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.”
Eventz Paul is currently the Technical Director and Productions Manager at Miami Light Project. He has been a part of this organization since 2011. He participated in Miami Light Project’s first class of the Technical Fellowship Program held at The Light Box. He joined this program hoping to improve his existing theater skills. He received training from experts in the industry that mentored and further his theater technical skills. Now, he has successfully used his professional knowledge and has had the opportunity to work with various arts organizations and venues throughout Miami including Miami Theater Center, National Young Arts Foundation, the Colony Theatre and many more. He has become an instructor and conducts audiovisual classes to incoming technical fellows.
Beth Boone has been the Artistic & Executive Director of Miami Light Project since 1998, developing critically acclaimed artistic programs that have asserted the organization as one of the leading cultural institutions in South Florida. These programs include: the establishment of Here & Now, South Florida’s most respected commission and presenting program for community-based artists; premiere presentations of internationally acclaimed; pioneering historic international cultural exchange with Cuba; and the creation of The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, a multi-use performance and visual art space in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. She previously served as Associate Director of Development for Florida Grand Opera, Deputy Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs at Miami Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, co-founded an Off Broadway theater company (New York Rep), and served for six years as a Program Associate in the Arts & Culture Program of the AT&T Foundation. She received a B.A. in Fine Arts from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and a MFA in Theater Arts from Brandeis University in Boston, MA.