Cuban filmmakers Heidi Hassan and Patricia Pérez discuss their collaborative film charting a lifelong friendship
Reprinted with the permission of Caribbean Beat Magazine
Heidi Hassan and Patricia Pérez are filmmakers, and best friends. Born and raised in Cuba, with its utopian promises, they both eventually fled the island and its hardships. Pérez left first, for Spain. Hassan followed over a decade later, settling in Switzerland. For a long time, they had no contact.
Then Hassan and Pérez decided to approach each other again, the best way they knew how: by making a film. Consisting of a series of video letters between the women, In a Whisper features diaristic footage they had been shooting for years as well as poetic narration, recounting their years in Cuba plus those in Europe when they were effectively lost to one another. The result is a moving exploration of friendship, loss, exile, alienation, nostalgia, motherhood, and the redemptive potential of filmmaking.
By any measure, In a Whisper — which last December won the top prize at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the most prestigious event of its kind — is a significant achievement. Jonathan Ali speaks with Hassan and Pérez about tackling a quintessential Caribbean subject: the emigrant experience.
This conversation was conducted via email. For the most part, the filmmakers chose to respond collectively.
When did you decide you were going to make this film?
We have worked together many times before, but it was always one who directed and the other who edited or shot the film. However, when we were close to the age of forty, we felt the need to reflect on what it meant for each of us to approach that moment, how we were living it, and what emotional and professional point we were at. We talked a lot with each other at this time, so it was talking about these things that made us decide to make a joint film, an audiovisual exchange, because we knew it would be through this process that we would find the best answers. Tell me about the form the film takes.
Did you know from the beginning it would be structured as a series of video letters?
The structure of the film was something that was very clear from the beginning. In fact, the desire to make a movie together stems mainly from our previous epistolary correspondence. Obviously, we did not know the number of video letters we would make or the duration they were going to have, but we always knew the narrative would be articulated through them.
Video letters were an ideal way to structure this story primarily because they naturally allow you to have a very intimate relationship with a person who is far away. Also, this structure offers a huge space of creative freedom where objective or subjective images and sounds can coexist harmoniously.
Another great strength of the film is its use of archival video, much of it video of your time together in Cuba. At the time you shot that video, did you think it would come to have meaning as it does in the film?
If something characterises us both, it is the need to record our lives. That can be by writing a letter or a note, taking a photo, or recording a video. In the case of Heidi, most of the time it is more elaborate than that, and manages to crystallise into a self-portrait. In the case of Patricia, it is more spontaneous, and depends solely on having the camcorder with her.
It is difficult to say with absolute sincerity if we imagined that our videos would end up in a film. When you record, deep down you want something to happen with those images — you don’t want them to stay in a box for many years. But you are also aware that most likely nothing will happen with them. So it has been very comforting to be able to find a cinematic space for them.
In the case of the images we made in Cuba, the answer is blunt: we never expected them to end up in a film, and much less with such prominence. It was fate that made both of us keep a record of that common experience so that they finally came together in In a Whisper.
The film blurs the distinction between truth and fiction. Could you say something about this creative treatment of documentary?
It was clear from the beginning of the project that although our experiences are the main sap that nourishes the film, the most important thing for us is the exchange between artistic experience and life. We were never interested in being completely faithful to reality because that could limit us.
Even wanting to be completely faithful to our autobiography, we are talking about approximately fifteen years of our lives condensed into an hour and a half of film. It is a work of intense synthesis that inevitably leads you to rewrite your own life, to gather events, to give them greater or lesser importance as the film needs. We are also talking about two protagonists and the need to create a contrast between the experiences and the views of both. So many times we had to accentuate our differences to make that contrast more revealing.
In a Whisper is a very honest film; you both open up and bravely reveal your innermost selves. Was there ever a time when one or the other (or both) of you contemplated quitting making the film? Now that it is done, has it given you a sense of catharsis?
There were very difficult moments during the process of creating the film, since it was very long. Perhaps if it had been a short film made in a short period of time we would have had more of a catharsis. Actually, the most complicated thing is not foregoing your privacy — what became more difficult was that life was going at one speed and the project at another, and there is a moment when you have to unfold in two: your real self and your character in the film. Both are living the same processes but not in exactly the same way, and this is something that drains you enormously because you have to think as if you have two lives.
When the stories that one tells are not personal, it is easier to defend them in the face of the producers and other people who finance the project, but when it comes to your own story — in which you are also going through a particularly fragile moment — it can be more difficult to convince them. It is tremendously exhausting. There were times when we felt too exhausted to continue, but I don’t think there was a real possibility of abandoning the project. If we had abandoned it, we would have returned to it days later, because the need to do so was stronger than anything else.
The film does not show you both reuniting in Europe. Why not?
It is a question we were asking all the time. In the scripts we wrote, the meeting always happened, and we even shot possible meetings, but in the final assembly we did not even consider them. There is a moment in the creative process in which it is no longer you who has the reins, but the film itself.
When we assembled the final sequence of the film, we understood that there was nothing more to add. It became clear to us that it was better that the encounter occur in the imagination of the spectator.
In a Whisper
Directors: Heidi Hassan and Patricia Pérez