CROWN POINT — After Cynthia Biestek visited Cuba for the first time two decades ago, she was entranced by its culture.
Now, Biestek, also known as Cindy White, is set to have her documentary that pays homage to a renowned Cuban guitarist air locally on Wednesday.
"Eliades Ochoa From Cuba to the World," follows Ochoa's journey from a small farm to international fame.
Known as the Cuban Johnny Cash, and of the Buena Vista Social Club, Ochoa began playing guitar at 6 years old.
Ever since, he has spread his love for son cubano (Cuban Son) — a genre that features Spanish and African influence and originated in eastern Cuba during the 19th century.
Biestek, who knew of Ochoa through the Buena Vista Social Club, had the opportunity to see the guitarist while in Cuba in 2003 during a trip following the steps of the Cuban Revolution across the island.
"We ended up at the last stop, at the second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, which is on the eastern part of the island, and it's the most Caribbean, and Afro-influenced," Biestek said.
"The group was there only for one night. ... As I was walking during the day before we had dinner at the hotel, I noticed that Eliades Ochoa, the musician that I had seen in the film (Buena Vista Social Club) like three years before, was playing at this famous La Casa de La Trova."
After missing a quarter of the show, Biestek recalls seeing Ochoa on stage in his signature garb: a black Stetson hat and jeans.
"I was mesmerized, and I had a cheap little video camera, as I remember, and trying to videotape from far away," Biestek said. "The whole experience was incredible. I made my first very important contacts that very first night in 2003."
That night would begin Biestek's mission to document Ochoa and his life, though at the time, she didn't know it.
From then on, Biestek continued to travel to Cuba. In 2004, she moved to Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, to be closer and attend annual music festivals throughout Cuba.
Biestek said she remembers thinking, "I really want to tell the story about the special place called La Casa de La Trova in Santiago de Cuba.
"I had never experienced anything like it. The music was the most infectious ... that I'd ever encountered. The people so outgoing, so warm, and the dancing, which I don't have any musical background, but I've always enjoyed dancing, and I think I've got a fair amount of rhythm."
From Cuba to the world
Biestek, whose trips to Cuba began in 2000 while studying film at New York University in her 40s, said the documentary started as an homage to La Casa de La Trova.
Little by little, Biestek and Director Ruben Gomez, began filming.
"We were filming lots of material — not so much on Eliades — in the beginning about the old troubadours, a lot of them have since died," she said. "Back then, we were getting all of this on video. We really have gold in our hand, but Ruben knew that my dream was to have an interview with Eliades Ochoa. That was the thing I really wanted to go for."
Her dream would come true a couple of years later.
"Finally one day I think during the (Trova) festival ... Eliades said to Ruben, Come on, that interview you've been asking me for, let's go,'" Biestek said.
A few years went by before talks about a documentary about Ochoa began, Biestek recalled, adding she had researched the idea previously.
The film, she said, would follow Ochoa's story from his childhood on a farm an hour and a half from Santiago de Cuba to international fame.
Biestek and Gomez approached Ochoa with the idea in 2012, but Ochoa's schedule was busy with Buena Vista Social Club tours.
Two years later, Biestek's passion project began. The documentary took five years to start to finish.
Since, the documentary has been featured in film festivals across the globe and has picked up several awards, including Best World Documentary at Harlem International Film Festival in 2019.
"To take this dream where Ruben and I are in my little casita studio in outside of Mérida, Mexico, and just take this thought and this dream and pursue it and work on it and throw yourself into it ... it's been an amazing journey for me. I wouldn't trade it for anything, even with the ups and downs," Biestek said, adding the film is dedicated to her late father, Dean White.
The film has aired nearly 100 times on PBS stations across the United States since Oct. 1.
"Eliades Ochoa From Cuba to the World" will air at 9 p.m. Wednesday on WYIN Gary/Merrillville and on WTTW Chicago in December.
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