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Story of Film - October 2013
Remind Me

I am Cuba

Sometimes the story behind a film is so compelling that it becomes an integral part of the film itself. Director Mikhail Kalatozov's astounding I Am Cuba (1964) is just such a case. This ambitious slice of cinematic agitprop is a poetic chronicle of the Cuban revolution that also has the distinction of being the first film collaboration between the USSR and Cuba. Epic in scope and filled with dazzling images and gravity-defying camera work, I Am Cuba was barely seen during its initial release. Almost immediately shelved and forgotten for 30 years, it was subsequently rescued from oblivion, restored and brought back to glorious life for Western audiences who were finally able to appreciate its breathtaking innovation long after the dust and optimism of Castro's promise of a brighter future had settled.

The film itself defies traditional narrative structure to depict four separate vignettes dramatizing the struggle of Cuban citizens under Batista's dictatorship, the corrupting influence of decadent capitalism, and the passionate call to action through revolution. Connecting each vignette is the personified voice of Cuba itself (Raquel Revuelta) that gently stirs emotion as it forms a compelling collective portrait of a land and its people.

After Fidel Castro first came to power in 1959, one of the first things his new regime did was form the state run Cuban film office ICAIC (The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). Knowing that film was a highly effective way to spread messages of propaganda, Castro hoped to quickly strengthen the generally weak Cuban film industry. The powerful Soviet Union, on the other hand, had far more experience with filmmaking. Keen on helping to spread Communist ideas to a wider audience, the state run Soviet film office was willing to lend assistance to Cuba for a broad depiction of the Cuban Revolution.

With the first partnership between the newly created ICAIC and the USSR's Mosfilm, I Am Cuba began to take shape when veteran Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov took the reins of the epic project. Kalatozov had recently won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his World War II triumph The Cranes are Flying. He saw the project, which was clearly aimed to promote and celebrate the Cuban Revolution, as an irresistible challenge and wanted to capture its spirit while it was still urgent and thriving. Kalatozov also brought along his brilliant collaborator on The Cranes are Flying, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, as well as the skilled camera operator Alexander Calzatti. Both men would prove to be great assets to Kalatozov in the achievement of the film's stunning visuals.

After traveling to Cuba for research and pre-production, Kalatozov enlisted the help of Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban writer Enrique Pineda Barnet to create a workable script for I Am Cuba. The four vignettes written for the film included mini-narratives about a young woman whose desperation leads to prostitution amidst the careless decadence of the American-infused Havana nightclub scene, an elderly tenant farmer who loses his home and land to the evils of capitalism, a passionate student rebellion against Batista, and finally, a pacifist peasant who is driven to action once violence lands at his doorstep. It was a simple formula that traced the revolution from up-close stories of individual hardships to the collective rebellion that learns to stand as one against Batista.

When it came to casting actors for I Am Cuba, Kalatozov scouted talent with the help of cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky's wife Belka Fridman. Having the right authentic look for a part was more important to them than extensive actual acting experience. As a result, the final cast was filled with an eclectic mix of ordinary citizens, acting students and semi-professional actors who could naturally convey the spirit of the film's message.

Pre-production on the film, it is worth noting, just happened to coincide with the tense 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis that saw Castro, in a show of aggression, harboring nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba that pointed to the United States. As the world held its collective breath, the standoff finally ended with the missiles being removed from Cuba and an agreement from the U.S. not to invade.

When actual production on I Am Cuba commenced in 1963, Kalatozov was given considerable creative freedom. It was a shoot that lasted for 14 months, and by all accounts it was an arduous one. Kalatozov, however, knew exactly what he wanted, and it was a production that yielded great creativity utilizing innovative filming techniques that included lengthy, complex moving shots as well as the use of infrared film for heightened contrast. Since it was a time that pre-dated the revolutionary Steadicam in the industry, camera operator Alexander Calzatti and the rest of the crew had to be extremely resourceful in trying to achieve the cinematic vision of Kalatozov and Urusevsky. If a waterfall was needed but didn't exist, one was built. If a shot needed to float through buildings at impossible angles, a crude system of wires and body attachments was devised for a handheld camera. If a camera needed to go underwater, a special military periscope cleaner was used on the lens.

When the film was finally edited, completed and ready for release, it opened simultaneously in both Cuba and the USSR in the summer of 1964. Despite the film's heady achievements, however, I Am Cuba was given the cold shoulder by both Cuban and Soviet governments and was pulled from release after only a week. Some sources recall that one main area of concern was that some of the early nightclub scenes that depicted what was supposed to be the vulgarity of Western excess would in fact have a dangerously enticing effect on audiences who had never been exposed to such lavish hedonistic lifestyles. With the film pulled from circulation so quickly, it never really had a chance to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience. After all the incredible hard work, I Am Cuba virtually disappeared and faded into dusty obscurity for three decades.

It took the thaw of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union for this remarkable film to finally be rediscovered. Thanks to some astute film programmers and skilled archivists, I Am Cuba was rescued from oblivion in the early 1990s and given new life with high profile screenings at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992 and the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1993.

Eventually Milestone Films, which specializes in finding and restoring cinematic treasures, acquired the distribution rights from Mosfilm in Russia and went to work with a plan to restore and release it theatrically in the United States. Milestone got help from contemporary American filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who loved the film and agreed to lend their names to the re-release to help promote it.

Championed by the substantial clout of Scorsese and Coppola, the restored I Am Cuba rose from the ashes when it finally opened at New York's Film Forum in 1995 to a rapturous response. As the film went on to enjoy a wider release in large cities, audiences were fascinated to see it for the first time and marveled at the astonishing acrobatic camera work and striking cinematography. The New York Times described it as "a feverish pas de deux of Eastern European soulfulness and Latin sensuality fused into an unwieldy but visually stunning burst of suggests Eisenstein filtered through La Dolce Vita with an Afro-Cuban pulse." Finally embraced some 30 years after the fact, I Am Cuba also had a profound influence on a new generation of up-and-coming filmmakers who were inspired by its unique innovation.

Unfortunately, neither Mikhail Kalatozov nor Sergei Urusevsky lived to see the glorious rebirth of their superhuman efforts from so long ago. Kalatozov died in 1973, and Urusevsky followed just a year later. Castro and his regime, of course, still remain in power as of this writing.

As Cineaste's Rahul Hamid points out in his 2008 review of the film, "The charm of I Am Cuba is that it is like finding a time capsule. The film's optimism, its belief in Cuba and its revolution, hope for Soviet-Cuban cooperation, and desire to spread the Communist word are touching in their sincerity and naiveté. The film and its characters will never see the dark side of Castro, Soviet aid dry up, or the island starved by the U.S. embargo. What remains vital and what inspires audiences when they see the film is the way in which the filmmakers use the language of cinema to make an audience feel and think. The audacity of the long shots, the inventiveness with which each sequence is put together, the very idea of making a filmed epic poem, have lost none of their impact over the years."

By Andrea Passafiume



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