Fejos Postdoctoral Fellow: Steffen Köhn

We're very excited to share the following trailer and blogpost from Steffen Köhn, who in 2019 was awarded a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film to aid filming, "Dinamita."

I was awarded the Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2019 for working on my documentary Dinamita (initially titled “After Access”). The film is an audiovisual supplement to my postdoctoral research project “Island in The Net – Emergent Digital Culture and its Social Consequences in Post-Castro Cuba” which examines digital media as a major arena in which the relationship between the Cuban state and its citizens is currently being reshaped. The Cuban government has long restricted its citizens’ access to digital technology and the internet for fear of freedom of information and expression, making the island one of the least connected countries in the world until only a few years ago. As the state slowly and reluctantly grants better access, Cuban citizens have become active players in a true digital revolution. Dinamita explores this dynamic through the eyes of two young social media trailblazers: Dina (DinaStars) and Adriano (ComePizza). Co-created with cinematographer and director Paola Calvo, the documentary spans three years and showcases the evolution of these influencers from their early days to becoming national celebrities. The film combines observational footage filmed by us with our protagonists’ self-produced videos. The Fejos Fellowship in Ethnographic Film funded the editing, post-production, and initial distribution of the film, and supported my writing on Cuba’s digitally savvy youth shaping the country’s networked public sphere.

I first encountered Dina and Adriano in Havana’s Vedado district, a cultural hotspot, where they were part of a dynamic group of vloggers who were frequently hanging out together. They spent most of their weekends in Calle G, a street that has served as a meeting point for the city’s various subcultures for a long time. The content Dina and Adriano uploaded to YouTube stood out: Adriano’s satirical take on Cuban life and Dina’s shift from beauty tutorials to women’s rights advocacy following a sexual assault immediately fascinated me. Their eagerness to voice their opinions in the digital realm and their inventive response to the material challenges and political limitations in their country were captivating. Vlogging was their medium to assert their identities in a place where official discourse is restrictive and seldom reflects youth culture.

During the filming process, we adopted a highly performative approach to portray the everyday experiences of our young protagonists. Rather than formal interviews, Dina, Adriano, and their peers were prompted to converse freely, providing a natural window into their realities. In contrast to YouTube’s brisk style, we opted for extended takes, uncommon in documentary cinema, matching the camera’s choreography with the subjects’ spatial movements. In a Havana before widespread mobile internet, where connectivity meant a physical journey to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, our characters’ constant movement through public areas was a key visual theme. We sought to capture this nomadic essence with a fluid camera technique, using a gimbal for smooth tracking and attaching lavalier mics for clear audio without restricting movement. Our goal was to encapsulate each scene in one continuous shot, though we retained the option to refine through edits in post-production.

Beyond capturing new scenes, we also compiled an array of content from the YouTube and Instagram profiles of Dina and Adriano, where they often engaged in dialogues with each other. These segments, rich with the distinct flavor of Cuban digital culture, were woven into our documentary, providing a platform for the subjects to narrate their stories themselves. As the project progressed, we observed their remarkable personal growth. Both Adriano and especially Dina gained global acclaim as social media influencers. Engaging with individuals so attuned to their public persona and skilled in the art of digital narration was intriguing. Occasionally, they even created and contributed clips specifically tailored for our documentary, offering viewers insight into the complexities of online connectivity in Cuba. There were also instances where we, the filmmakers, unexpectedly became part of their storytelling in their digital content.

The most significant hurdle in post-production was crafting a compelling conclusion. Initially, we ended the film with Dina’s evolution into a feminist advocate, culminating in an inspirational broadcast to her audience. Yet, this ending lacked the impactful resolution we sought. The narrative shifted unexpectedly on July 11, 2021, as we were in the midst of editing, with the onset of the most substantial demonstrations in Cuba since the revolution. This period saw the COVID-19 situation worsening alongside deep-seated socioeconomic issues that had reached a tipping point for many people who took to the streets. The country faced critical shortages, rampant inflation, and regular power outages, which fueled widespread discontent and pushed the populace to the edge.

The news of the protests reached me unexpectedly through videos sent by friends in Cuba, and I was surprised to learn that Dina was among the most active participants. Merely two days following the demonstrations, on July 13, she posted a video to YouTube that depicted her involvement in the protests along with her friends. That same day, she appeared on the Spanish TV show “Todo es Mentira” via Zoom, where a shocking turn of events unfolded live: Cuban state security officials entered her home and detained her for questioning, all witnessed by the host and viewers across Spain. With no word from Dina for a full day, her friends launched an online campaign to shed light on her detainment and prompt inquiries into her location. Adriano was instrumental in rallying support from the Cuban YouTube community, spurring action and solidarity for Dina and providing solace to her worried mother, who shared her concerns in a video. The hashtag #FreeDina quickly resonated across Latin American social networks, capturing the attention of international media. From afar, we captured screenshots of these rapidly developing events, archiving every available video. Following her release, Dina broadcasted live to communicate her safety to her followers. The ordeal visibly took a toll on her, leading her to take a step back from further political engagement in the subsequent period.

The abundance of video content shared by Dina and her network of social media colleagues offered a wealth of resources to recreate these pivotal moments in our documentary. This footage enabled the crafting of a poignant conclusion to the film, offering a narrative of one of Cuba’s most pivotal historical occurrences through the eyes of the very individuals embroiled in it. The completed documentary has been presented at notable venues such as the Internationale Filmtage Hof, the Malaga Film Festival, the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, and Bertha Doc House in London. The documentary will also complement my upcoming ethnographic monograph titled “Island in the Net – Emergent Digital Culture and its Social Consequences in Post-Castro Cuba”. In this book, I explore how Dina, Adriano, and other young Cubans utilize their increasing access to the Internet to seize new economic opportunities within the emerging private sector, establish transnational networks, and advocate for greater liberties from the government.