I am Cuba (1997)

June 12, 1997

The story behind Cinematheque’s latest feature I am Cuba is almost as interesting as the film itself. Originally meant to be Cuba’s answer to Eisenstein’s propaganda glory The Battleship Potempkin, and a hands-on cinematic exercise for Cuban film technicians, I am Cuba disappeared after its 1964 release. It wasn’t until last year that this technical masterpiece was rediscovered and re-released by movie mavericks Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to critics and audience’s delight.

Directed by the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov (better known for his Cannes award winning film The Cranes are Flying [1957]), and written by Russian poet Yevgeny Yetushenko and Cuban writer Enrique Pineda Barnet, I am Cuba is basically a jingoistic anthem for the Cuban revolution of the 50’s. What elevates the film from the depths of a propaganda hell is the utterly delirious cinematography and camera work. The feeling one gets after watching I am Cuba is a feverish, giddy one; akin to the afterglow experienced after watching cinematic marvels like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

Featuring some of the most inventive, jaw-dropping shots in cinematic history (long before the invention of the Steadicam), and a virtual horn of plenty of camera tricks, director Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Uruskevsky pull off visual trickery here that is seemingly impossible even now, never mind 30 years ago. One example that occurs early in the film is a long shot that originates on top of a hotel rooftop. Weaving its way through a crowded party, the camera then floats over a balcony, drops three stories and into another party, where it follows a bathing beauty through a crowd, into a pool, and then underwater. With shots like these, one expects that the movements were planned out extensively; here, though, the camera and the actors seem improvised and loose.

Shot using an extra wide angle lens (which lends the film a surrealistic look), the film also showcases some of the most beautiful looking images seen in a long time. Some, like a crazed dance sequence in a crowded club seem reminiscent of movies from the film’s era (this being inspired by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). One other (of many) that pops up is a scene seemingly lifted from Spartacus (1960), in which Cuban rebels proclaim. “I’m Fidel!”, and in doing so echo the slaves of Spartacus claiming responsibility by yelling, “I’m Spartacus!”.

I am Cuba was made during a period when the Soviet Union and Cuba were basically bedfellows, but in setting the film during the 1950’s uprising of Fidel Castro’s ultra-left against the tyrannical Batista government, the film nearly squeaks of its agitprop pretensions. It’s divided into three neatly separated stories that builds up to the final episode, where a farmer meets Castro. Throughout, a whispered voice (“Mother Cuba”) espouses softly poetics like, “I am Cuba Sometimes it seems to me that the trucks of my palm trees are filled with blood. Sometimes it seems that the murmuring sounds around us are not the ocean, but choked back tears.”

Interestingly enough, the multiple countries that are represented here (Cuba, Russia and their enemy, the US) make their presence known through the film’s language. As Mother Cuba laments her loss, immediately a Russian man’s voice-over (in Russian) almost drowns her out, while the English subtitles repeats again the passage. This schizophrenia of language parallels the forces that conspired to rip apart this film and bury it. As such, we are richer by leaps and bounds for its rediscovery and screening here in Winnipeg.

I am Cuba is not only a cinema treasure that cannot be missed, it is a historical document of an alliance that has long since disappeared. As such, it is not only an important artifact, it is also a reminder of where our world has been.

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