The supreme masterpiece of the poetic documentary form
Three recent views of Cuba: the repressive, fragmented, poverty-stricken last gasp of modern Communism offered by the U.S. media; the wonderland of repudiated gay and “counter-revolutionary” culture in movies like Strawberry and Chocolate, a 1993 feature film set in pre-Mariel 1979; and the glittering pleasures — social and spiritual — of the reclaimed island shown by what is surely the supreme masterpiece of the poetic documentary form, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 Russian-Cuban coproduction I Am Cuba.
This unforgettable reconstruction of the life of the island, from the jazzy rhythms of the decadent Batista era to the heroics of the Revolution and its aftermath, recalls the work of Leni Riefenstahl and Eisenstein in its transformation of agitprop into art. The Eisenstein connection is no accident — the Russian team that created I Am Cuba were attempting the same kind of aesthetic treatment of history as Eisenstein, and they worked with some of his collaborators. But the filmmakers of I Am Cuba differed from their mentors in perhaps the most fundamental aspect — the visual. Whereas Eisenstein used cutting and dynamic composition in films like Potemkin, Kalatozov and his visual collaborators use a moving camera — a handheld Eclair — to bring their story to scintillating life.
The first draft of I Am Cuba was a scene-by-scene re-creation of the Cuban revolution. Kalatozov and his screenwriter, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, wisely scrapped this in favor of a more aesthetic approach. The finished film divides roughly into five episodes that chronicle the island’s recent colonialist and revolutionary periods.
The first is a look at Batista’s Cuba, with settings in nightclubs and palatial hotels overrun by American businessmen and the submissive workers, singers, and prostitutes they exploit. This sequence contains the film’s most famous shot where the camera starts atop a high-rise, where a group of musicians and bikini-clad women perform, then descends down the side of the building to a crowded swimming pool and finally — without a cut — underwater, where it follows the movements of the swimmers.
According to the press notes, the filmmakers “had to make a watertight box out of sheets of DuPont plastic with three handles so the camera could be passed between Urusevsky and Calzatti [cameramen] at crucial moments. On the first take, the camera box refused to dive beneath the water surface, and Calzatti had to adapt the box with a hollow steel tube running through it so the air could escape the box, but no water would enter the camera.”
This sequence, which in its overwhelming power makes mincemeat of most such bravura camerawork in films like Citizen Kane, is also notable for its portrayal of the creepy, unattractive Americans who exercise their “manifest destiny” in the crudest ways imaginable against the desperate inhabitants of the sugar-cane—rich island. In an alarming scene, a beautiful young woman named Maria is shoved from one man to another across a dance floor. The camera follows her unwilling movements in radical jerks, perfectly visualizing the loss of control she — and by inference the island — is experiencing under U.S. domination.
The visual pyrotechnics continue throughout the film. The second major episode, about a peasant family whose meager living as sugar cane cutters is brutally ended by a coopted native landowner and the United Fruit Company, has an elaborate scene in which the grief-stricken father burns down the cane fields. The filmmakers devised a closed-camera video system that let them view this complicated, crane-shot sequence while it was being filmed.
The unforgettable images of the old man cutting what appears to be luminous sugar cane against a black sky point up another of I Am Cuba’s breakthroughs — the use of infrared film to obtain jaw-dropping levels of black-and-white contrast. These shots, featuring ordinary people played by amateur actors, emphasize the dazzling primacy of the land over those who briefly inhabit it, and reflect the filmmakers’ idea that complex characterization must be subjugated to the struggle by “real people” to maintain the land against corrupt influences.
Later sequences detail with equal power the rise of the worker and student movements, and the physical conflicts — particularly the disastrous invasion of the Moncada army barracks — that culminated in the overthrow of Batista and the destruction of U.S. “interests” in the island.
The soundtrack of I Am Cuba features a female narrator who ties together the episodes with Yevtushenko’s poetry, which plays on Cuba’s split identity: “Don’t avert your eyes. Look! I am Cuba. For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me.” The music in the film continues this motif; peasant folk tunes and African rhythms compete with raucous early ‘60s rock tunes, “exotic” jazz, and nightclub ballads (“Amor Loca”).
In spite of its extraordinary power, the film was denounced by Cuban authorities as counterrevolutionary and — in a fit of revolutionary bitchiness — informally dubbed “I Am NOT Cuba”! The kind of “pure art” approach represented by the film has always been problematic to the Marxist mentality, but I Am Cuba is truly revolutionary in every sense.