In Cuba, Drexel University Documentary Class Explores Life and Film

Drexel students in Cuba for a documentary course.

Anna Pruett, alongside her production team in Havana.

Xabier Saavedra didn’t know what to expect when he went to Cuba. None of his classmates did, really. He grew up in Mexico, and he thought it might be similar to the other Latin American countries he’d visited, but once he arrived in the communist state and saw its great disparities — the impressive quality of education and health care contrasted with the dilapidated buildings and infrastructure on the island — he knew he was somewhere unique.

“Havana is a super rundown place, but at the same time it’s super lively,” Saavedra, who graduated from Drexel University this spring with a bachelor’s degree in finance, said of the Cuban capital. “Those two things, you don’t usually see together. Even though it’s a Latin American country, it’s its own little beast.”

What better place for a group of college students to learn how to make documentaries?

Saavedra was one of a dozen Drexel students who went to Cuba last winter in the second offering of a two-week course run by Gerry Hooper, a teaching instructor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design with more than two decades of experience directing and shooting films. The class studied for a week at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV), a legendary film school founded in the 1980s by Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, Fernando Birri and Julio García Espinosa. They then went into Old Havana to make short documentaries on topics of their choosing alongside bilingual producers from the school.

Saavedra had made documentaries on his own before, but never with professionals, and never in a setting quite like this.

“People in this country don’t know a lot about Cuba because of the way it’s been caught politically, both in the Cold War and then within political agendas for either party over the past 25 years,” said Hooper. “It’s a place many people haven’t visited, so they’re stepping into something totally different, not just different from their culture but a different way of living.”

During the first week of the course, students spend their mornings in film screenings — many of them showing documentaries made by former EICTV students — and lectures with Enrique Colina, a filmmaker and adjunct faculty member at the school. In the afternoons, they take to the streets in small groups for location scouting, searching for just the right subject matter in a country with ample options. It’s in those afternoons and during the production process of the second week that students truly get to explore their artistic impulses.

“It’s left up to them to walk around these areas, to see what they see, to talk to people, to ask questions, to develop some ideas, all in a short period of time,” said Hooper.

Anna Pruett, a film and video major who graduated last June, took the class in December 2015, just after the United States re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years on ice. She was struck by the dichotomy she saw between the beautiful squares in Old Havana, full of fountains and beautifully rehabilitated buildings with large Spanish façades, and the overstuffed apartment buildings created by an ongoing housing crisis. Her group’s documentary, “Detrás de la Fachada (Behind the Façade),” focused on the human costs of the government’s narrow restoration initiative.

“There are all these people living in areas that are incredibly dangerous but they refuse to fix those until the tourist places are up and running,” said Pruett. “That was a really interesting and heartbreaking thing to witness.”

It wasn’t all heartbreaking, though. Pruett also spent time exploring those beautiful Spanish houses, and visiting museums dedicated to the decorative arts and Napoleon. She was also overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the people she met, many of whom invited her into their homes as she and her team conducted interviews for their documentary.

“It was a great experience, to be able to go to a place I’d never been before and experience a culture I’d never seen or even really had any idea about,” said Pruett. “To be able to get that on film was pretty incredible.”

Saavedra was awed by the art in Old Havana, where every block seemed to have three or four galleries, so he and his classmates made their documentary about the art scene, interviewing locals about their crafts and the strong support they received from the government to follow their passions.

“I got the sense people were more free to pursue what they were really interested in, and in many cases that was the arts,” he said.

By allowing students to go out and find stories themselves, Hooper said, the work they produce is as varied as their interests. One group focused its film on a pedicab driver in Havana who was a veteran of the Cuban intervention in the Angolan war for independence, for example.

The class isn’t just for film students, Hooper is quick to point out. Last year three graduate architecture students took the course because of their interest in the architectural infrastructure of the city and port in Havana. He hopes a similarly diverse group of students will join him this December for a trip that students have described to him as life-changing. Hooper will host an orientation session for this year's course in the first or second week of classes; for further information contact him at or 215.895.1637. 

The success of the documentary course led the Department of Cinema & Television to develop a second intensive course abroad. In spring 2018, John Avarese, associate teaching professor in the department, will lead a location sound workshop in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

“It is so immersive that you can’t help but learn a tremendous amount,” said Hooper, “not just about what you’re trying to do, which in Havana is a documentary film, and not just about the culture that you’re immersing yourself in, but about yourself and how you experience life when you step outside of your own comfort zone.”