Gloria Rolando’s Documentary Film, Reshipment, Recalls a Little-Known Chapter of Haitian-Cuban
By Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna
Afro-Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando is best known for her documentaries on
the African diaspora in the Caribbean, and her latest film, Reshipment (2014)
continues this theme.
It reveals the complex story of Haitians lured by the tens of thousands
to work in Cuba’s sugarcane fields during World War I. These early 20th
century immigrants were enticed to leave their island nation—home of the
only successful slave revolt in the Americas—for the promise of a better
life. Some of them were fleeing the oppressive U.S. occupation. Others were
seeking better economic conditions. But what awaited most of them in Cuba
was racism and strife.
After the sugar industry experienced a market crash in the 1930s and
Haitian labor was no longer needed, an unspeakably inhumane tragedy befell
these immigrants and their descendants. In 1937, Cuba began its policy of
“reshipment.” Haitians were boarded onto ships returning them to Haiti,
forcibly and sometimes so abruptly that family members were left behind.
Reshipment (in English subtitles) captures the resiliency of the Haitian
returnees and their relatives left in Cuba. It also documents Haitians’
enduring contributions to Cuban culture. On
Fri., March 27, 6:30 p.m.,
Reshipment will have a free screening in New York City at Teacher’s
College, Columbia University, as part of the “Women in Film” series of the
African Diaspora International Film Festival. ADIFF will also show Rolando’s
film, Oggun, about the Yoruba Orisha, during its Candomble &
Santeria Program (click link for cost), Fri., March 27, 8:00 p.m.
This writer interviewed Rolando during her fall 2014 U.S. tour of
Reshipment. Here, the Havana-based filmmaker discusses the importance of
preserving history and her commitment to telling stories showing connections
among African descendants in the Americas.
Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna: How have audiences responded to Reshipment?
Well, some people were a little familiar with the work that I have
been doing before, and they [were looking forward to my next documentary on
the topic of migration of the Caribbean… I am really happy with the
response. [Viewers] understood my intention: to [pay] tribute to those who
migrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century with many hopes and
how terrible a situation they had as poor, black foreigners [who] arrived to
make some money and then go back home and improve their lives.
Many of your films explore inter-Caribbean migration. What are a few others?
GR: I made Cherished Island Memories: A History of Cubans and Cayman
Islanders about the people of the Cayman Islands who migrated to Isle of
Pines in Cuba and My Footsteps in Baragua about the people from Jamaica,
Barbados and Trinidad who migrated to Cuba.
NCT: Are you finding that
audiences are generally familiar, or not, with Reshipment’s subject matter?
GR: When we talk about the African diaspora, sometimes people don’t
know very much about what happened in the history of the Caribbean—and Cuba
is a Caribbean island that shared many destinies with other Caribbean
countries. Even if we speak Spanish and others speak French or English, we
have many things in common. So I think that the expectation, the interest
and the reaction that I see [in U.S. audiences] are because people want to
know what happened with the rest of the blacks in the continent.
Normally, they say, “We didn’t know anything about this; we didn’t know
anything about that.” Through my films, they get a little bit. I cannot
cover in a documentary of one hour the whole complexity of the history of
the Caribbean countries, of our history as black people. But at least people
[can] get some elements that allow them to continue studying or [doing more]
research, especially the young generation.
NCT: What are a few of the
highlights from the tour?
GR: Most important for me is [learning] how
much we need [films about] our history. There are so many chapters that we
don’t know between each other. This surprised me. [Then again, it did] not
surprise me because I know that sometimes, in official history, we don’t
I [also] like the contact with the young generation—to open
their eyes and to see how much they want to learn. My English [is] not so
good, [but] I try to give them what I know. Also [through] the questions
that they [ask] me, I learn about the necessity to explore a certain aspect
[of history] that I didn’t realize before.
NCT: How did you learn about
this chapter in Cuban history?
GR: Through the literature—a filmmaker
needs to get in touch with literature, with other films and with history. …I am not the only or the first Cuban filmmaker to talk about Haiti. Many
others before me did the same in fiction, documentaries—docudramas more
recently—or old, Cuban films.
NCT: Can you give examples?
The Spanish translation of Haitian writer Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the
Dew [was an inspiration to Rolando]. And in Cuba, we have a beautiful
feature film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea based on Roumain’s novel: The name of
the film is Cumbite (1964).
So what I am doing is a continuation of
their work, especially now that many years have passed and the generation
that grew up inside that Haitian community is getting old. [The descendants]
are Cuban now, but in the past, when they were children, they had the same
life, the same destiny as their parents.
NCT: The music in the film is
at times hauntingly beautiful, especially the opening song. Was it hard or
easy to find songs that would complement the story?
GR: In the case of
the choir—the vocal group Dessandan—they are Haitian descendants [who live]
in Camaguey. I knew about them because sometimes they have presentations in
Havana. I could not exclude them from a film like this, because it was an
important voice, and they are the people who maintained this tradition.
And the song, “From Haiti to Cuba,” by Ebenezer Semé, [that opens and
closes the film] was made before the film. … Semé played that song in one
cultural activity [that she attended] in Camaguey. And when I listened to
that song, I jumped from my chair and said, “This is the theme for the
NCT: Why have you made documenting African descendants’
contribution to Cuban society your mission?
GR: It’s part of the Cuban
history. It’s part of [what Black people] living in the African diaspora
need to do. We have many, many faces; we [must] try to present our
contribution to the history and the religion and the spirituality. And I am
fascinated by it.
Selected Films by Gloria Rolando
Breaking the Silence, Parts 1–3 (2010–12): This three-part
documentary series tells what happened during the Massacre of 1912 in which
more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color, the Western
hemisphere’s first black political party outside of Haiti, were killed by
the Cuban Army: 50 minutes each with English subtitles.
Cherished Island Memories (2007): This
documentary is about the founding of Jacksonville, Isle of Youth, Cuba, by
immigrants from the Cayman Islands: 38 minutes with English subtitles.
Roots of My Heart (2001): This feature
film—about the Cuban Army’s massacre of more than 6,000 members of the
Independents of Color, the first black political party outside of
Haiti—follows a young woman as she finds out about her family’s roots, which
include disturbing revelations around the 1912 Genocide: 51 minutes with
My Footsteps in Baragua (1996): This
documentary tells the history of Cuba’s extensive West Indian community,
including Jamaicans, Barbadians and many others: 53 minutes, in English or
Spanish with subtitles.
Oggun—An Eternal Presence (1991): This
documentary is about the Orisha Oggun, the god of war and peace, metals and
civilization, as experienced in the life of Lazaro Ros, the prominent Cuban
Yoruba singer and founding member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional: 52
minutes, with English subtitles.
Learn more about these films and purchase the DVDs at
Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna is a cultural
journalist based in Washington, D.C.