Lifestyle: Haute Spot

Haute Spot

By Dawn Watson - September 22, 2020

Christiane Arbesu is really good at telling other people’s stories.
The documentary filmmaker is especially gifted when it comes to producing meaningful content for good causes. This past summer, she lent her skills to two of the East End’s most successful not-for-profit organizations — the Ellen Hermanson Foundation’s Gala, which was held via video in July and raised more than $111,000, and the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s virtual Gala in the Garden fundraiser, which brought in approximately $750,000 in August.

The Hamptons Bays resident, and founder of Terrebonne Productions, has spent the past 20-plus years helping non-profit and corporate clients get their messages across visually. Clients include Bayer, The American Liver Foundation, Montefiore Health System, Nike, Pfizer, Verizon, among others.
“The mission is to create visual content that uniquely connects brands to consumers by empowering people to make informed decisions for their well being,” she says.
But there’s one story that’s her own to tell. And with her first feature documentary, “I Am Arbesu,” she has finally gotten to share it with others, including her large, extended family.
The impetus for the 51-minute film was how the Cold War affected her kin in Cuba. Her father, the first Cuban ambassador to Indonesia, was concerned about Fidel Castro and his communist regime. So he decided to move himself, his wife, and their children, away from the tiny island country and sought political asylum in Montreal.
He believed that the move would be temporary; that he could return with his family after a few months had passed. But, unfortunately, they were never allowed to return to step foot on the ground of their homeland.
“Growing up in Montreal, there was an element of sadness and longing for the family that had been left behind,” says Arbesu.
In 2016, when President Obama opened relations with Cuba, she leapt at the opportunity to finally be able to make the pilgrimage to the place of her family’s origins.
“I Am Arbesu” is the story of the reuniting of a family separated by politics and geography. For more than 50 years,” she says. “The subsequent pain and suffering mine and too many other families experience when politics forces severe decisions to be made; it is something that breaks the hearts of all involved.”
Even though she had been born in Montreal, and had never actually stepped foot on the ground of her family’s native land, the homecoming was emotional. Making the trek back to the once-forbidden country, Arbesu visited the places once familiar to her parents and the graves of her ancestors as she met with as many relatives as she could locate.
Tracking down and meeting with her aunts, uncles and cousins, some of whom had been presumed dead, she finally got the chance to learn about the family she never knew. They all greeted her with outstretched arms, kisses and tears of joy.
“It’s incredible, it’s like an explosion of feelings,” says Arbesu. “And yet it’s so profoundly sad. Because we lost so much time.”
Many of those she interviewed and talked with have now passed, including her own mother, who was never able to return to her native land. But despite the lost time and accompanying sorrow, there were also many moments of pure joy, such as when Arbesu meets up with her kin for a family dinner, dances in the street with an uncle and connects her father to his relatives via cell phone.
A love letter to her family, and to the resilient spirit of the people of Cuba, the award-winning film showcases the beauty and joy of the place and the people, as well as the poignancy of reuniting with lost love. Colorful and filled with the character of place and time, it’s especially poignant as so many of the people who are featured in it are now gone, including her mother.
“Visiting Cuba for the first time in March 2016 changed my life forever and the lives of the many relatives I was finally able to meet,” says Arbesu. “While we cannot make up for the 53 years of lost time, we have a restoration of the fabric of love that exists in spite of such division.”
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