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Issue #1659      October 8, 2014

Australian Premiere of Catherine Murphy’s Maestra

The Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS Perth) came together with Cine Vivo to co-host the Cuban night at Perth’s Latin American Film Festival and opened with the Australian premier of the documentary Maestra (Spanish for teacher). In 1961, over 250,000 Cubans joined their country’s National Literacy Campaign and more than half were young women. They played a pivotal role in building a new society. The film explores the experiences of nine of the women who, as young girls, helped eradicate Cuban illiteracy within one year.

Bourke Aboriginal Adult graduation.

Director and producer Catherine Murphy captured this unique historical achievement with great sensitivity. She joined the evening by Skype from New York to answer questions from a very enthusiastic audience.

Catherine is a San Francisco-based filmmaker who has spent 10 years working in Latin America and field produced films like Saul Landau’s Will the real terrorists please stand up? and Eugene Corr’s From ghost town to Havana.

Catherine said her journey in making this film started when she travelled to the homeland of her grandmother to explore her families’ cultural roots. Through that exploration of her heritage she became inspired by what the revolution had been able to achieve in education. Catherine explained that the literacy project that saw 707,000 Cubans achieve literacy within a year was just one facet of the success of Cuba’s revolution in education and was solidly backed up by a government program to build and resource schools.

Responding to a question on why only women were interviewed in the documentary Catherine said there had been two reasons – the first being that the first three people that introduced her to the history of the campaign were women and through those discussions she realised the magnitude of its impact on the young women. While many boys participated, their participation was seen by their families and the broader society as a right of passage; going off to become men. Many of the women in the documentary described the resistance they faced from their families and the negotiations they undertook to enable their participation. Just over half of the volunteers (called brigadistas) were young women.

The second reason was that literacy is a women’s issue. Globally over 800 million adults cannot read or write a simple sentence and two thirds of those are women.

From these beginnings Cuba has taken the program that evolved called “Yo! Si Puedo” to many parts of the world including to Indigenous communities here in Australia at Wilcannia and Bourke. This has been possible through the initiative of project leader Jack Beetson and facilitated by the support of the Cuban Ambassador to Australia Pedro Monzon and Cuban educators, Chala Leblanch and Lucy Nunez.

The first graduation saw 16 Wilcannia Aboriginal adults complete the course – a proud day for the community. Maestra is a film that should be widely screened in Australia and around the world.

Next article – Water protest in Alice

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