Loyola Cuban documentary course “baptism by fire”

Loyola student Cesaire Souissa Mounda in Cuba

Loyola student Cesaire Souissa Mounda in Cuba


“Take me somewhere
I’ve never been.
Show me something
I’ve never seen.”

Though claiming no authorship of the phrase above, Professor John C.P. Goheen of Loyola University Chicago places it in the heads of his students.

While this filmmaking philosophy applies equally to his domestic courses, Loyola’s Digital Storytelling Abroad class in Havana, Cuba heightened its meaning and left students no choice but to follow.

Undergraduate and graduate students were assigned the task of producing two short films in Havana over the course of 11 days. The class pushed students to grow as both filmmakers and people.

Film student Jessica Vitkin explains that the course taught her about Cuban culture and “what it means to work as a videographer in both a ‘real-world’ and international setting.”



However, this isn’t the first time Loyola Chicago has pushed its film students to go outside their language and cultural comfort zones.

Documentary filmmaker and photojournalist Goheen has taught similar courses in Santiago, Chile and Moscow, Russia. Loyola Chicago also offers the Filmmaking in Rome course at its John Felice campus in Italy.

However, filming in Cuba is noticeably different.

Ever since the Eisenhower administration placed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1960, antagonistic policies between the United States and Cuba have worked to impede the flow of ideas, culture, and media.

Still, aside from some bureaucratic hurdles on the way into the country, Goheen says that “it’s a really ideal place to be able to work easily, and literally, there is a story on every corner.”



He further elaborates, “It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been.” Considering Goheen’s documentaries have taken him everywhere from Vietnam to Kenya to Kazakhstan to Haiti, that is saying something.

Also unlike Filmmaking in Rome, pre and post-production of the Digital Storytelling Abroad course takes place in Chicago. The students were given assignments to complete in the states prior to the trip, and they met numerous times after returning for post-production.

Aside from three excursion days in Cuba, every moment in Havana was dedicated to production.

Stepping away from all of life’s other responsibilities and focusing solely on filming is a unique opportunity for the students. “Being away from my busy life in Chicago gave me the opportunity to focus strictly on my projects,” explains student Allyson Klein.



The first task in Havana included a full-production music video in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for a song called “Jesus of Nazareth” by Daylen Rodríguez.

After that, the students were paired up, given a translator, and filmed two short docs. “One sort of a traditional story, and one they had to shoot on a smartphone,” says Goheen.

The smartphone assignment comes as a surprise for such a high-level course, but the reasoning is attributed to the growing use of smartphones in photojournalism – largely due to ease of access.

While student Kaitlin McMurry’s worked on her non-smartphone documentary about the public and professional athletic facility known as the José Martí Sports Park, those smartphone skills came in handy.


The Loyola University Cuban documentary class with Professor John C Goheen (seated, second row, far right)
The Loyola University Cuban documentary class with Professor John C Goheen (seated, second row, far right)

Goheen explains, “In the course of shooting this story, the authorities came and said ‘you can’t shoot here.’” He believes that the Cuban government was embarrassed by the state of the Sports Park.

“So I was like, ‘keep rolling,’” says Goheen. McMurry went on to secretly film the encounter with the authorities and the park with her smartphone.

Unfortunately, the Cuban translator for the José Martí Sports Park film feared legal repercussions for participating in the clandestine project, and McMurry chose to not publish the final cut in order to protect the translator’s identity.

Still, McMurry states that “working alongside my talented classmates and getting to watch Professor Goheen in the field (and observing) how he handled getting kicked out of José Martí Sports Park also helped me develop professionally.”

Despite this setback, McMurry remarks, “To say this was a life-changing experience is an understatement… Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable or get out of your comfort zone if you want to have a good story.”



“It was a baptism by fire,” reflects film student Brenna Donegan. The high-speed choices that go along with international-documentary filmmaking not only sharpened her craft but also “on a more personal level” taught her to “push through my anxieties and have faith in my own ability as a filmmaker.”



Cesaire Souissa Mounda – film student and director of Internet in Cuba, explains, “As someone with a future goal of making documentaries, travelling to Cuba was a first step toward becoming a documentary filmmaker.”



This summer, Souissa Mounda is traveling to the Philippines to make another documentary as part of an Independent Study course.

Clearly, Loyola Chicago continues to encourage its film students to take audiences somewhere they’ve never been and show them something they’ve never seen.

Click here to learn more about Loyola’s B.A. in Film and Digital Media, and here for Loyola’s Master of Communication: Digital Media and Storytelling.

Contact Joey Filer at Joey@reelchicago.com or follow him on Twitter @FilerJoey.