the Rhythms of Cuba
By David Turnley
1997, working as a photographer for Life magazine, I went to Cuba with
Muhammad Ali. We had the opportunity to connect very quickly with the
heart and soul of the Cuban people for whom Muhammad Ali is a hero.
I was enchanted by the sensuality, the pathos, the exuberance, the tension,
and the incredible visual quality of Cuba.
Three years later, after a Nieman Fellowship studying documentary filmmaking,
I was given support and funding from Corbis, a digital image company,
to shoot and direct a feature-length documentary. We wanted to choose
a theme that would be compelling to a mass audience and to use small
digital cameras to achieve a look and an intimacy that I have tried
to find in my photographic work.
As my thoughts turned back to Cuba, I imagined that there must be a
kind of "speakeasy" in every quarter of Havana where Cubans
go to dance. But during a research trip, we found out quickly that there
is really only one place where working-class Cubans have always gone
to dance - a club known as La Tropical on the edge of Havana, the "Apollo
Theatre" of Cuba. I immediately fell in love with the place - a
funky, run down, open-air amphitheater that turns into a gyrating pool
of passion as the sun goes down. La Tropical would serve as our central
character and the window we would use to reach into the everyday lives
of a cast of contemporary Cubans. It also became clear that the history
of La Tropical would offer a look at the legacy and importance of race
With two-month visas, we went to Havana in the summer of 2000 with a
crew that included a producer and a world-class sound engineer. There,
we worked with a driver and a brilliant young Colombian woman, Arianna
Orejuela, who has been in Cuba for the past 10 years and who is currently
writing what will certainly be among the notable references of contemporary
Every evening during June and July we filmed the daily concerts and
cabarets at La Tropical. I worked as the principal cameraman, usually
with a second camera. For a couple of important concerts, we worked
with as many as six other cameramen. During the first week, we cast
six to eight characters, whose lives I then tried to immerse myself
in from morning until night during the next eight weeks. This work I
did by myself, working both the camera and sound and speaking Spanish
without a translator. I found out very quickly that this was the only
way that a kind of confidence, conversation and serendipity would happen
that would provide the opportunity to witness this variety of characters
"living" their lives in front of the camera.
We shot 300 hours of footage using, principally, a small Sony DV camera.
We also collected some 100 hours of interviews from musicologists, sociologists,
historians and ethnographers, and recorded hundreds of music tracks
at La Tropical using a DAT recorder.
Before going to Cuba I made the decision to shoot the film on video
in black and white. My rationale had to do with wanting to create a
powerful visual aesthetic, to capture the timeless quality one feels
there - it is as if nothing has changed since the revolution in 1959
- and to capture the passion and grittiness of contemporary Cuba.
I interviewed a number of talented editors before selecting Chris Horn,
who worked with me for a year to edit the film. Chris came from a commercial
background and his work had a feel I loved. I found him to be
temperamentally and sociopolitically someone whom I respected enormously.
We built a structure together, then tried to establish a process that
let the edit have its own organic quality. It is as if Chris co-directed
the film, and I feel very fortunate because of our collaboration. The
difficulty of trying to weave together an enormous quantity of music
while using a foreign language and a voiceover with no narrator made
the edit a challenge, and a large number of people participated in the
I will always feel that I am a photographer who has taken on the challenge
of the extra layers of storytelling enabled by moving-image narrative
filmmaking. "La Tropical" is now making the circuit of dozens
of film festivals, and it just won the Golden Light Award for Best Documentary
in the Miami Film Festival. We are seeking a theatrical and television
I am back at work as a freelance photographer and filmmaker and would
like to continue pursuing different forms of narrative storytelling,
including photographic book projects, exhibits and filmmaking.
David Turnley's Photo Gallery