I Am Cuba is a delirious chronicle of the Caribbean island through the Soviet gaze | Film of the Week

I Am Cuba is a delirious chronicle of the Caribbean island through the Soviet gaze | Film of the Week

15 July 2021

The year is 1962. Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro has been in power for five years, the United States has already attempted its failed invasion from Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis dominates headlines.

In this climate, Mosfilm, the USSR’s largest production studio, and its Caribbean counterpart, the Cuban Film Institute, joined forces to produce I Am Cuba: a four-episode experimental chronicle of pre-revolutionary life on the Caribbean island. The stories — which range from Maria, a sex worker in Havana’s American nightclubs, to a peasant whose sugar cane farm is taken over by a US corporation — sought to vilify the impact of the West on Cuba.

Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, the seasoned Russian director of the 1957 Palme d’Or winning The Cranes Are Flying, the film stood out for its unclassifiable, dazzling style. Using wide-angle lenses that distorted images, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky found impossible angles to take breathtakingly long shots, combining the megalomaniac style of Soviet state propaganda with a Latin American flavour to create a ravishing, surreal watch.

After its simultaneous premiere in Moscow and Santiago de Cuba in 1964, the film fell into oblivion — possibly because Cuban audiences felt that it stripped them of individuality and portrayed their reality solely through a Soviet prism. Ironically, it was American filmmakers who rescued it from the archives in the 90s. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese saw the movie and acquired distribution rights from Mosfilm Studios. The film saw its American premiere in 1995, followed by a 4K restoration in 2019. Primarily, propaganda films are a mirror of the moment of their creation, and I Am Cuba is no different. It remains an ecstatic testimony of an historic time in both cinema and world politics.

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