Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray’s documentary Unfinished Spaces played to great acclaim at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and was one of the films of the festival to get a very immediate and tangible boost from its successful World Premiere. Unfinished Spaces is now slated to show later this year as part of DocuWeeks in LA and New York for a qualifying run for the 2011 Oscars — rumors of a distribution deal are also in the winds. Unfinished Spaces tells the storyof Cuba’s National Schools of Art that are designed by architects Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro, and Vittorio Garratti. The buildings were created to be among the most beautiful in the world, but were sadly abandoned when the revolution became Sovietized. Nahmias and Murray’s portrait of the architects and their buildings poignantly examines a Utopian vision. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nahmias and Murray at the LA Film Fest to talk about their ten-year journey to bring this story to the screen. (Read my review of the film here.)
TATM: How did Unfinished Spaces come to be?
Alysa Nahmias: In 2001, I went to Havana for the first time. I saw the National Art Schools. Then I met Roberto [Gottardi]. He told me the story of the schools. I just sort of fell in love with this story, and also with the space… I asked [Gottardi], “Why hasn’t anyone made a film about this? It’s such a cinematic space.” He said… “Why don’t you do it?…” Then I went home to New York and got in touch with [Murray]. We started shooting pretty quickly.
Benjamin Murray: What was so unique was seeing their individual personalities and seeing them interact… That’s when we realized we had a much bigger project on our hands. That’s what got [me] hooked on the project. We put the last ten years into it.
TATM: I know you were involved with Gottardi early on. Talk about approaching Porro and Garratti.
Nahmias: [Gottardi] and I had that idea for the film. That was March 2001. Then in November 2001… There was going to be a conference in Venice, Italy that was getting together all three architects in an academic setting at the Institute of Architecture in Venice… [Ben and I] got tickets to Venice… That’s where we met [Porro] and [Garratti]… All three of them were very enthusiastic and supportive… [Porro]…told me a story when I first met him. He said, “When I was a young man and a young architect I went to Paris. That was probably in the 1940s… I knocked on the door of the office of Le Corbusier. I knocked on the studio door of Pablo Picasso. All of the artists and architects I came to as a young person were very enthusiastic and receptive to me. They always sat down with me. They always heard me out. They always taught me something.” I think that’s the same respect and the same feeling we’ve had throughout the process of filmmaking, where they received [Murray] and I like young artists. There’s been a real learning, not just about filmmaking, but about art-making from them. In making a film about their art, we’re also learning from them about making art.
TATM: How did Unfinished Spaces evolve as you were filming it?
Nahmias: As far the subjects, the architects, their lives were changing in that they had been invited back to Cuba. That happened at the beginning of the filmmaking process, so that was huge. But then by the time they actually got back, it unfolded over the course of several years. So finding that story and figuring out what was going to happen, there was some suspense there. Were they going to be able to go back? What was going to happen? The other thing is the buildings themselves. Would they be restored? That was unfolding, and we weren’t sure whether this film was going to have a happy resolution or not.
Murray: I think one interesting arc that happened with us through production was the status of the schools, and also the status of how things were in the country. The big evolution for us, was when we first got there nobody knew who we were, and by going back over the years we were able to gain trust. What started as very simple answers to seemingly complex questions, it flipped to very simple questions and very complex answers.
TATM: You filmed the movie all over the world for nearly a decade. Did you know immediately how you would tell this story? Was it obvious where to be when?
Nahmias: We first wanted to establish the basic stories that each architect had, and catch them in their natural environment, in their own homes. So that brought us…first to Paris and Milan to visit Porro and Garratti. Then with the information we got from those interviews, we decided to go to Cuba and ask more questions and dig deeper with [Gottardi], also with a series of secondary characters, artists who attended the schools, and people who worked in the construction with them. We always wanted to go when something was happening with the restoration process down there.
Murray: With the plight of being independent filmmakers, we were gamblers. So we’d raise enough, and we’d go all-in. We’d say, “With that, we’re going to be able to up our production value and raise even more.” So we’d come back [to Cuba], and if it was slow, we’d get nervous. It was like, “Oh man, we just spent everything. What’s going to happen?” It just worked out, I think by doing that. We bet on it. This is it. We finally got here.
Nahmias: We went for quality, rather than speed.
TATM: How did you know how political you did or didn’t want the film to be? How did you find the right balance?
Nahmias: I want the film to speak for itself politically… It’s not really about [Murray] or I projecting our own political views at all. I think what our mission is, and you can say it’s a political intention…is to complicate really monolithic views of Cuba, either romanticization or total villianization of the island. We want to operate in the gray area of history and of politics of Cuba.
Murray: It was a really solid entree into Cuba for me; because everything is so positive or negative on either side. So to have the schools and to have that be the way in, and to have this architecture, was very unique, and made Cuba very accessible and I hope it’s that way for viewers out there as well.
TATM: What has your experience of working with Film Independent and the LA Film Festival been so far?
Nahmias: It’s been unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for a better World Premiere for this film… We’ve met so many great filmmakers and other directors and other producers. The filmmakers’ retreat they offer is so special. We just had a great time. Creatively it was really inspiring. We just think that’s going to continue the whole week.
Murray: It really feels like the theme here is about community, and how it takes a village to make a film. I feel like they’ve done a great job of making a village here and making a great sense of community for us filmmakers.
TATM: What do you think the film and the story of these Unfinished Spaces has to teach people, whether or not they’re interested in history, art, or politics?
Murray: I think a big lesson is taking risks with your art and following through with it. I think our characters are a great example of how they’ve lived great, productive, long lives with that strong conviction that they’ve had as artists.
TATM: Is there any long-term impact you hope the film might have?
Nahmias: On an individual level, we hope people connect and are inspired by these artists, these architects, and the work. Another thing we hope is that it does create a more complex view of Cuba around the world. Maybe on a more activist level, we want the buildings to be preserved and finished.
Murray: I feel if we’ve made something that can be culturally relevant for Cubans, and give them a new perspective on their own history, then we’ve done our job beyond anything I could have imagined when we started.