To most Americans, Cuba remains something of a mystery despite its nearness to the U.S. (the Cuban mainland is about 90 miles from Key West). Despite some recent loosening of travel restrictions, laws dating back to the Cold War mean it’s still far more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba than to most other Caribbean countries, while in the news we hear about defectors and visiting celebrities like the Pope far more often than we do about ordinary Cubans and how they live their lives.
For all these reasons, Mary Jane Doherty’s documentary Secundaria, which follows a class of students through their final three years at the National Ballet School, holds particular interest for Americans. She focuses on three students of contrasting economic backgrounds: Gabriela Lugo Morena, who shares a small apartment with her mother and brother and takes a long bus ride each day to class, Mayara Piñeiro, who comes from a comfortable background (her father is in the military, and her mother works for a hotel), and Moisés León Noriega, whose family is extremely poor.
Doherty has not imposed much structure on her film, which feels more like a visual diary than a completed film. Fortunately, the students’ progress provides her with some forward momentum, as they experience the usual ups and downs to be expected of teenagers training for a difficult profession—being overlooked followed by performing successfully in a competition, missing time due to injury, being placed in a remedial class one year then chosen for lead roles the next, and so on.
While there’s lots of footage of the students practicing and performing in Secundaria, there’s very little explanation of how they are chosen in the first place or graded once they are part of the school, and even less about what is at stake for them (e.g., what kind of life does a successful graduate enjoy, compared to what they might have achieved otherwise?). Another odd omission is the lack of discussion of the school’s curriculum—the students clearly learn something about folk and modern dance, but it’s never explained how that works in conjunction with their training in traditional ballet. Financial matters are also largely undiscussed (toe shoes in particularly are notoriously expensive and don’t last long, so the money must be coming from somewhere), apart from mention of the difficulty of finding a functioning bus for a tour.
The best students get to perform outside the country, going one year to South Africa and Italy, and another year to Canada. The latter trip provides the most dramatic event of the film, and the filmmaker’s fly-on-the-wall approach pays off well in allowing the viewer to experience an unexpected event that seems to be presented without any kind of filter. The reactions of the family of the student involved, and the other ballet students, provide more insight into the conditions of their lives in than does much of the rest of the film.
In the end, Secundaria is a mixed bag—interesting because of its subject, but disappointing because the filmmaker doesn’t seem interested in inquiring into even the most basic aspects of the students’ lives or the operation of the ballet school. The film’s technical quality also leaves something to be desired: for instance, dancers are often allowed to dance right out of the frame, as if the director didn’t know what they were going to do next. Much of the non-English dialogue is not translated, and the voiceover narration sometimes explains things and sometimes just leaves you wondering. Many scenes simply end in a blackout, which often lasts much longer than necessary and becomes a distracting device rather than a simple cut. None of this means that Secundaria is not worth seeing—it certainly is, particularly if you are interested in dance—but it does make you wish the director had done something more compelling with the fascinating material she gathered.
Extras on the disc include a stills gallery, a biography of the director and a statement by her, and trailers for other films distributed by First Run Features.