When Carroll County documentary filmmaker Leo Eaton landed in Cuba to begin production on his film about the country's music, dance and culture, things immediately went wrong.
"It was two days after Fidel Castro died, and the country began a nine-day period of mourning," said Eaton, a New Windsor resident. "There was no alcohol officially on the island; no public music, no public dancing. That was the entire point of doing a film in Havana."
Despite the immediate challenges, Eaton and his crew completed the film — which he now considers one of his best — and the piece will have its world premiere on PBS on Tuesday evening.
"Weekend in Havana" follows host Geoffrey Baer as he experiences Havana's culture under the guidance of architect Daniel de la Regata, flamenco dancer Irene Rodriguez and jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca. The piece is being aired as part of PBS' "Summer of Adventure," with programs set around the world.
Eaton, a filmmaker who recently created the PBS series "Sacred Journeys" and "Arts and the Mind," said he first filmed in Cuba back in 2001 for a special on classic American cars of the country, and he had always been looking for an excuse to go back.
"I absolutely love Cuba," Eaton said. "People talk about it being a time capsule. It's not constantly changing, constantly evolving. There's a charm that goes back in time. It's a place without McDonald's, without an overly Americanized sense."
Development began back in July, and Eaton took the crew on a scouting trip in August and began shooting in October. Soon, he said, he thought the film was falling apart.
"It was a miserable shoot," Eaton said. "I came back from it thinking I have a disaster on my hands. It turned out to be the most joyful film I had ever made."
Due to the death of Castro, government offices were shut down during the mourning period, preventing the crew from working with officials on their previously filed permits and permissions.
"The whole first week of filming, we were winging it," Eaton said. "We had to ask ourselves, 'What can we do today?' I had very detailed outlines from when we scouted back in August. We threw those away every morning."
Immediately following the mourning period, the island was beset by monsoon rain, and many of the crew's planned locations were flooded so they couldn't get to them. Additional problems included the crew getting shut out of Ernest Hemingway's house after receiving government approval and the death of Baer's car as he ran through the streets to make it to their rooftop finale set at sunset.
For each challenge they faced, Eaton said, it led directly to a solution that was better than was originally planned, from a meaningful shot of Baer peering into the Hemingway house, isolated from the history inside, to the timing of the rooftop finale.
"He arrived five minutes before sunset. There was no time; he had to sit down, start playing and we had to get the drone up or we were dead," Eaton said. "It ended up being a fabulous scene. In the middle of the shot, this huge cruise ship comes by, and it's the perfect emblem of what we were trying to say. There's this crumbling city underneath, a modern jazz musician on top and there's a great big American cruise ship passing by as a signifier of the way things may go."
The documentary was shot during the revitalization of the Cuba-American relationship under Democratic President Barack Obama. In August, as the team was scouting locations for filming, the first direct flight from the United States since 1962 landed in Cuba. As the project entered post-production and the editing process, though, everything changed again as Republican President Donald Trump was elected. Just a month before the project's planned air date, Trump proposed restoring travel and commercial prohibitions with the country.
Eaton said it's important to him to capture the tenor of the country as it currently exists.
"One of the bizarre things about Cuba is that Castro's revolution froze everything in the short term," Eaton said. "However, that allowed them to keep what is best about Cuba alive. That all would have been swept away if it hadn't happened. It's such a beautiful city. I'm in awe of the strength of the people. They are the ones who have held it together all of these years."