My Cuba, Al Jazeera, new

South African director Brian Tilley talks My Cuba, produced from Cape Town.

South African Brian Tilley was the series director on Al Jazeera’s upcoming My Cuba, produced from Cape Town by Big World Cinema. 

My Cuba screens on Al Jazeera from 22 August 2016. 

Tilley visited Cuba with Al Jazeera executive producer Sylvia Hines for research in October 2015, three months after the country restored diplomatic relations with America. He made three more trips between December and April 2016, directing four documentaries and mentoring a Cuban director on another two.  

Each documentary follows a Cuban from a different walk of life, offering a rare glimpse of the country behind the headlines. The series features TV comedian Luis Silva (Pánfilo), ballet dancer Laura Rodriguez, community worker and Female Rumba Association founder Regla Gonzalez, rural shoe maker Alexis Martinez Pena, wedding and event planner Ailed Guevara, and Jose Enrique Gomez, whose job is to make sure his neighbourhood have the best fireworks, lighting and float displays at the Las Parrandas carnival, even if it means preparing 150 000 handmade fireworks. “Generally we all live in this bubble of globalisation,” says Tilley. “Cuba doesn’t. It’s still very different from the rest of the world. It’s always surprising, never predictable, and makes you think about a lot of things the rest of the world takes for granted.”

These differences are obvious watching My Cuba. Infamously, the internet is a recent arrival in Cuba, where it’s still only accessible to most people as wifi in public squares, which makes browsing the internet a social rather than solitary experience. Similarly, private phone lines are still rare enough in some areas that they can be rented out to the community. 

“Cuba is fascinating in so many ways,” says Tilley. “The tourist industry is now booming but the country is still one of the few remaining socialist states, so a taxi driver will earn 30 dollars before lunch on tips and a doctor will earn 30 dollars a month. There are amazing things that work really well and other things that go against anything you’ve been brought up to believe.” 

My Cuba is the follow-up to Al Jazeera’s successful 2015 My Nigeria series, which won a Bronze at the New York Festivals and was short-listed for a One World Media award. Tilley was the series director on My Nigeria, which was also produced from Cape Town by Big World Cinema. 

The My ... series was conceived and commissioned by Ingrid Falck, head of documentaries at Al Jazeera English, as part of the network’s commitment to giving people from the global south a platform to bring their own stories, in their own words, directly to the world.  

Catch My Cuba on Al Jazeera from 22 August 2016.