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Documentary examines modern effort to reclaim Cuba

As a self-described "pointy head," professor Sandra Dickson knows her TV documentary work isn't going to cause a stampede to the living room.

Her own students at the University of West Florida, with a campus tucked away in the piney woods of this quaint coastal town, are, after all, as she reminds .


."of the MTV generation."

"You want us to sit through an hour?" Dickson asks mockingly.

Even her parents give the 37-year-old filmmaker a tough time about the in-depth documentaries she produces. "

"I wonder how the Braves are doin'?' my Dad asks about half-way through my films," Dickson says, shaking her head.

Like dedicated documentary makers everywhere, lack of a mass appreciative audience doesn't deter Dickson, who holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University. The spirited assistant professor in the Communication Arts Department is on a mission to inform.

While some people want a steady stream of escapism from their TV sets, others desire to learn something from the tube once in awhile. The latter is Dickson's target audience and, even working from an obscure school, she has a great track record. UWF has no football team, but it is the school to attend in the state if you want to study documentary filmmaking.

Two of Dickson's productions, largely financed by UWF, have been accepted for airing on most of PBS's 341 affiliates. Neither of Dickson's films are genteel. She tackles gutsy, globe-rocking subjects.

Her Giving Up the Canal, which aired in June 1990, was about the future of the Panama Canal. Six months before its airdate, Dickson had to redo the entire project because U.S. military forces invaded Panama and ousted dictator Manuel Noriega.

Now, Dickson has ready to run Campaign for Cuba, about a powerful lobbying organization, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), based in Miami, poised to replace Fidel Castro.

On Oct. 14, PBS is packaging Campaign for Cuba with WGBH's (the Boston PBS affiliate) The Cuban Missile Crisis: At the Brink of War to commemorate those days 30 years ago when U.S.-Cuba issues frighteningly took center stage in the world.

The Cuban Missile Crisis airs at 9 p.m., followed by Dickson's Campaign for Cuba at 10. (Tampa Bay's other PBS affiliate, WUSF-Ch. 16 airs The Cuban Missile Crisis on Monday, Oct. 26, at 10 p.m. and plans to schedule Campaign for Cuba for November.)

The best part of Dickson's work, as she's the first to acknowledge, is that her students get involved on all levels, traveling to locations like Panama or Cuba with her and Churchill Roberts, chairman of UWF's Communication Arts school, the hands-on editing of the films, and discussing in class what's involved in trying to present an unbiased treatment of controversial subjects.

"Making this documentary on Cuba also turned out to be a very important teaching tool for my ethics class," Dickson said recently in her cramped but neat office.

Dickson, Roberts and crew had taped interviews in Cuba with residents who are not enamored with father-figure Castro. When the military realized what was on the tape, they put the UWF group under house arrest for a day. Dickson wouldn't budge, even when a threat was made that those who spoke to her on-camera would be imprisoned.

"We were told by the Cuban government, "If you give us the videotape, we will not arrest the (dissenters).' Some of my students, out of compassion and naivete, thought we should give up our tape, but the Cuban government would arrest these people anyway."

Dickson and Roberts stood their ground and for some unexplained reason, she says, the UWF group was allowed to leave _ with their tapes.

Dickson says that the group met further opposition on the streets of Cuba when the filming of long supermarket lines led to a confrontation between her photographer and Cubans humiliated by the attention.

Dickson, who made two trips to Cuba in the spring and summer of 1991, says the Cubans "were worse off than I imagined." The best food and shelter was saved for tourists.

Dickson appears in the 57-minute 40-second documentary, but only as a nameless interviewer. For her film on Panama, she hired former NBC newsman Edwin Newman. For the Cuba project, she again went with a former network personality, 76-year-old Daniel Schorr.

Schorr, who has had a stormy career at CBS and CNN, is presently a political correspondent for National Public Radio.

Schorr wasn't pleased with the $5,000 fee he was paid, but that was a large chunk of Campaign for Cuba's $30,000 budget, Roberts says. "He wanted more."

Roberts says the UWF staff often had to dig into their own pockets to finance touches on the film _ like funding a long drive to the Florida Keys to get a shot of the television blimp that beams American programing to Cuba.

At one point, Dickson could only afford to send Schorr flowers to get him to redo a section. Schorr later said that without the flowers, he wouldn't have agreed to the extra work. "He's like a bear coming out of hibernation," Dickson says.

"A lot of people don't like working with me," Schorr conceded in a later telephone interview. "I usually don't take the time to be civil."

But Schorr credits small UWF with gaining access to Cuba and doing network quality work.

Dickson aims for a balanced documentary and succeeds in presenting pros and cons concerning the CANF. She includes some interviews with students in Cuba.

They believe the right change for Cuba will come from Cubans themselves, not exiles who have been away from the island for decades now.

Dickson tends to agree with that point of view. She points out that the Cuban-American community is "not a monolithic block. Not everyone shares the same view. It's just that the CANF is the most visible."

Dickson is particularly distressed that more Americans, especially those in academia, don't express outrage at Castro's chronic human rights abuses.

But again, Dickson strives for balance in her work. Some speak out about the repression on the island in her film. Others defend Castro and say that exile leaders such as Mas Canosa are driven by hopes of business opportunities.

If there's criticism of Campaign for Cuba, other than Schorr's dry delivery, it's that the viewer isn't grabbed early enough with the compelling footage of life in Cuba. Instead, the documentary opens with talking heads and historical data _ a bit like a classroom lecture.

Dickson says she's not sure what her next project will be. She needs funding.

And with drastic state budget cuts for education this past year, she's not hopeful money will come her way easily _ PBS recognition for her work aside.

The Cuban Missile Crisis: At the Brink of War airs at 9 p.m., followed by Campaign for Cuba at 10, on Wednesday, Oct. 14, locally on WEDU-Ch. 3.