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By Daniel Villalva

I had an opportunity to speak with Mitra Ghaffari about her short documentary titled Bicycle Island, a film that will be screening at the Watsonville Film Festival this Saturday, March 9th. Ghaffari had filmed this short as her MFA thesis film for the social documentation program at UCSC, this film portrays a mosaic of life in Havana with three stories about freedom, independence and mobility.

DV: “First, I kind of wanted to ask about your background in film, specifically with documentaries. Are there any documentaries that you watch that you really were trying to emulate? Or were there any documentaries that you felt like really inspired you in a way to make this film?”

Ghaffari: “I do think that this film is a reflection of my past work experience and just community work. And it doesn’t really reference a lot of film experience. I haven’t really done much in film before this, but it does pull from a lot of these types of collaborative community arts engagements and creative place making work. There is a focus on how to create collective  products in ways that feel representative of grassroots initiatives and social advocacy work, and ultimately centers around the people who are offering their time, energy, beauty and skills. For me, it always came back to how to help create a platform for the collaborators in the film and how to use the collaborators themselves as an inspiration, both for subject matter, but also for artistic approach and then what the distribution and sort of end goal looks like. One film that was an inspiration for the film pretty directly would be Suite Havana by Fernando Perez, who’s a wonderful Cuban director, and that’s sort of telling the day in the life of various Cuban actors and it’s a hybrid style documentary. Otherwise, I think I just was mostly inspired by the collaborators from the different artists and artistic interpretations that are presented in the process of production.” 

DV: “I wanted to ask why this story? I read that you do a lot of traveling and that you’re very cosmopolitan in your studies. So why was Havana the kind of the place that you wanted to tell this story? How did you kind of learn that it was more than just riding a bike to this community? ” 

Ghaffari: “So I use this project as an opportunity to combine all of my worlds. I have been based out of Havana, Cuba for the last eight years or so. Since 2016,  it’s been where I’ve worked out of mostly, even though I have had the opportunity to travel to another number of places through my work as a bike guide. In Havana, I got to do a lot of work in community arts and arts programming and got to meet so many inspiring, talented people. This film gave me the opportunity to create sort of a mosaic of all the things that I’m interested in, the people that I’ve spent the last many years working with and the topics that I find fascinating. I had sort of my bike world and my artist world, then my Cuba world and I tried to pull them all together for this film.”

DV: “I want to ask how you found the subjects for this documentary? A few that stood out to me were the Paralympic bicyclist that you interviewed, even the woman who worked at the animal shelter. How did you find these people?”

Ghaffari: “It was really fun to work with everyone because they were either longtime friends or friends of friends or people who sort of got pulled into the project once we started filming, but everyone was very directly correlated to my community in Havana. I had known most of the people in the film for at least a few years, some up to five, six, seven years. And so I started with them and then they would connect me with other inspiring bicycle stories. So Damian, the Paralympic cyclist was about to leave for the US about to leave for Colorado, which is actually where I’m from.  So I caught him just a couple of days before he took that flight. And he’s. Incredibly inspiring and has many stories, but it was nice to just hop on a bike with him and, you know, talk with him and try to hit some of the aspects of his identity and what the bicycle means to him, sort of beyond the tragic event that happened to him or some of his big accolades.”

DV: “Is this the first short documentary that you’ve worked on?”

Ghaffari: “So I had done a couple of shorter projects and some media work for different nonprofits and organizations that helped me get into the social documentation masters program at the University of Santa Cruz. That was sort of my prior experience, but I had mostly worked in some curatorial roles and some photography roles. So this was my first experience to dive in and be a one person band, fulfilling all the different parts of the production process and editing and everything else on the way”.

DV: “That’s something that I also was going to ask because, I feel like you and I are kinda in similar situations where we’re both studying film but new to making them. Was there something when you were making this film that you had a little bit of anxiety towards or maybe something you felt like, ‘oh I’m not ready to do this’, but you had to end up doing it?” 

Ghaffari: “Sure. I mean, in every aspect of the process. Something that at first I felt limited by and I still do now is trying to enter into the production world and try to make a career out of it. I feel a bit limited by, you know, the component of nice gear and having a bigger team to be able to raise the Production value, but I think for this project, what was consoling and what ended up feeling gratifying and like it fit well is sort of taking a community approach and, more of a low budget approach. I used a 10$ tripod. I used the Panasonic Lumix that I’ve had for five years, instead of using better equipment because it’s mobile. I would throw it in my panniers and bike around all day and, you know, bike with different participants.  I used a GoPro as well. So what ended up feeling like, uh, sort of a restriction or something that I had to sort of justify in the beginning ended up really serving this project, its subject and the production style”

DV:  “Do you think you can talk about a little bit behind or talk about the editing of the film? 

Ghaffari: “I was lucky to know this incredible group of musicians and each of those artists play with different groups as well, but that band that played in the film, basically their improv performance served as the soundtrack for the entire film. Their band is called EIH, Ensemble Interactivo de La Habana, and they’re just Incredibly talented. This group in particular serves as an improv group. So I first approached them, um, with this idea of playing, not only playing a bicycle, but playing the flying pigeon, the classic bicycle from the nineties that holds this very specific cultural resonance in Havana. That was super fun to offer that vision and then have them just create magic with it. And it was a beautiful day of shooting. Uh, we had that space donated to us to be able to shoot in, um, Estudio Cinquenta. I was filming with a friend and we got to basically direct two to three minute improvised songs, most of them incorporating instruments that we made out of bike parts. I edited the whole film and tried to structure the song in the different scenes around the rhythm and the beat and sort of that cyclical nature of what they created inspired by the bicycle”

DV: “When people are watching your documentary, what is it that you want them to take away?

Ghaffari:  “In general, I hope that it’s a positive experience for viewers and different people have different relationships to the bicycle or to Cuba, but we try to offer a positive, inspiring and uplifting lens into contemporary culture and chose this one symbol to represent many other types of greater ideas and philosophies around cultural identity, agency, mobility, empowerment and resourcefulness. So hopefully this one symbol resonates with people. It also offers the start of a conversation, the beginning of an understanding of life in contemporary Havana and what these types of community efforts and individual efforts to empower urban mobility can look like with this example but hopefully it’s a fun one for people to watch”.