‘Campesino’ explores Cuba’s proud farming traditions

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A report by Chris Melville for The Idaho Mountain Express.

For more than 15 years, amateur photographer Carl Oelerich surreptitiously sneaked into then-embargoed Cuba, documenting the day-to-day life of that nation’s campesinos.

The word “campesino” generally translates into English as “peasant,” but that term and its numerous connotations fall woefully short of capturing the pride, strength and sense of community that define these Cuban farmers.

Oelerich’s photos found a captive audience in filmmaker Mia Tate, a Wood River Valley `resident. Unable to forget the weathered, storied faces captured therein, Tate began developing a new cinematic project. When President Barack Obama lifted the embargo in 2014, her opportunity arrived, and Tate spent the next four years working on her debut documentary, “Campesino.”

“I always knew I wanted to get the stories behind the faces,” she said.

Elaborating upon Oelerich’s work through the cinematic medium, Tate journeyed to Viñales, where campesinos grow world-famous Cuban tobacco.

Following up with many of the same subjects whom Oelerich photographed, Tate’s documentary captures a rare look at a vanishing way of life, a tradition that is at once unique to Cuba and spiritually akin to salt-of-the-earth farmers everywhere. Tate, who left life in the suburbs for an Idaho ranch while making “Campesino,” finds the rural way of life irresistible.

“It’s a celebration of slowing down, of bygone eras and of coming together,” she said. “My favorite word with this film is ‘connection.’ I hope people are touched.”

After years of filming across four visits to Cuba, Tate and her crew recorded hundreds of hours of footage, all the while remaining focused on the campesinos and striving—against social expectations—to remain apolitical.

“We were at the Havana Film Festival, and I was a little nervous,” Tate said, “but they thanked me for not being political and they thanked me for telling a story about their campesinos. They’re really proud of that part of their history.”

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