“What’s wrong?” That was John Buchanan’s question when the pilot of the six-seater airplane in Botswana suddenly zoomed upward, just as she was about to land on an airstrip in the forest. “Giraffes on the runway!” the pilot shouted. “And that’s when I knew I was in Africa,” Buchanan says.
As an actuary, Buchanan serves as the managing principal of excess and reinsurance at Verisk/ISO in Jersey City, New Jersey. But in his downtime, Buchanan recently combined his love of travel and a passion for dance to create a completely new job title: indie filmmaker. A short film he shot while vacationing in Cuba was accepted into the prestigious Cinema New York City Film Festival last year, beating out some 30,000 other entries from professionals. How did he do it?
Buchanan’s interest in film developed almost by accident. Since 2012, he’s been traveling the world with partner Gail August, a linguistics teacher who says she “leads a double life as a college professor and a belly dancer.” Together, the couple has explored Morocco, Spain, Patagonia, Zimbabwe and the Galapagos. And on each trip, August has packed a few of her belly dancing costumes. “The costumes always produce a Pied Piper effect,” Buchanan explains, “bringing a trail of interested children who follow us along.” The dancing helps them connect to people wherever they travel, and behind the camera, Buchanan films it all for the home movies he puts together after each trip.
The colorful costumes, complete with veils and silk wings, attract attention from adults as well. On a cruise ship off the coast of Ecuador, Gail was dancing at the bow of the boat, “going for the shot from Titanic,” says Buchanan, when the captain of the ship called for them to come to his deck. They sheepishly complied — expecting to hear that they’d broken a rule — when the captain reached for his guitar and began serenading them, wanting to join in the performance. It was just the kind of spontaneous, unexpected encounter they hoped for.
Buchanan enjoyed posting his travel movies on YouTube for family, friends and his actuarial colleagues to share. “Sometimes they’d get picked up by a fair number of people,” he says. “I’d end up getting a thousand hits or so.” He and August were thinking about visiting Cuba when, on November 25, 2016, the news came that Fidel Castro had died. Afraid that tourism would soon be curtailed, Buchanan says, “We booked our tickets that night.” The couple decided to travel on an educational exchange called People to People that connects visitors to ordinary Cubans, outside the world of tourism. Because of their focus on education — Buchanan tries to get kids interested in math and science via STEM projects — they arranged to meet teachers and professors as part of the trip.
In January 2017, the two arrived in Havana to find a city pulsing with music. Buchanan filmed people dancing in restaurants and bands playing on the street. They rode in a taxi so dilapidated that it no longer had door handles inside the car. Instead, the driver had to open their door from the outside to let them out. “Because of the sanctions, they just can’t get parts for the cars,” Buchanan explains. The island’s past was as ubiquitous as its music. “Sixty years of history pervades the Cuba we visited,” says Buchanan. “On every street corner, there is a story or an artifact from the Cuban Revolution.”
That history came in handy when Buchanan was able to rent a classic convertible painted canary yellow, said to be originally owned by American gangster Meyer Lansky, for an impromptu film shoot. August cruised around town, perched on the back of the car and dressed in a bright blue costume, turning heads as she waved her silk wings at the passing cars. Other classic rides from the 1940s drove up to exchange greetings, including a flamingo-pink convertible decked out with fins and chrome. As always, Buchanan took pictures and video with a simple hand-held camera. “Gail is the star!” he says. “I’m just the actuary behind the camera.”
“Sixty years of history pervades the Cuba we visited,” says Buchanan. “On every street corner, there is a story or an artifact from the Cuban Revolution.”
Describing the process of filming, Buchanan says, “We didn’t really go with any kind of preconceived plan. All I knew was, we’d dedicate a couple days to just taking her out somewhere, and putting her in the middle of a group of people.” One day, August suggested visiting a public square in Havana to dance. “Within five minutes,” Buchanan says, “a group of kids came up, and they just sat down in front of her, as if she was a kind of paid performer.” Soon, August was handing the children props and teaching them how to dance.
Later when he viewed the footage from the square, Buchanan realized they had something special. “It wasn’t until we came back home and started putting the pieces together that we saw there was a story there,” he says. “The movie just grew and flowered on its own … as we began to analyze and organize our materials, a story naturally evolved.”
Buchanan started putting the film together on his iPad, using iMovie software. He combined still photos, video footage and music that seemed to capture the mood of each section, which grew to include classic cars, the Cuban missile crisis, the Cuban revolution and the country’s future. But the heart of the film turned out to be the video of August in the Plaza de la Catedral, linking the differences of language, country and culture by teaching a group of kids how to dance. Buchanan, who honed his musical tastes as a college DJ, chose Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and John Lennon for the soundtrack.
The finished film, titled Cuba People to People — Roses, Cars, & Wings, might have been just another home movie destined for YouTube. Then August showed the film to a friend who happens to be a film professor. According to Buchanan, “He said, ‘This is pretty good, why don’t you make these few adjustments and submit it to film festivals?’ So I submitted it to two or three festivals, but I didn’t give it much of a chance.” One of those was the 2017 Cinema New York City Film Festival. “Looking at the website,” recalls Buchanan, “I saw there were about 30,000 films that were submitted to the festival every year, and I thought, there’s no chance that this is going to win. About a month later, I got a notice the film was one of 400 that were accepted to go into the next round … then it was accepted into the actual film festival of about 100 films.”
He and August got to watch their home movie screen at the festival, along with the professional efforts produced by large casts and crews. Says Buchanan, “Gail and I would sit next to each other and poke each other, and ask, “Why is our film in this? It just looks like a home movie.” Later, they had the opportunity to ask a few judges that exact question. Along with liking the grass roots, indie feel of the film, “They said it was really different, in that it had this hopeful message of ‘why can’t we just get along?’” says Buchanan.
On the surface, directing a movie might seem completely different from Buchanan’s day job as an actuary, but he believes creativity and problem-solving drive both kinds of work. “When you get beyond a spreadsheet, math is creative,” says Buchanan. “I’ve always tried to figure out what’s something that’s going to work — that nobody’s ever thought about before?”
He also credits his math skills for his success in a completely different creative venture: learning to salsa dance. Between trips, he says, August convinced him to take salsa classes. “She said, ‘You’ll like salsa because it’s very mathematical.’ I was really bad at it. I was quitting every two weeks. She kept on dragging me back to class, and eventually I got it.” Since then, Buchanan has competed at the World Salsa Summit in Miami, where he’s won numerous bronze and silver medals, but says he’s “still waiting on that elusive gold.” He’s even performed salsa dances during the halftime show at Madison Square Garden.
The unexpected success of the movie reminds Buchanan of an idea he’s tried to instill in his children. “I’ve always told my kids that if you don’t do something, there’s only one thing that’s going to happen: That’s nothing. If you do something, there are only two things that might happen: either something or nothing. So you might as well do something and see what happens.”
The film has been shown in five festivals to date, and Buchanan is still submitting it to a contest or two each month. He’s currently waiting to hear back from festivals in Madrid and Berlin. If the film gets accepted overseas, Buchanan and August are thinking about using it as a springboard to their next adventure. “We’ll plan the next trip, and the next filming opportunity, around wherever it may get accepted,” he says.
You don’t need to travel to New York or Berlin to see Cuba People to People — Roses, Cars, & Wings. Check out the movie on Vimeo at vimeo.com/231243903. Buchanan’s earlier travel films, including Africa Trek, Penguin Trek and Galapagos Trek, can be found at vimeo.com/album/5323032.
Laurie McClellan is a freelance writer and photographer living in Arlington, Virginia. She is on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches in the M.A. in Science Writing program.