Angel’s Eye View
story by Michael McGovern / Andy Abeyta / sumi kim
“I really want to help tell the story of ordinary Cubans, the common voice, the people; that’s my starting point.”
- Angel Piedra Sardiñas -
Right before the Cuban economic depression, or Special Period of the early 1990s, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, right before everyday Cuban life would change permanently and drastically, Angel Piedra Sardiñas finished his testing to get into pilot school.
A documentary filmmaker and former director of news production for Cuban national television, Sardiñas grew up in the Cuban province of Villa Clara with his eyes toward the sky.
“As a kid, I wanted to be a pilot,” Sardiñas says. “A lot happened that I didn't know was going to happen to me. I didn't think I was going to be a university graduate. That happened. I said to myself I wasn't going to have a lot of children. I have four. I grew up on my grandparents’ farm. The life of television and cameras was really far from me. I never thought of it.”
During the Special Period, the Cuban Air Force closed pilot schools in Cuba and in Russia. Sardiñas needed to find something new. In 1988 at the age of 18, he enlisted in the military to become an aviation technician and spent a year as a cadet in Angola. The experience would change his life in ways he would discover later.
He returned to Cuba and studied librarianship in the armed forces, where he learned history and how to organize information. But after filming music shows, a new passion began to bud.
“When I started to enter that world, I started to love camera work,” Sardiñas says. “Almost everyone who joins that profession likes to work with cameras. So then I did the tests to enroll at Instituto Superior de Artes.”
Fortunately, this school didn’t close. Sardiñas would study production at the Cuban arts university for five years before graduating and going into television.
Working as a news production director, Sardiñas learned and contributed quickly, even amongst the budget challenges of the Special Period. In 2000, he remembers a country entranced by the coverage of the U.S.-Cuban immigration struggle over seven-year-old Elián González. His career was exciting.
Soon, a big responsibility was thrust onto him: he was promoted to director of all news production for Cuban national television. When Sardiñas approached the station director with doubts about his level of experience, the director said, “Well, that’s that, but you’ll do it and get the experience.”
As a state-owned institution, television, Sardiñas remembers, has restricted and censored its news coverage. “It doesn't just happen here; it happens at CNN, at ABC,” he says. “But the one difference here is that those who have the means in their hands already have outlined what it is they want to be transmitted, like ‘This is what we want to be said.’ Some absurd things have happened.”
Certain events in Havana, like a radio station fire or a train accident involving students, were tough to get authorization to cover. Sometimes the authorization would need to come from station management, other times from government committees. International media affiliates in the area would report on the stories, but those reports weren’t aired on Cuban TV.
“Fortunately, it’s a very different situation now,” Sardiñas says. “Coming from very senior levels, even as high as the vice president of the country, there is actually a call and appeal to Cuban journalists to be more critical, to not just report the information policies that you get. It’s a question of time. It can still go a lot further than it has.”
When his youngest child complained that other kids at school thought they didn’t have a dad, Sardiñas stepped down from his job. He began working as an independent producer for the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, where he has produced multiple short documentaries including Shut Down Guantanamo, which explores the history of the United States’ influence in Latin America and follows pacifist Cindy Sheehan’s visit to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, and Bendita sea la Marina, an experimental production in the Cuban neighborhood of La Marina that revealed its cultural and historical past by handing the cameras and other production responsibilities to the residents.
Despite a long career, Sardiñas remembers his proudest moment coming early.
“It was a debt I had to myself,” he says, “and then it was a debt to all of my colleagues who were far away in Angola.”
That debt was paid in the form of his first documentary. It examined the lack of available communication between Cuban soldiers and their families during the Angola campaign. The project was especially meaningful to one of his close friends who was injured in battle and sent home. The film, one he had to borrow cameras for, would later be broadcast on Cuban national television, helping to launch his career.
“No other documentary that I make, with all my equipment now, will ever be like that one that I made with virtually nothing,” he says.
He speaks of “Contar Cuba,” or to tell the Cuban story. “The benefit of being a filmmaker in Cuba is that I am from here,” Sardiñas says. “I live here. I try to understand it all the time. Cuban reality has lots of different nuances; things can be seen from many different perspectives. Just because you are from a place doesn’t mean that you will understand it.”
He recognizes a warmth within the Cuban people. It’s something he says is missing in other parts of the world. It’s something present in Sardiñas himself. There is a trustworthiness and honesty in his demeanor. He’s a man who recognizes his country’s challenges like the challenges of any other country, who wants his children to grow up in Cuba, who believes in the socialist system and its ability to improve. At 44 years old, not only would he like his own production company someday, but would also like to see more protections, opportunities and access to Internet for journalists in Cuba.
For someone who wanted to become a pilot, a job that can keep a person 35,000 feet above ground most of the time, he’s found a different calling: listening to the voices of ordinary Cubans, getting about as close to his neighbors as possible.
“The Cuban reality today, after almost 56 years of independence, is moving quickly,” Sardiñas says. “It wants to catch up with the world. That Cuban reality is important to document. And as a producer and a documentary maker, I want to be in the midst of all of this. I really want to help tell the story of ordinary Cubans, the common voice, the people; that’s my starting point.”