Documentary is an homage to art and to the Cuban homeland

On a Christmas Day in 1939, young Francisco “Paquito” Hechavarria got a small marimba as a gift and immediately began duplicating the songs he heard on the radio, note for note, to the amazement of his parents.

When Tony Lopez was a boy, he ignored his father’s pleas to come outside and play catch, preferring instead to lie on the floor and draw sketches and caricatures.

And when identical twins Ronald and Nelson Currás, born to a middle-class family and studying plumbing and mechanics, walked by a gallery showing an exhibition of the works by Spanish ceramist Herrera Zapata, they immediately ran home started copying his work — and eventually began creating their own.

All these artists, born and raised in Cuba, eventually came to the United States and settled in Miami. But although the landscape around them was different, their artistic passions did not change. Made By Hand: Creativity in Exile (Hecho a mano: Creatividad en el exilio), a half-hour documentary premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday on WLRN-PBS 17 and airing throughout the month, shows how these exiles essentially picked up where they left off after leaving their homeland, continuing their careers — and flourishing to unexpected heights — while removed from the environment that had created them.

The succinct (25-minute), beautifully shot film accomplishes two things: It celebrates the merits of four personable artists, and it marks the film debut of Common Machine Productions, a digital-production company with offices in Miami and Chicago that previously was dedicated to web videos and commercials for corporate clients.

Two of the key players behind Made by Hand — Brett O’Bourke, 34, who directed it, and Gaspar Gonzalez, 42, who wrote the screenplay — are also Cuban Americans. When WLRN approached them to see if they had ideas for small-budget, half-hour programming that could be shot locally, they realized that a project about Cuban artists in exile could double as a fascinating film and an homage to their families.

O’Bourke, who was born in St. Petersburg to a Cuban father and an American mother and later moved to Miami for college, had amassed considerable experience as a television producer working on projects for A&E, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. But Made By Hand earned him his first true directorial credit.

“This project wasn’t outside my previous work experience, because it was a documentary,” he says. “The mechanics are the same. The big difference — which was exciting — is that I was in creative control completely and totally. I didn’t have to send it to network approval. I didn’t have three VPs who have two brain cells between them who were going to butcher the thing. So it was about making beautiful pictures and thinking about the best ways to tell a story.”

O’Bourke and Gonzalez, who had worked together on the defunct Miami Herald alternative weekly Street , wanted to make a film that paid tribute to their Cuban heritage — and the sacrifices made by their families — but without indulging the clichés that usually dog those sorts of films.

“This is obviously a film about Tony and Paquito and the Currás Brothers. But it is also in a way a film about our families. My family on my father’s side were all guajiros and worked the field. My dad lived on a farm and didn’t leave until he was 24 to come to the U.S. In some ways, it’s a film that tries to honor all these generations of Cubans who worked with their hands, whether they were farmers or musicians or whatever,” Gonzalez said.

“What we love about these guys is they have this work ethic. Paquito didn’t stop working. He didn’t spend the next 20 years saying ‘Hey I’m the guy who wrote the intro on the Miami Sound Machine’s Conga. We were the beneficiaries of having some wonderful people to turn the camera onto.”

Each of the stories told in Made By Hand (beautifully shot by Richard Patterson, another Street alumni) is fascinating. Hechavarria, 72, a pianist at such swanky Cuban nightclubs as the Riviera and the Tropicana in the 1950s, landed a gig as a house musician at the Fontainebleau Hotel’s Boom Boom Room in 1959, where Frank Sinatra, Ann-Margret and Sammy Davis Jr. made regular appearances. He composed the now-classic (for an entire generation of Cuban-Americans) theme for the TV sitcom ¿ Qué Pasa, USA? and with the help of music producer Joe Galdo, landed gigs around the world that eventually brought him work with A-list acts such as Ricky Martin and Miami Sound Machine.

Lopez, sprightly and chatty at 92, was living the high life in Cuba due to the popularity his sculptures when he was arrested after Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’etat in 1952. When the new Cuban leader realized that his troops had incarcerated an art-world celebrity, he immediately set Lopez loose and put him on a plane to Miami, where he continued his life’s passion: Sculpting, making sketches and, most famously, creating a model of the Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach for architect Kenneth Treister.

“Everyone is born with a certain talent,” Lopez says. “Some are destined for carpentry. Some are destined to rip people off. Some have a knack for flying a kite. But once you discover your personal talent, you have to practice and work at it, and you can never think that you’ve conquered it. The day you believe that you can’t possibly get any better, you’re dead. Everyone told me that a sculptor couldn’t make a living in Miami. But I’ve had my workshop for 55 years now, and I’ve worked for clients all over the world. The only reason I wish I could be a millionaire is that then I wouldn’t have to sell my sculptures to anyone. I could keep them all for myself.”

Made By Hand won the Best Florida Documentary award at last year’s Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and the Best Local Film and Best Documentary awards at the Miami Short Film Festival. Although Common Machine has already racked up an impressive number of corporate clients, O’Bourke, who also once worked for The Miami Herald, says the experience of making this film has been more rewarding than anything else he has done.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to make this film, especially as my first film, having been part of a family of immigrants who had to come here and start over from nothing,” O’Bourke says. “That may sound like a cliché, but it is totally real when you’re living it. And my work ethic is completely and totally determined by that experience. I’ve seen how much my parents have sacrificed and how hard they worked to get to where they got in order to provide better for their kids. It made me who I am, and I couldn’t be more grateful. So I thought it was a particularly great way to tell a story about artists enduring and muscling through. It’s meant a lot to me to be able to show it to my family as a small way of saying thank you for what they gave me.”

Watch it

‘Made By Hand: Creativity in Exile’ will air on WLRN-PBS 17 at 7 p.m. Sunday; 11:30 p.m. Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 11 p.m. Feb. 22

To tune in

‘Made By Hand: Creativity in Exile’ will air on WLRN-PBS 17 at 7 p.m. Sunday; 11:30 p.m. Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 11 p.m. Feb. 22


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