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I Am Cuba (1964) is an anthology propaganda film divided in four parts that tells the story of their reactionary past and revolutionary present. The first two parts take place in the Batista era with the first story following a fruit vendor and his girlfriend who hides her job as a prostitute from him and the second story follows an old man who loses his land to the United Fruit Company. The last two parts describe the people’s rebellion against Batista. The third story follows a university student who becomes involved in a revolutionary movement and the final story follows a reluctant peasant who joins the rebel cause.
Martin Scorsese once said that if he had seen I Am Cuba when he was younger, he would have been a very different filmmaker. It’s high praise from a director that has arguably directed ten movies that have changed the trajectories of many director’s lives. So why was this film nearly lost for 40 years? The problem is simple: the title. Upon its oft-forgotten release, it was the subject of highly spirited debate. Was this film really Cuban or some warped look at the island through an unapologetically Russian lens? Even the Cuban co writer, Enrique Pineda found the film to be a melodramatic mess while other Cuban critics thought the cinematography overpowered the script. The dancing cameras created a circus and didn’t capture reality. Meanwhile, Russian critics didn’t find the film to be particularly Russian either and found it to be too idealistic and sympathetic to the Bourgeois classes of Batista’s Cuba. As one of the crew members on the film put it, they didn’t understand each other.
All of a sudden, a film that was meant to be seen by the entire world as a triumphant collaboration in the creation of a new socialist world, became a shameful artifact that needed to be hidden away. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union that it became known to the Western world and when directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola saw it at the 1993 San Francisco Film Festival, they decided to remaster it. To understand how it became the West’s favorite hidden gem, it’s important to go back to its foundation.
When Castro and his rebels defeated Fulgencio Batista and established their revolutionary government, one of their first decrees was to establish the ICAIC, the country’s film institute. Directors, actors, writers, and many more learned and invented as they went along with help from people like Che Guevara whose story provided the inspiration for revolutionary Cuba’s first film, Historias de la Revolución by Tomas Gutierrez Alea. Soon left wing directors like Agnes Varda and Jean-Luc Godard came to film in the country. Cuban filmmakers aligned themselves with the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, and even Brazil’s Cinema Novo, but not Russian cinema. Cuba had no political, cultural, or artistic ties with Russia, but the US’s embargo soon made collaborations with any western countries virtually impossible.
Cuba’s sudden appearance on the US’s enemy list cemented their unexpected friendship with the Soviet Union. It was the Soviet government’s idea to celebrate this friendship with the first co-production between the two countries and they recommended Mikhail Kalatazov. Kalatazov was a respected director in the East and the West and after winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for The Cranes Are Flying, he had carte blanche.
When he traveled to Cuba, he brought three important collaborators. His writer, Yevgeny Yevtushenko was considered the greatest contemporary Soviet poet, his cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, had worked with Kalatazov on his previous three films, and Bella Friedman, Urusevsky’s wife and the production’s assistant director provided the human touch. She was in charge of talking to real Cubans and casting the right non-actors for the film. Unlike Friedman, Kalatazov kept his distance with the Cuban people. Pineda later remarked that when he would take Kalatazov to interesting locations, festivals, etc, Kalatazov would often observe from the back of the Cadillac. Because of his stature, Kalatazov could get away with a lot. When he needed thousands of soldiers for a shot in his film, he simply called Raul Castro and when it took him over a year to shoot the movie, no one stopped him.
This is how I Am Cuba was allowed to become something much more different than anyone in Cuba or the Soviet Union could have predicted. But it would be too simplistic to call it a failure. Kalatazov and his collaborators were able to capture some very important aspects of Cuban society. The most important theme established in the first half of the film is the exploitative thread that weaved from the Columbian era to the Batista era. The first lines spoken by the narrator, Cuba itself, recalls the first days after Columbus’ arrival. She recalls how Columbus wrote that this land was the most beautiful he had ever seen and that while she was overjoyed at first, she soon found out his arrival was a nightmare. Soon they only exchanged sugar for tears.
Immediately after this declaration, we are immediately transported to the rooftop of one of Havana’s most decadent hotels where a beauty contest is being held. Once again, the natural beauty of Cuba is being exploited for the entertainment of powerful foreigners. American erotic tourism is another face of the Columbian exchange. When we meet our first protagonist, Maria, we see this dynamic play out. Her boyfriend, as a street vendor, sells resources and she sells her body. The American men treat the women like a piece of exotic fruit and even order them along with their drinks. American businessmen and later even sailors in the third story treat women as objects they are entitled to use and demean.
