I Am Cuba
The third off-list movie of 1964 is “I Am Cuba” (“Soy Cuba”). This movie was recommended to me (thanks Bea!) particularly for the camera work and that is also the main draw of the movie.
“I am Cuba” is a propaganda movie in support of the Cuban revolution. This had taken place just a few years before and I suppose the Cuban revolutionary leadership felt a need to justify and celebrate their take over. At this time, having kicked out American interests, Cuba was isolated and had turned toward the Soviet Union for support, and this included a Russian film crew with very good credentials.
The team, led by Mikhail Kalatozov, were already famous for their filming techniques and their tracking shot, super-wide angle close ups and super sharp infrared shots were perfected on Cuba. This makes “I Am Cuba” very interesting from a technical point of view. It also lifts what would otherwise be ham-fisted propaganda into something more easily digestible.
That is of course the problem with any propaganda movie. There is a very clear intent and that intent must be perceived by even the densest and illiterate viewer. This tends to make propaganda movies very one-dimensional to the extent of oversimplifying the issues and they easily appear stupid. “I Am Cuba” tries to walk that balance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it plumbs into the propaganda traps, but even in the worst moments the cinematography saves it.
There is no over-all story, but rather four vignettes with that in common that they all relate to the revolution.
The first is about rich Americans flouting their money and corrupting the local population. Obviously, the intent is to make the Americans look like assholes and it is difficult not to be upset at the difference between the upscale tourist sites and the slums.
The second features a poor farmer who works his sugarcane plot with his children. His hard, but rewarding, labor is interrupted when the landowner shows up to tell him he sold the land to United Fruit so he can piss off. The farmer sees his livelihood stripped away in an eyeblink and in desperation sets everything to the torch.
Then, back in Havana, we follow Enrique, a student presumably, who first saves a lady in distress from brutish American navy-men, then joins a demonstration against the corrupt government only to be shot down as a martyr.
Finally a farmer family in a remote, rebel controlled area gets bombed, killing one of the children in what I consider a huge cinematic faux-pas (you do not kill children in movies!). As a result, the husband joins the revolution, marching towards a glorious victory over the evil capitalists with a lot of flag-waving.
It is a movie with no grey zones, no room for doubt, there are the good guys, the revolutionary, and the bad guys, the corrupt elite backed by America. It is a simple choice between joining the revolution or being screwed over. As a viewer suffering hardships it is an effective movie that serves its propagandistic purpose and even as a neutral viewer I sit back thinking that if I lived in such a divisive and corrupt country I would not find it hard to place my sympathies, even if I cannot approve of the means to the end.
The Danish model is a little different. In 1849 a group of civilians representing the population (male and bourgeois, admittedly) got an audience with the king and demanded constitutional monarchy and parliamentary rule to which the king answered “okay” (in 1849 wording) and on June 5th we celebrate the founding law (Grundloven) of 1849. Not a single shot fired.
Content-wise “I am Cuba” can be a hard swallow and the killing of a child in the end was awful, but the photography alone makes this a remarkable movie and it deserves interest for this reason alone. I could see it replace a few movies in 1964.