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by Jay Seaver

"Cuban ballerinas make for an interesting subject. Who knew?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: For someone who has never been to the ballet, I sure tend to find a lot of movies involving the combination of art and athleticism fascinating. Maybe it's the way that the intense discipline necessary to master the form naturally creates great drama as well as great beauty; maybe ballet is a tough enough sell to many Americans that what manages to make it on screen is exceptional. Either way, "Secundaria" is quite the strong documentary, even if some of its most interesting material isn't about the ballet itself.

Ballet is a big deal in Cuba, and vice versa, even if the island is best known for other styles. Many of the world's foremost companies have Cuban performers taking lead roles, though, with many of them trained at an internationally-renowned academy in Havana. This film follows three who entered the three-year program in 2007: Maryara, who lives in a small apartment with her mother and brother and rides a bus for an hour each way to get to the school; Gabriela, who by contrast comes from a comfortable background (her mother is a hotel accountant and her father is in the military); and Moises, a new friend of Maryara's who comes from one of Havana's poorest neighborhoods. At the start of each year, students are ranked by how they perform in a competition, and while Gabriela is one of the most heralded talents, Maryara surprises by coming in second for the whole school.

That's the story's starting point, and filmmaker Mary Jane Doherty sticks with these characters for the full three years rather than the more common path of choosing, say, a freshman, a senior, and a graduate and following them in parallel. It works out nicely; it means that the various threads don't play as disconnected while it seldom seems forced when the group interacts (although I half-suspect that the decision to make Moises one of the central characters was made later).

Doherty has chosen a nice group of kids to watch, too. All three have a good balance of dedication to their craft and being basically decent teenagers, and while the movie might be more dramatic if they had more extreme personalities, it's easy to like them. The contrasts between the girls are subtle but telling, especially in a scene at Maryara's place where she shows herself as a ballet enthusiast to the point of geekery while Gabriela looks slightly out of place with her nicer clothes and the sort of skinniness that only girls who don't have to miss meals have. Teachers and mentors like the legendary Martha Iris and Fernando Alonso (the founder of Cuba's ballet program is a very spry-looking 94) add a little spice to the picture.

One of the trio does eventually emerge as the star of the story, and it's kind of a lucky break for the filmmaker; one event allows the movie to have structure and a story arc that it might not otherwise feature, especially with one of the subjects sidelined through much of the movie. Doherty is good enough to seize that emerging theme and build her movie around it, which is good, because sometimes she hits the limits of what her very small crew (often likely her alone) can manage. It looks very hard to get the camera in just the right place while in the school - the framing is often a little too tight - and it would be nice if the non-expert audience could see the difference between "good" and "great". On the other hand, I'm convinced that you can go to any street corner in Havana, point a camera in a random direction, and get the makings of a great movie; the film has a great sense of place.

"Secundaria" has its faults, but they are easily forgiven; an American making a documentary in Cuba over three years is facing a lot of challenges. What Doherty pulls together is a lot of fun to watch, though, making its subject quite accessible without making it secondary.

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originally posted: 05/05/13 12:48:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 09-Feb-2016



Directed by
  Mary Jane Doherty

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