Carnegie Mellon University


May 30, 2018

Student Spotlight: First-year Students Film Documentary about Cuban Culture

As part of a course on documentary filmmaking, first-year business administration students Carolina Quintana and Alexandra Van Praag traveled with classmates to Camagüey, Cuba, during their spring break to conduct video interviews focused on the country’s art and culture.

Dietrich College Cuban Interactive Documentary Project, a semester-long course offered by Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology (IDeATe) Network, is a multidisciplinary course offered by the English department. Quintana and Van Praag’s classmates included undergraduate and graduate students from several majors across the campus.

“It’s truly remarkable that first-year students were able to get involved in this kind of project,” said Jennifer Wegner, executive director of the Undergraduate Business Administration program. “One of the most important aspects of being at CMU is the access students have to so many significant experiences, especially outside the traditional boundaries of business education.”

In order to be a part of this unique kind of learning opportunity, expenses are involved. However, thanks to the Dean’s Office, students were provided monetary support to go on the trip.

The first part of the course, created and co-taught by Entertainment Technology Center professor Ralph Vituccio and filmmaker Andres Tapia-Urzua, focused on building core filmmaking skills. They studied everything from technical functions like framing techniques, lighting and cinematography to storytelling techniques such as editing and interviewing.

A key aspect of the course included a trip during spring break to Camagüey, a major city in Cuba, to film interviews with residents. Ten students from different schools and majors throughout the university, including Van Praag and Quintana, traveled together to Camagüey.

“They’re all amazing people. We all had really different experiences and come from different backgrounds, but we all came together as a team in Cuba,” Quintana noted.

“Communication was the tool that I sharpened the most, because not only did we have to communicate among the team, but I was translating and making sure people understood each other,” Van Praag said. 

Following the trip, the course turned its focus to producing the documentary. One important aspect of the project is that the documentary is interactive, which gives the viewer more control over the experience. Students were actively involved in developing the backend code, in addition to editing footage and creating English subtitles. The film was finalized and presented on May 3, 2018.

While the documentary is intended to highlight Cuban art, Quintana said the true focus was on the people themselves.

“People in Cuba are really into family,” she said. “They sacrifice what they love to be able to provide for their family. But for them, it’s not a sacrifice; it’s a duty for their family.”