Geoffrey Baer’s intent with his new PBS feature, “Weekend in Havana” (8 p.m. Tuesday, WTTW-Channel 11), was to add a fresh, in-depth perspective on the recently expanded travel opportunities for Americans heading to Cuba.
“We’ve all been inundated with things like ‘Kim Kardashian Goes To Cuba,'” joked the veteran public TV broadcaster, stressing that “we were trying to go a little deeper than what people have seen so far in various TV pieces on Cuba.”
“The funny thing is, the day we showed up to film it we hit one of the many obstacles we encountered making this,” Baer said. “[Fidel] Castro had died four days before the start of filming, so many things could not happen — like dancing in the streets. We thought the whole project could have died right there.”
Baer, well-known for his in-depth television programs about Chicago neighborhoods, noted several similarities between Cuba and the Windy City. “Chicago is the city of neighborhoods, and definitely so is Havana — though our neighborhoods are often based on ethnic identity,” he said. “That’s not so true in Havana, but there is the Old City, there’s the Centro district, there’s the Malecon, the Miramar area, which is a more advantaged neighborhood.
“But the other thing that made me think of Chicago is Havana’s architecture. Though a lot of Havana’s architecture is crumbling, you see a lot of neoclassical architecture which was done at the same time as the whole City Beautiful Movement that was happening in America and in Chicago. That also was true of the Art Deco period — that happened there as well as Chicago, at the same time.”
Baer credits Leo Eaton, the director of “Weekend in Havana,” of being “so important to this whole project. This was really his vision — the idea of local people showing me around, showing us things in Havana the average tourist would never see.” A big part of that was the help provided by local restoration architect Daniel de la Regata. “Like so many of the people we met down there, I now consider Daniel to be a friend,” Baer said.
That also was true of dance instructor Irene Rodriguez, he said, who exposed him to the street culture and nightlife of Havana. “You get to watch her with her students — and she’s like a drill sergeant! But that’s because she sees herself as a role model for those boys and girls in her dance troupe.”
The one thing Baer hopes the special will help eliminate is “the many clichés about Cuba and Cubans. They are disappointed that people don’t go below the surface. There’s so much more than the old American cars and crumbling buildings. Yes, both of those exist, but there is so much more to discover.”
Baer points to a creative arts consortium operating in an old cooking oil factory as one example. “You watch those kids making fabulous pieces of art — magnificent creations — and you think you could be in SoHo in New York!”
The TV special also includes a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s longtime home outside of the Cuban capital. “The woman who ran it did not get the message that we had been given permission to go behind the ropes and actually film inside the house. Well, that didn’t happen, but in a way it was a blessing in disguise. By filming through the windows and doors, it was more like we played ‘Peeping Toms’ into his life — and I think that was more interesting.”
A soundtrack from the special is also available, composed and produced by Latin Grammy winner and six-time Grammy nominee Yalil Guerra. Capturing the essence of Cuban music, it is available for purchase at iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and CDBaby.
For more information, go to: wttw.com/weekendinhavana