Tuesday, 27 March 2007

I Am Cuba (Soviet Union/Cuba, 1964, Mikheil Kalatozishvili)

“The most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen” (Columbus upon discovering Cuba)

Censored in the United States until 1992, ‘I Am Cuba’ is a joint Soviet-Cuban co-production, a love letter to the revolution, that features four vignettes of life under the Batista regime which made revolution necessary. The first considers the effect American money and tourism has on Cuba; the human element being Maria, a Catholic girl from a poor family who is prostituted to American businessmen. This sequence starts with one of the most dazzling pieces of camerawork ever seen in the history of cinema. It begins on a hotel rooftop, observing a beauty contest, and then snakes down all the way to the swimming pool, and actually continues underwater. It’s a very elaborate piece of work, reputedly achieved by the camera being moved by hand from crewmember to crewmember. Three arrogant married American businessmen with an attitude of “you can buy anything with money” pick up Cuban women for a good time, and draw lots for which woman they will sleep with. When Betty reluctantly leaves with the businessman who successfully drew for her, she returns to her village, a place of extreme poverty, which shows us the other side of Cuba, a world away from the high life enjoyed in the hotels and casinos. American investment in Cuba was reserved for a small class of people, and allowed American Mafiosi to set up in Cuba using legitimate enterprises such as hotels as a front for more illegal activities (Batista’s regime received bribes in exchange for their tacit approval), whilst the rest of the Cuban population remain in the direst surroundings whilst their country and its people were being systematically exploited. The morning after Betty awakes distraught and ashamed of what she has done.

The second episode considers the effects of American corporations undermining Cuban agriculture. A farmer’s monologue reveals fear of the future, for himself and his children, his debts, and the unprofitable nature of growing sugar. His farm has been sold to United Fruit, an American company. One of Castro’s aims had been to redress the grievances of the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who lived in miserable shacks and worked tirelessly on land that was not theirs. The entire rural population was exploited by the Cuban elite who used brutal methods to repress them. At the episode’s climax, the farmer collapses in his field and dies, exhausted and devastated by the position he finds himself in.

The third episode begins with a firebomb at a drive-in. One of the participants, Enrique then rescues a local girl from being harassed by a group of drunk and rowdy American sailors. Newspaper reports, which we take to be pro-Batista propaganda report of the death of Castro, though his supporters know this isn’t true. Enrique is part of a group of pro-revolutionary students, who is instructed to assassinate a police chief, though he is unable to go through with this mission when he sees the man with his children. When the police raid the students’ headquarters, they find revolutionary literature, which one student throws out of the window, dispensing it to the students below. He is shot as he does this, and falls out of the window. This causes the students to mobilise and rebel against the police. Holding a dove (to symbolise peace, thus placing the blame squarely on the police), he leads the students who follow and sing songs of freedom. Though he is shot by the police chief he failed to assassinate, Enrique becomes a martyr and rallying point, and is afforded an elaborate parade and funeral.

The final segment focuses on Castro himself, hiding out in the hills and chased by Batista’s soldiers. He is one of numerous guerrillas on the run from the authorities. He is given refuge by a farmer who does not sympathise with Castro, and certainly refuses to fight alongside him. Castro then reinforces to the farmer how the current regime has let ordinary Cubans down and how things might improve. Castro mentions that the land the farmer works on is not his, that there are no schools or healthcare, and that there is widespread poverty. After Castro leaves, the village is bombed. The farmer and his wife are separated, as are their children; one of which dies during an explosion. The farmer then agrees to join the rebels and prepares for armed combat. ‘I Am Cuba’ then concludes with the rebels presumably marching to victory whilst stirring music accompanies their advance.

Whilst it’s partial treatment of life under the Batista regime and it’s looking forward to life for all improving under Castro (let’s remember that it was made just a few years after the Castro regime was established), one’s ideological preferences might indicate the extent to which one might appreciate ‘I Am Cuba’, but regardless of ideology, there is plenty to consider from a technical viewpoint. Not only is there the elaborate single take shot from the hotel to the pool in the first segment, but the camera always moves intricately as it documents events, giving it a documentary feel. There is also the stunning monochrome cinematography, with the Cuban streets during the Enrique segment being filmed in brilliant white. Although some of the promises the film suggests that Castro will deliver on were wide of the mark, the corruption of the previous regime and the impact of US economic exploitation of the region was something that was justifiably redressed. Propaganda films are usually treated with caution by critics and viewers, and whilst ‘I Am Cuba’ falls into category, it does not diminish its impact upon watching it.

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