It’s an attractive and sweet facade of an extremely destructive colonialism that does not exist in Russia. As our narrator declares when reflecting on the tropical beauty of the land, sometimes she wonders if the sugar cane is watered with blood. This beauty and destruction is often juxtaposed. In the second story, the main character, a sugar cane worker, is told by his menacing landlord that he has been given a gift: a long vacation since the United Fruit Company is taking his land and his house. Later on in the sequence, he burns down the land after sending his children off to party with his remaining money. Devastating fires and barroom celebrations. This is Cuba. It’s casinos and nightclubs and poverty and destruction.
Kalatazov’s idea that pre-revolutionary Cuba was a peaceful and idealistic country that was always being interrupted by unspeakable injustice rings true. It’s cemented in the final story of the peasant. He’s reluctant to fight because he wants peace. He lives in a beautiful part of the Sierra Maestra, what could disrupt his calm? That’s when the bombs start falling and for all his desperate cries for his wife to calm down, they keep falling. Cuba is a paradise teetering on the edge of dystopia. It’s an astute and complicated image of the country, but not everything Kalatazov shot remained loyal to this image.
While it’s a visually stunning part of the film, the third story felt much more Russian than Cuban. In particular, the sequence where our young Cuban revolutionary, Enrique slowly walks towards the menacing police chief with a brick in hand as his followers are beaten and hosed, was deemed decidedly not Cuban. The slow and defiant walk lacked the passion inherent in Cuban temperament. This sequence may have been inspired by real protests but took on an entirely Soviet style. Kalatazov copied and pasted real newsreels and choreographed a melodramatic and almost perfect protest where the strength of the unified crowd can overpower any unequal system. It’s a social realist tableau clumsily transposed to Havana. This melodrama and exaggeration drove Kalatazov especially when he saw the capitalist remnants of Havana that had long been absent from Moscow. Because of that, the first half sequences of nightclubs and hotels are dizzying and delirious. It doesn’t look like Cuba or any place. It’s a visual feast but somewhat hard to piece together at times.
But it is this combination of Russian melodrama and Cuban history that creates something that is greater than both of the countries. New filmmaking that had not been seen in either country was born here. Thanks to cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, the world was given some of the most inventive crane shots in history. At the funeral of the martyr revolutionary student, Enrique, the camera pans up from the procession to the rooftops where people throw flowers. Then the camera pans to the side and looks in a cigar factory where the workers have stopped what they were doing to drape a Cuban flag over the window. In one continuous shot, Urusevsky uplifts this tragic end and offers a direct dialogue with one of the first shots of the film. When we are introduced to the hedonistic Havana of Batista, we pan down from the rooftops to a pool. The first shot shows how lonely the descent to capitalism is even when surrounded by fun parties and the second shows how the power of a unified group of people can uplift even in the toughest times. It is both technically and dramatically brilliant.
His other great contribution is the uncomfortable wide angle convex lens that makes every face seem not quite real or strange. For the pre revolutionary scenes, especially, it shows how even in the good times, not all is well. When our sugar cane grower gets the best harvest of his life and we see him and his children cutting it from this strange point of view, we know something is still not right. Urusevsky’s handheld camera work inspired Jorge Herrera, the cinematographer for the Cuban classic Lucia and even the films of the Brazilian Cinema Novo. The handheld camera became essential for revolutionary filmmaking. Apart from these inspirational ideas and techniques, the film also left behind practical tools. They left their infrared film provided by the Soviet military, which provided sharp contrasts between whites and blacks, particularly in landscape shots, as well as cameras and cranes that would be used by many prominent ICAIC directors like Tomas Gutierrez Alea. It even served as a kind of acting school for Sergio Corrieri who would go on to star in Gutierrez Alea’s greatest film, Memorias del Subdesarrollo.
Even though when the film premiered it was decidedly not Cuban, it became Cuban over time. It became an integral and influential part of their film history even if they did not realize it. It did so without any recognition for years. Kalatazov, Urusevsky, and Friedman, died long before it was reassessed and due to the embargo, many of the Cuban crew members and actors found out late how beloved it had become in the West. Still, it managed to make its mark and outlast the Cuban-Soviet friendship and become something more, in spite of its controversial title.
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