I Am Cuba

by Dennis West

Cineaste v22, n2 (Spring, 1996):52.

COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1996. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

In one long, continuous take, the mobile hand-held camera moves at street level through a funeral procession, then rises several stories to the top of a building, crosses over a street and enters a cigar factory, then moves past the tobacco workers towards an open window where a Cuban flag is flown in mourning - and then continues on out that window to float above the river of mourners far below. This visual homage to a murdered student leader is a tour de force of mobile camerawork typical of I Am Cuba, a Cuban-Soviet coproduction directed by Soviet filmmaker MikhailKalatozov, who completed the black-and-white film in 1964.

I Am Cuba is equal parts epic, agitprop, poetry, and drama. Set before Castro's triumph, I Am Cuba propagandistically illustrates the abuses and exploitation that caused people to join the fight against oppression. The film takes place in the late 1950s, when Fidel Castro, from his guerrilla base in Cuba's Sierra Maestra, used a clandestine radio to call on his fellow citizens to overthrow the repressive dictatorship of the U.S. supported tyrant Fulgencio Batista.

Kalatozov's film consists of four stories framed by a visual introduction to Cuba - long takes flying over the island and then moving in a canoe through a poor river village - and a grand finale in which pro- Castro guerrillas, fresh from battle, parade past the camera in heroic low angles. In the first story, the constantly moving camera offers a well choreographed tour of bourgeois decadence in appropriate Batistaera settings: a bathing beauty contest at poolside and a nightclub peopled by affluent American male tourists and the Cuban prostitutes who serve them. The episode emphasizes the poverty that forces one reluctant young prostitute to ply her trade.

In the second story, a poor and aging peasant, who has two attractive children to support, deliberately torches his mature sugar cane crop when he learns that the land he has always worked has been taken over by the United Fruit Company. The third segment shows the brutal suppression of pro-Castro student demonstrations at the University of Havana, and follows the efforts of a student leader to assassinate a murderous Batista henchman up to the point when the leader himself is gunned down by his intended victim. In the final story, an indigent peasant in the Sierra Maestra understands that he must join the revolution when his family is bombed for no apparent reason by Batista's air force. The episodes draw on the staples of socialist realism to make the key political point: the urban proletariat, the peasantry, and the intellectuals must join Castro's rebellion against the repressive Batista regime. Dialog is minimized in all the segments; and a voice-over narrator, representing a long suffering Cuba, links the stories together.

Kalatozov emphasizes the long take, the mobile hand-held camera, and shooting in depth with wide-angle or super wide-angle lenses. The camera becomes the protagonist of the film; and the innovative camerawork of cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky and his intrepid camera operators yields many marvelous moments: writhing sugar cane stalks shot on high contrast infrared stock become whiter-than-white knives of sugar menacing a field worker. In another sequence, the hand-held camera, equipped with wide- angle lens and a waterproof transparent cover, tours in one long take a rooftop bathing beauty contest and then slides down the side of a building to a swimming pool to further check out the bikini-clad fauna and then, a mesmerized voyeur, follows one hip-swinging lass into the pool and under the water!

Kalatozov and Urusevsky also experiment creatively with the esthetic potential of filters, high contrast stock, Dutch angles, imaginative lighting concepts, and the use of shadows and darkness, and special effect's accomplished through the camera lens. Because of this visual brilliance, this recently rediscovered film may become an instant classic in the history of cinematography.

Unfortunately, however, serious defects mar I Am Cuba. Some of the postrecording of sound is so poor that it becomes a bothersome distraction. Much of the acting is beyond wooden; and the use of facile stereotypes - of U.S. sailors and tourists, for instance - cheapens the narrative. But the film's greatest defect is that its visual brilliance far outshines its simplistic social and political vision, which is a throwback to the worst of socialist realism applied to the political- ideological battles of the Cold War.

Development of the I Am Cuba project was begun in late 1962, soon after the failed CIA-supported invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis that had swept the superpowers to the brink of nuclear disaster. The film was coproduced by the Soviet studio Mosfilm and the new Cuban revolutionary film institute (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos) as one way to give impetus to filmmaking on the island. Urusevsky previously collaborated with Kalatozov on his highly regarded The Cranes Are Flying (1957). The Cuban coscreenwriter Enrique Pineda Barnet is today one of ICAIC's leading directors; and the Soviet coscreenwriter, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko, is an internationally renowned poet and occasional film director.

All this talent, however, failed to produce a work considered politically or commercially viable by Cuban and Soviet authorities, and the film remained shelved until the early 1990s. The homevideo version is technically well done, and it allows viewers to form their own evaluations of a little known landmark in the history of cinematography.

Dennis West teaches Hispanic film and literature at the University of Idaho.

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