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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray--'Unfinished Spaces'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, directors/ producers of Unfinished Spaces.

Synopsis: In 1961, three young, visionary architects were commissioned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to create Cuba's National Art Schools on the grounds of a former Havana golf course. Construction of their radical designs began immediately, and artists from all over the country reveled in the beauty of the schools. But as the dream of the Revolution quickly became a reality, construction was halted and the architects and their designs were deemed irrelevant in the prevailing political climate. Forty years later, the schools are in use, but decaying. Castro has invited the exiled architects back to finish their unrealized dream.


Unfinished Spaces


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Alysa Nahmias & Benjamin Murray: We met in an art theory course at New York University, where Ben majored in film production at the Tisch School of the Arts and Alysa studied art history and architecture at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Documentary was always an interest for both of us, but we became documentarians only when we discovered the story of Unfinished Spaces, which happened to be unfolding before our eyes; we couldn't have invented something more emotional or surreal if we tried. After Alysa took her first trip to Cuba in 2001, we began making Unfinished Spaces together because of a shared love for the characters in the story. We are drawn to documentaries because, as Lawrence Weschler says, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

For the past ten years as we've produced Unfinished Spaces, Ben's worked as an online editor, and Alysa has completed a graduate degree in architecture. As much as we love nonfiction filmmaking, and we each want to make more documentaries, we also consider ourselves artists and storytellers who aren't limited by genre.


IDA: What inspired you to make Unfinished Spaces?

AN & BM: In Spring 2001 in Havana, we first had the opportunity to visit the National Art Schools--organic, modern, brick buildings, now in ruins, but still home to Cuba's best and brightest art students.

After touring the campus, we met architect Roberto Gottardi. Roberto brought with him an old file full of photographs and press clippings, weathered documents that illustrated the story of his most monumental architectural project, the first and most impressive construction of the Cuban Revolution.

Roberto struck us as a modern-day Don Quixote, whose creative visions were ahead of his time and larger than the world around him. The architect and his buildings paralleled the Cuban Revolution itself--from utopian vision to tragic ruin, and ultimately to an uncertain future.

We couldn't pass up the opportunity to follow Roberto and his fellow architects of the National Art Schools, Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garatti, on the final leg of their emotional journey.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

AN & BM: Our biggest challenge was maintaining a production quality in the film that would match the beauty of the Cuban environment and architecture that was our subject. Everything in Cuba is glowing and crumbling at the same time, so the camera had to capture sublime imagery without romanticizing it or falling into the traps of cliché.

Access was another challenge that, happily, we overcame. We had to patiently prove our intentions to gatekeepers on the island in order to obtain access to places and people that were generally off limits to filmmakers, especially a pair of North Americans. The Cuban National Art Schools, although once neglected by the Cuban government, have recently become a highly protected site. No foreign filmmakers or journalists had ever been given official permission to shoot there prior to Unfinished Spaces.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

AN & BM: When you work on a project for ten years, there are countless changes. Our characters, the political context, the filmmaking technologies and our own lives all transformed from 2001 to 2011. Actually, we find it most remarkable how our initial creative spark remained bright enough to guide us through so many twists and turns. We set out to make a film that portrayed three artist-architects who are extraordinary human beings with complex emotions, and that would offer a fresh perspective on Cuba and on the ways architecture can engage with society. We think that's the film we've made, and it's been worth the wait.


IDA: As you've screened Unfinished Spaces--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

AN & BM: Audiences at film festivals and private screenings have been moved in very powerful, specific ways. People who love architecture have responded overwhelmingly. Architects leave the theatre praising the fact that the architecture is portrayed as a character rather than a static object. They appreciate how the creative process of architecture is made accessible for non-architects through the course of telling this character-driven story.

One of the highest complements we've received so far came from our subject Ricardo Porro's wife, Elena Porro, who had maintained a healthy skepticism about two young North American filmmakers attempting to narrate a story of the Cuban revolution. She told us after the premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival that she was very emotional while watching, because it struck her as one of the most accurate depictions she'd encountered of how it felt for her to live in Cuba during the '60s.

People who didn't have any particular interest in architecture or Cuba have also been connecting emotionally to the story and wanting to know more about modern architecture and the history of Cuba. That is really gratifying for us as filmmakers, because we love that a story can transcend generations and politics to connect and inspire everyone.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

AN & BM: On opposite sides of the spectrum, the films Blue Water, White Death, by Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb, and The Kiss, by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, were inspiring for their stunning visuals and for their themes of outrageous dreams and practical realities.

And then there's a film like My Architect, by Nathaniel Kahn, which we admire because it told a very human story about an architectural subject.


Unfinished Spaces will be screening August 12 through 18 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 19 through 25 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Unfinished Spaces in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Unfinished Spaces in Los Angeles, click here.