More than 20 children gathered on Tuesday in Room 208 at LaBelle Aire Elementary for their last day of summer camp. Their last assignment was to greet children their age who live on an island 700 miles to the southeast, and a world away from Baton Rouge.
As an iPad stared down at them from atop a tripod, the children held up an oversized pink heart with their signatures on it and gave a welcome in two languages.
“Hi, Cuba!” shouted the children, followed by “¡Hola Cuba!” They then ended by taking a bow.
The students, 6 to 10 years old, have spent the past three weeks filming a series of 2- to 3-minute clips, video “postcards,” for children about the same age who live in the small town of La Conchita, Cuba.
The videos are partly in English, partly in Spanish, just like the summer camp. The videos are the first step in a budding cultural exchange program that organizers plan to continue for years. The children in La Conchita, which is located in Cuba’s Pinar del Río province and absent from many maps, in turn are preparing video of their own to send to the children in Louisiana’s Capital City.
Making the exchange won’t be easy. While LaBelle Aire has internet connections aplenty, the town of La Conchita has very limited, not to mention costly, internet service. So Alexandra Halkin, who is with the Americas Media Initiative and has worked in Cuba for years, plans to bring DVDs with her in August when she next visits the remote town on the western end of the island. In September, she plans to return to Baton Rouge with the video La Conchita children are producing in response.
The idea for the exchange program was hatched in January. Amy Mitchell-Smith, executive director of the Baton Rouge Film Commission, went to Cuba as part of a delegation of filmmakers and during the trip met Halkin. They both visited the children in La Conchita, who have been active in filmmaking for the past few years.
“I got very excited about introducing a student population in our community to them. At this age, their minds are open and they’re interested in learning about the world around them,” Mitchell-Smith said. “There’s so much in terms of love of culture and music and dance that the two communities share.”
Mitchell-Smith said she’s hoping the exchange program will grow over time and perhaps culminate in visits between the children of both countries. In particular, she’d like to see a filmmaking community develop at LaBelle Aire.
Halkin said Cubans are among the more sophisticated and knowledgeable audiences she’s ever encountered when it comes to cinema.
“You’re dealing with an incredibly literate and film literate population that can talk about film … they’ll say, ‘Well, the editing was good but it kind of lost itself in the middle,’ ” said Halkin, who was in Baton Rouge to see the children at LaBelle Aire wrap up their film.
For the project, the Arts Council of Baton Rouge helped to select the school, LaBelle Aire, which educates many children for whom English is their second language.
The elementary school, located at 12255 Tams Drive, had planned to have a summer camp for ESL children at LaBelle and neighboring public schools.
The three-week, half-day camp, which would have ended at 11:30 a.m. ordinarily, was extended an hour twice a week so the children could learn the filmmaking process.
The Baton Rouge office of the New Orleans Video Access Center was brought in to teach the children about video. Jillian Hall is program director for the office. She’s also speaks Spanish and has worked with children in the past.
“It’s interesting to see the more rowdy kids, how tuned in they get when you show them the more technical things,” Hall said. “A lot of the boys have been very interested in the camera, learning how to touch it and setting it up just right, understanding how all the parts on the tripod work.”
Bertha Hinojosa, who taught the summer camp, said the influx of cinema spiced up the children’s vocabulary as they constantly had to use words such as “cut” and “action.” She said that she and Hall worked well together.
“We’re bosom buddies now,” said Hinojosa.
“We make a good team,” agreed Hall.
On Tuesday, a few of the children put their newfound knowledge to the test. A bunch of visitors, including Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, showed up to watch.
Most of the children who took part in the camp are refugees from violence-plagued countries around the world, including several from Mexico, who were identified to their visitors by only their first names.
Diego, from Acapulco, Mexico, was first to be interviewed. His fellow students organized the set and said “Action,” but Diego stood silent and said nothing.
Afterward, Hall said the attention clearly got to him: “He’s normally so outgoing, but then he froze and I was like, ‘Oh no!’ ”
Darcy McKinnon, executive director of NOVAC, jumped in, pulled up a chair and began interviewing Diego in Spanish. The boy soon loosened up and was able to finish the segment, sparking a round of applause.
Holden complimented the students on their composure.
“You all are so cool under pressure,” Holden said. “I would have been sweating, my hair would have curled up even more, my shirt would have been wet and my knees would have been knocking.”
Halkin thanked the children for their work and said she’s sure it will be well received in La Conchita.
“They’re really excited,” she said.