On the evening of November 9th, I gathered in the Ballard Institute of Puppetry theater to watch four short films produced by students with old-fashioned 16-mm cameras. The films were made in a workshop conducted by Cuban artist Juan Carlos Alom, a filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited throughout the world, and Aimara Fernádez. Alom is a team member of our Fino and Global Cuban Cultures collaboration, which is in the build phase of project development. The event was sponsored by the University of Connecticut: School of Fine Arts; Robert H. Gray Memorial Lecture; Greenhouse Studios; Literatures, Cultures & Languages; El Instituto: Plank Lecture Series; Humanities Institute; Global Affairs; Dodd Center; Human Rights Institute; Connecting with the Arts; and Center for the Study of Popular Music.
In the beginning of the workshop, Alom inspired the students with a screening of his own short 16-mm film and instructed the students to, "Shoot freely. Express yourself." The student filmmakers definitely lived up to Alom's invitation. Their work, created in only one day of shooting due to the nature of 16-mm film, also wowed the audience with the professionalism achieved in such a short amount of time.
The first film, Wolves (Remix), was produced by Carly Zaleski, Nicolas Panasci, and Mitchell Britton. It consisted of grotesque imagery—blood, skin, knives, puke, and more—cut to the beat of curiously upbeat retro music produced by by DMD student Mild Monk (Henry Stein) and TheKidNaki (Panasci). Viewers were transitioned into a twilight zone, expressing the effectiveness of the directors’ choices.
Shaving Cuts, by Mitchell Britton, was the second film played. It begins with calming "elevator music" and a young man facing the bathroom mirror as he prepares to shave. The pleasant music is in contrast to the grainy film and setting, which brings to mind the infamous shower scene in Psycho. The young man continues shaving until his face is all bloody, climbs into the bathtub still clothed, and relaxes in solitude smoking a cigarette.
The third film screened was The Vegetarian, produced by high schooler Flavio Clermont. It is a silent film that follows Flavio as he contemplates the meat industry and vegetarianism, expressed through the imagery of Horsebarn Hill animals, the supermarket, and food places in the Storrs Center. It climaxes to cuts of a sloppy hamburger and leaves the audience with mixed emotions about their dietary habits.
Last but not least, The Pond was screened. Produced by Christian Partenio, Cat Boyce, Ryan Glista, and Xie Yinzi, it tells the exciting story of a man who disposes of a dead body in a pond. We follow him as the tension rises, as he numbs his anxiety with nips from a flask, and drives into the wilderness. The film ends with a shot of a pair of eyes opening up, suggesting it was all a dream.
The Fino Project
Some of the craftsmanship and expression that inspired the student short films is what we can expect from the Fino and Global Cuban Cultures Greenhouse Studios collaboration with Jacqueline Loss. A professor of Latin American and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at UConn, Loss specializes in Cuban literature and culture. Together with Alom, Loss and the rest of the project team are exploring the concept of fino, or "refinement," and its significance to contemporary Cuban culture globally. Loss explains:
Here in Finotype, I want us to think about how Cubans of different generations, classes, sexual orientations, and races envision what it means to be refined, fine, educated, picky, and glamorous, to be elegant, effeminate, sexually repressed, or just a tad more, say, "pure." While it may seem that what it means to be "fino" is inbred, a kind of heirloom passed down through generations, it also emerges from overlapping lived experiences, historical conditions, and events. While other communities of Spanish speakers use "fino," "finura," and "fineza," Cubans' usage of the terms becomes especially fascinating if we think about how the revolution attempted to create an equal lifestyle among all, in contrast to the differentiation of lifestyles that exists within capitalist societies.
The Greenhouse Studios effort is just one part of a larger research project begun by Loss several years ago. The project explores the concept of fino through a particular historical lens, specifically how old systems of colonization and slavery created modern day sentiments. Loss, a literary and cultural critic, approached Alom and suggested that, together, they might figure out a way to visually assess this question. From there, Loss conducted interviews with a diverse cross-section of Cubans about the topic of "what is fino" while Alom filmed. Their plans include a full-length documentary as well as a website to showcase their photo essay and allow the global Cuban community to contribute materials that describe what fino means to them. You can see their current work in progress at finotype.org.
Loss explains that the collaborative work environment of Greenhouse Studios has been successful in combining the work of a scholar and artist while also bringing out the tensions of their intersecting identities. Loss states, "Not only does the project entail a translation from Cuban Spanish to English, it also involves a translation between Juan Carlos's and my own perceptions of race and class and of the visual and textual realms."