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The Problems of “Reportage”: A Case Study

Earlier today, an acquaintance who shares an interest in Cuba sent a link to “Cuba: Waiting for a Revolution,” a video report produced for CurrentTV by correspondent Adrian Baschuk.

She didn’t know (and we didn’t know until we watched the video) that Francisco’s son, Brayan, and his  friend, Julian, are featured in the report.

Brayan, in addition to being a professional photographer, is a fixer. This started a couple years ago, when a magazine editor contacted me after reading an article I’d written about Havana to ask me if I knew any photographers who could help arrange a shoot and, perhaps, to actually take some of the photos for a fashion spread. I referred the editor to Brayan, who’s personable, has a network that’s both wide and deep, and has a talent for reading people. Since then, he’s offered contacts to museum curators  and organized shoots and interviews for writers and  photographers with Cigar Aficionado and  MAP Magazine and producers of several documentaries.

As far as I know, he’s never gotten paid in cash for his services. A few photographers and filmmakers have given him gear: an external hard drive, a camera lens. (But one of the journos actually borrowed and then broke his camera–and refused to replace it). And a couple of them have invited him along on trips outside Havana, which has been exciting for him because he gets to travel to places he hasn’t visited and is able to photograph in these places, too. Some of them have promoted his work outside Cuba; Adrian Baschuk, in fact, did this by posting Brayan’s photos in an online gallery and offering contact information to blog readers who might be interested in buying his work.

But back to the video report.

I wasn’t thrilled about the Baschuk’s premise: to find out whether a counter-revolution is brewing among Cuban youth. It’s a titillating subject, one of endless interest to Americans, but it inevitably involves peddling stereotypes and generalizations–albeit unconsciously–to an audience who lacks the frame of reference to interpret, question, or dispute them.

Baschuk seemed aware that this challenge existed, writing on the Current blog:

“One of the toughest parts of this job is trying to cover all sides. I absolutely bring an unfiltered lens on my journeys. Never do I assume nor tote along preconceived notions of a place, person, or issue. The work is thus fascinating and becomes a process of discovery that I try to bring viewers along for.”

But watching the first few minutes of the report, I had to differ: the very narrative/reportorial frame Baschuk was establishing was neither unfiltered or free from preconceptions. In fact, the question motivating and informing the entire report *was* based on a preonception.

It would be easy enough to miss this, though, as a viewer of the report with only a basic knowledge of Cuba. The report seems objective, perhaps. Baschuk travels around Havana (which, I have to assert constantly, is only one city–granted, the capital–in Cuba, a country of 11 million people, but is, unfortunately, always the only place visited, the “findings” made there projected onto the rest of the country and “The Cuban People.”) to talk with punks, “emos,” and university students to ask their opinions about their country, the Revolution, and whether a new revolution is likely. Baschuk also tries to interview the now famous blogger Yoani Sanchez (you can read what I think about her here), but says it was ultimately impossible because she’s monitored by “these agents” [pan to shots of the backs of men dressed in ratty t-shirts]. [Funny, they haven't monitored her on Twitter].

Baschuk also interviewed a young guy sitting at a round table, studying. He shows Baschuk his Revolutionary Youth ID card, talking about the virtues needed to be as revolutionary as he was.

“Isn’t that Julian?” Francisco asked, smearing the computer screen as he pointed at the bare-chested guy wearing eye glasses. “Looks like him,” I said, laughing while thinking about the last time I saw Julian: in Centro Habana cuando se hizo santo (when he “became a saint” in Santeria). He bought a $100+ pair of Nikes (blinged out with gold thread and stamped with images of green dollar bills) for the occasion. Julian is prattling on earnestly about being revolutionary. It was so funny I nearly spat my martini through my nose.

And then he takes Baschuk to see his pigs.

Julian has pet pigs–massive, dirty, smelly pigs–on his family’s patio. Visting journos can spin it all they want–poor Julian is starving!–but what he told me the last time I was there was that he plans to sell the pigs to make money… maybe for another pair of Nikes.

Then, we see another familiar face: Francisco’s son. Brayan is sitting at the round table with Julian and “their friends,” playing dominoes. “Cuando fue la ultima vez que Brayan jugo dominos?” I asked Francisco. “Dunno; I didn’t even know he knew how to play. I’m going to call him tonight and say, ‘Hey, Brayan, why didn’t we play dominoes when I was in Havana?'”

Ah, dominoes. Like Havana Club rum (which also appears in the report), old cars (ditto), and “Chan Chan” (which, fortunately, does not appear in the report), dominoes fit so nicely with our vision of what Cuba is, what it must be.

But honest to God, I don’t think Brayan ever played dominoes in his life before Baschuk ended up in Julian’s home.

*

Which raises the question for me: What else in the report is scripted?

I don’t ask to bash Baschuk, whose curiosity about Cuba is palpable and genuine. Rather, I ask because it’s important to know when we’re being gamed, even if/when reporters themselves aren’t aware of it.

I don’t know how Brayan met Baschuk or whether it was Brayan who set Baschuk up with many or most of the interviews that made the final cut. But I was aware of Brayan’s influence, aware of how he and Julian played Baschuk, even if he himself wasn’t aware they were doing so and even if he was unaware of the potenial consequences. “Let’s give this gringo what he wants! Let’s play dominoes!”

The report is useful as a case study, leading us to ask about the issue of sources. How do we writers/reporters/journalists get sources? How does one source lead to another? What are our sources’ motives? How do we discern whether they’re showing us what we want to see and telling us what we want to hear? And how do we restrain ourselves from assuming that the anecdotes which seem to square with our preconceived notions (because, and this *is* where I take issue with Baschuk– we all, always have preconceived notions) are, in fact, “true”?

At the end of the day, what does “Cuba: Waiting for a Revolution” really tell us?

Here’s the video if you’d like to see it for yourself.

 

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