Randy Valdes – Cuba, Art and Life on Film

By Jordan Levin

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Randy Valdes is consumed by filmmaking and captivated by Cuba. Miami Light Project, and their frequent collaborator FUNDARTE, have been integral to both.

Valdes realized he would be a filmmaker in 9th grade, when he turned an English assignment for a short film on the Vietnam War into an ambitious project, writing an elaborate script and cajoling friends into a three-day shoot at Amelia Earhart Park.

“I completely overdid it,” says Valdes, 33. “It was an immediate love affair.”

“I never made a decision to go into film. It’s been my whole life.”

The artistic side of that life has been fostered by Miami Light Project and Fundarte. Valdes was just 21 when he and partner Elvis Suarez were hired to document the first Global Cuba Festival in 2008. The duo’s company, Glassworks Multimedia, continued as regular videographers/photographers.

“I 100% grew up with them,” Valdes says.

That closeness led to FUNDARTE commissioning Valdes to make A Todo Color, a documentary on Cuban musicians, while Miami Light Project found funding to send Valdes to Cuba. Valdes was only eight when his family left the island, and though he’d been curious about his roots, he hadn’t wanted to visit without a purpose. He flew back on Dec. 23rd, precisely twenty years after he left.

Like so many Cuban-Americans, he was transformed by his return. He cried on visiting his childhood home. He met his wife, Patricia Hechavarria. The experience ignited his emotions and his creativity.

“It was incredibly moving,” he says. “In hindsight, I realize where better to start my artistic career than where everything started?”

Valdes is also a quintessential product of Cuban Miami, supported by family and community, powered by his own ambition, vision and resourcefulness. He grew up in Hialeah, where his parents worked in a warehouse before his mother took over an uncle’s commercial photography studio. (Valdes’s first job was sorting pictures of weddings and quinces.) His partner Elvis Suarez is big brother to Valdes’s childhood best friends.

A self-described technology nerd, he studied cinematography and film technology at Full Sail University in Winter Park, and obsessively follows developments in his field. He’s worked primarily as a cinematographer, preferring to become fluent in the language of film to the hypocrisy he thinks is inevitable in being a commercial director.

“You have to keep the client happy, say words like flow and riveting,” he says. “I’m not very good at that. I’m too honest. And I felt it would eat at my artistic soul.”

He’s worked with Rakontur, the famed Miami documentary makers behind Cocaine Cowboy; on the Nickelodeon series I Am Frankie, and scores of commercials and music videos.

“Cinematography is incredibly important, because it’s the medium” he says. “When I make my own films, the technical aspects are second nature, so I can focus all my energy on storytelling, themes, performance.”

A Todo Color, which took years to make and was funded by Valdes and Suarez with support from FUNDARTE and Miami Light Project, was like directing school. “I made more mistakes than I can count,” Valdes says. But the film, which explores Cuban identity and music via Cuban musicians across the diaspora, was screened at the renowned Sheffield Documentary Festival in 2016.

The movie also changed Miami Light Project executive director Beth Boone’s view of Valdes from a talented videographer and image-maker to an artist.

“The arc of the film, the way he builds the story, is masterful,” says Boone. “After that I was like ‘whatever you want to do we will try to figure out a way to support it’.”

Miami Light Project and FUNDARTE commissioned Valdes’s first narrative film, Petra. It’s inspired by The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Cuban theater troupe Teatro Publico’s concept and gender bending version of the legendary avant-garde Fassbinder film. Valdes was riveted by the play, which FUNDARTE presented in Miami in 2010.

His half-hour film was shot at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, with a Cuban and Miami cast that includes Valdes’s father-in-law, famed Cuban actor Fernando Hechavarria. It follows an assistant director wrangling flamboyant actors and their director before a final performance, with underlying themes of Jungian psychology and the unconscious (another obsession for Valdes.)

The movie is an important step for Valdes.

“Petra is my first artistic statement and what I hope will be the first piece in my career as a filmmaker,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve told the story I wanted to tell in the way that I wanted to tell it.”

“The more I had validated myself as a technician, the less people believed I could be an artist. The themes of the movie are that all artists have to take that leap of faith… when you have to put yourself out there in front of people as a creator.”

Boone says Petra reaffirms her faith in Valdes’s talents and capacity to dig deep into powerful ideas and create something original.

Petra is extremely focused and poignant and stylized and subtle in its artistry and approach,” she says. “What’s revealed is all the research he has done on great art cinema.”

Miami Light Project was preparing to screen a work-in-progress version of Petra during the Here & Now festival, en route to the film festival circuit, when the pandemic hit.

Now Valdes has holed up with his wife, researching ideas for new projects, wondering and debating with other artists about their future.

“How do we convince people struggling for survival that art is an essential part of society?” he says. He takes some inspiration, once again, from Cuba. “We have seen that in times of need and scarcity and oppression art has found a way to flourish,” Valdes says. “There’s some hope in that process.”

(L to R ) Randy behind the scenes of Petra; Randy behind the scenes of Petra; Randy behind the scenes in Cuba

(L to R ) Randy behind the scenes of Petra; Randy behind the scenes of Petra; Randy behind the scenes in Cuba

ABOUT MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT

Founded in 1989, Miami Light Project is a not-for-profit cultural organization which presents live performances by innovative dance, music and theater artists from around the world; supports the development of new work by South Florida-based artists; and offers educational programs for students of every age.

Since our inception, we have reached a diverse cross-section of communities throughout Miami-Dade County with an extensive outreach effort that includes partnerships with other arts organizations, universities and social service agencies. Miami Light Project is a cultural forum to explore some of the issues that define contemporary society.

ABOUT FUNDARTE

FUNDarte is a multidisciplinary non-profit organization dedicated to producing, presenting, and promoting music, theater, dance, film and visual arts that speak to Miami’s diverse cultures with an emphasis on Hispanic arts and culture. FUNDarte particularly works to nurture emerging artists and those with little or no exposure to South Florida audiences; facilitate intercultural and international exchanges; and provide local audiences and artists with educational opportunities that expand their creative, critical and social perspectives.

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ABOUT JORDAN LEVIN

A writer and journalist since the early 90’s, Jordan Levin was an influential voice on arts and pop culture at the Miami Herald for over two decades, as both freelancer and staff writer. During her time at the Herald, she wrote and produced numerous radio pieces for WLRN, two of which aired nationally on NPR. As a freelancer, she has written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, American Theatre Magazine, Dance Magazine, and many other South Florida and national publications. Since leaving the Herald in 2017, she has worked in content marketing and community engagement for Miami cultural organizations including Miami New Drama and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where she hosts a series of dance talks. She has taught feature writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Communications.

Before becoming a journalist, Jordan worked as a presenter and administrator for Miami’s Tigertail Productions and Miami Dade College Cultural Affairs. Previously, she was a dancer/performer in New York’s downtown scene, performing with artists such as Tim Miller and Yoshiko Chuma at venues such as the BAM Next Wave Festival, Performance Space New York and The Kitchen. She is working on a cultural memoir of the East Village in the early 80’s.