For Cuban Refugees, a Return to the Homeland by Way of Virtual Reality

Paisajes de mi Abuela, a 3D film for the Oculus Rift, is a visit to the once-forbidden island.

Jan 1 2015, 4:00pm

​A Cuban refugee in Miami explores Havana through an Oculus Rift. Image via Julian Yuri Rodriguez

For filmmakers Julian Yuri Rodriguez and Andres Rivera, who grew up in Miami, Cuba had long been a "forbidden island."

"I always heard beautiful stories about Cuba, but at the same time because of what happened with Fidel Castro, you are forbidden to go there," says Rodriguez, 26. His own grandmother hadn't been back since she fled in 1958. But last spring, together with old friend and cinematographer Rivera, Rodriguez traveled to Havana to bring a little bit of the country back home, in a way it had never been captured before: with a virtual reality experience that would let his grandmother visit her homeland again without ever crossing the border.

The 3D film made for the Oculus Rift, Paisajes de mi Abuela (My Grandmother's Landscapes), revisits the landscapes of Rodriguez's grandmother's memories—the church she was married in, the street she grew up on, the beach she went with her family as a child. Tourists snap pictures of the church. Shirtless boys play baseball with a rock and a stick. 1950s cars drive by on a busy street. The waves lap the sand on the beach. The 360-video lets you explore each simple vignette as if you were there. "My grandma's a cry baby, you know," says Rodriguez. "As soon as she saw it, she started crying right away."

She hasn't been the only one to get emotional. Many Cuban-Americans live in exile in Miami, unable to visit the place where they grew up. When Rivera showed the film to one of his friends, who had escaped illegally ten years ago, the reaction was instant. "After he took off the Oculus, his eyes were full of tears."

The film is far more sentimental than the last film project Rodriguez and Rivera worked on together. C#ckfight, a dark, surreal narrative short Rodriguez wrote and directed, featuring a rape and murder in an underground Miami fight club, is worlds away from Paisajes. Still, it's deeply embedded in the Cuban diaspora that the two grew up with, and from which they drew early inspiration for their early films and music videos, often for local rappers. After C#ckfight was accepted into festivals across the US, Rodriguez and Rivera were awarded a grant to turn it into a 3D installation, marking the first time they experimented with the Oculus Rift.

For months, Rodriguez and Rivera had been planning on presenting Paisajes at an evening of interactive video during the Borscht Film Festival in Miami this month. And then, a lucky coincidence: on December 17, the Miami Herald published a story about the film on its front page—on the same day the White House announced that the US would ease relations with Cuba. "It made it seem like we had Obama on text," jokes Rodriguez.

Andres Rivera holding the 3D GoPro rig. Image: Julien Yuri Rodriguez

That night, so many people came out to experience the Paisajes film on the Oculus there was a line that snaked around the building. "A ton of people who wanted to see it didn't get a chance," says Rodriguez, "so we got most of their contacts and we've been going to all these different people to let them experience it."

The filmmakers have been spending the holidays making home visits, showing older Cubans in Miami the video on the Oculus headset. "You see people who are 80 and 90 years old wearing the headset. They fit so natively. It's not something they are scared of. You see them laughing and smiling," says Rivera. Their ease speaks to how far virtual reality technology has come, the filmmakers suggest. "They are not treating it like it's this technology video game or anything like that. They really feel like they are in these spaces," adds Rodriguez.

For the young director, the project was inspired by his grandmother, who recorded oral histories of four of her favorite places in Havana as a reference for the film's shooting locations. But the project also gave Rodriguez a chance to connect with his roots. "At school when you're a kid, everybody is eating Lunchables and you are eating weird soup. You know you are different from everyone around you growing up in America. You know you are from there, but you're not allowed to understand."

For his family, the thought of Rodriguez going to Cuba was not without controversy. And getting across the border wasn't easy either. "As soon as I got into Cuba, I went with a visa that said I was visiting immediate family, which was a complete lie," he explains. When he traveled to another town for a new visa, the police hassled him. "It was scary. You knew you were somewhere that wasn't America."

Working with the 3D technology for the first time was another challenge. "This was all new to me. I do regular videos, music videos, films. Virtual reality was something I'd never felt with," says Rivera, who explains they had to synchronize seven GoPro cameras, each affixed to each other and pointed in a different direction, and then stitch together the footage afterwards.

You feel like a ghost moving through the landscape. You see passersby and you want to wave, but you sense that they don't see you.

When watching the film—or experiencing it—you feel like a ghost moving through the landscape. You see passersby and you want to wave, but you sense that they don't see you. Because they were shooting video in every direction, the filmmakers explain, they had to make themselves invisible during the shooting process. 

"We have to start rolling and run away, hide somewhere, and then pray no one would steal our camera," says Rodriguez. Onlookers were curious. "People were confused about the camera. Even in Miami, no one is really used to seeing a 360 camera rig. The technology in Miami is weird enough, so taking it to a place that hardly has the internet was insane."

The filmmakers are not only documenting Cubans in the diaspora community in Miami as they experience virtual Havana; they also want to expand the project to revive memories of more people, especially focusing on the Cuban-Americans who left as children in the sixties as part of the mass exodus known as Operation Peter Pan. "We're trying to capture as much of Cuba as we can and the memories that are lying there," says Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, Obama's proclamation about normalizing relations with Cuba, the filmmakers say, has been divisive in the exile community. "Some people feel betrayed. Others feel the embargo has gone on way too long already," says Rivera. But even people who are very opposed to the government in Cuba are still intrigued by an immersive film about the country. "We showed it to a lady today who says she hates Cuba and would never go back, but she's still willing to try this technology," explains Rodriguez. "So far no one has told us we were wrong doing this project."