David Taylor, an assistant professor in the Sustainability Studies Program, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, has produced an award-winning documentary in collaboration with Melinda Levin, professor and MFA director at the University of North Texas. The film, Cuban Earth, picked up a silver and two gold Telly Awards in the General-Non Broadcast category for 2020. The pair have worked on a variety of projects since 2011.
Cuban Earth documents Taylor and Levin’s work with Teatro Callejero Medio Ambiental (TECMA) — street performers for the environment — and is based in Pinar del Río in western Cuba.
The Telly Awards honor excellence in video and television across all screens. Established in 1979, The Telly Awards receive more than 12,000 entries from all 50 states and five continents. Entrants are judged by The Telly Awards Judging Council — an industry body of more than 200 leading experts, including those from advertising agencies, production companies and major television networks.
“We were particularly interested in TECMA because of their work in environmental awareness, but also because they were so deeply involved in their community, working with at-risk youth, providing jobs in their costume design shop, repurposing materials from the landfill, discarded x-ray film, and the like,” said Taylor. “Their director and members were a diverse, thoughtful group of young people committed to something more than a narrow view of theater performance.”
Along with other colleagues at the University of North Texas, Taylor and Levin “developed relationships in 2013 with the University of Havana about developing a study abroad class focused on Cuba and sustainability,” he said. “During our first class, we met with writers, artists and performers focused on environmental engagement.”
Taylor joined Stony Brook University in August 2014. He and Levin traveled to Cuba four times to film: In October 2014, May 2015, October 2015 and May 2016.
Gisela Gonzales, former president of Consejo Nacional de las Artes Escénicas (CNAE), a Cuban cultural institution that promotes theater and dance, invited the pair to document theater groups doing performances focused on the environment. During these trips, Levin would bring a graduate student from her program to serve as the cinematographer.
“Melinda directed (meaning she did the really important film work) and I produced (meaning I did all the organization and correspondence),” said Taylor.
They filmed more than 50 hours of performances and interviews, which is the basis of Taylor’s scholarly project, Theatres of Engagement: Five Cuban Theatre Groups at Work for the Environment, a book in progress.
Taylor has completed other research in Cuba and led three Stony Brook study abroad classes to the island nation in 2017, 2018 and 2020. He is lead editor of and contributor to An Island in the Stream: Ecocritical and Literary Responses to Cuban Environmental Culture (Lexington Books, 2019).
“Interdisciplinary research and collaboration have taught me how to reimagine the possibilities for my research in environmental humanities,” Taylor said. And Melinda has taught me that film can help an audience experience an issue differently than writing. My students also need to think as diversely.”
Taylor and Levin collaborated on another team project, Sushi in Cortez: Essays from the Edge of Academia (University of Utah Press, 2015).
— Glenn Jochum