When Professor Bill Gentile took six American University students to Cuba as part of an AU Abroad program in fall 2011, the students returned with a better sense of themselves, as well as with a deeper appreciation and respect for Cuba and its people.
While in Cuba as a faculty member, teaching his “Photojournalism and Social Documentary” course, Professor Gentile documented the students’ exploration of Cuban culture and, with the editing help of his wife, Esther, turned over 100 hours of footage into an hour-long documentary, Through Their Eyes. Watch trailer
On January 30, the documentary was screened to a full house at American University. Five of the six students featured in the film were present to relive their journey and offer the audience an inside look into their experiences.
The documentary follows the students from the time they arrived in Cuba, through their travels around the country and the challenges they encountered. It concluded with highlighting each students’ photo journalism project, including some focusing on sustainable farming, Cuban tattoo artists, and observing everyday life on a particular street.
None of the students had used a professional camera before the trip, but each managed to capture a side of Cuba that was endearing, beautiful, and not something to be feared.
This unexpected discovery struck the students profoundly. During and after their trip, many of them found themselves questioning the measures the U.S. has taken against Cuba, and felt that back at home they had been offered a one-sided story.
“I think that U.S. policy has to change. There has to be a discussion,” said one participating student, Chelsea Crandall after the documentary showing. “An embargo is an economic attempt for a population to suffer enough so that the regime will change.”
Professor Gentile, whose wife is Cuban, shares the same passion for facilitating a dialogue that would bring about a new outlook on Cuban relations. His background as a correspondent and photojournalist in Cuba for United Press International and Newsweek Magazine helped prepare him for the trip.
“I take great amounts of joy from being able to practice a craft that offers me a chance to contribute to the discussion about Cuba. It’s a physically beautiful country with spontaneous, generous, and fun-loving people,” he explains. “It’s a country in flux with a nation of people trying to figure out what the country is going to be in the future.”
Students’ introspective journeys were also a prominent theme of the documentary. From exploring religion to reaffirming personal values to redefining what beauty means, each student walked away with a more profound sense-of-self.
“They grew to know themselves better, and I think that was what the film ended up really being about,” says Gentile. “I am so proud [of them], especially of how they had the courage to open up and let me into their lives while in Cuba.”
Through the students’ new cultural experiences that brought laughs and more solemn, thought-provoking moments, “Through Their Eyes” shared an eye-opening experience with the audience that was a sure step in opening a conversation about the current situation between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I would like audiences to get sense of the real Cuba, one not tainted by extremist positions,” says Gentile. “Also, I hope they get a sense of the wonder and reward that comes with foreign travel.”
Professor Bill Gentile created “Through Their Eyes,” a documentary that follows his six students on their semester abroad in Cuba, and the self-exploration they experience along the way.