Don’t speak too loud; it’s all part of the culture of fear.”
Ms. Ewing, who is no hard-line ideologue, is worried that her subjects might be forgotten under a policy of d�tente. “There is this twisted relationship growing between Europe and Cuba and the U.S. and Cuba that’s all about turning the other cheek. And even now, the stuff that happened in March there [i.e., a crackdown on dissidents], it’s like it’s gone away, it doesn’t matter and these people are in jail for 25 years. How is that not sick?”
Ms. O’Grady edits The Wall Street Journal’s Americas column.