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I Am Cuba: The Filmmakers Who Came In from the Cold

<i>I Am Cuba:</i> The Filmmakers Who Came In from the Cold

When, on February 26, 1963, Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov began shooting I Am Cuba on the island, the governments of both Cuba and Kalatozov’s home country were still absorbed in the aftermath of what became known as the “missile crisis.”

On October 14 of the previous year, in the same month that Kalatozov had arrived in Havana, U.S. pilot Richard Heyser, flying a U-2, had obtained the first evidence that the self-declared socialist island only ninety miles from the U.S. mainland harbored a massively dangerous arsenal of nuclear projectiles, secretly positioned there by his country’s enemy, the Soviet Union.

This discovery unleashed one of the most serious military crises in modern memory. Panic became widespread, and after thirteen days during which the outcome couldn’t have been predicted with any certainty, U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to the removal of the missiles without at any time consulting Cuban president Fidel Castro. Castro, when informally told that the conflict had been resolved, publicly expressed his irritation and disapproval; in the streets, unaware of just how alarming the situation was, a faction of the country supported their leader with the rhyming taunt “Nikita, mariquita, lo que se da no se quita” (“Nikita, you sissy, you can’t take back what’s been given”).

In just a few years’ time, relations between the Cuban revolutionary government and the Soviet Union had gone from a dazzling honeymoon to a dangerous clash of perspectives, with Cuba championing armed struggle as the only way of gaining power and building socialism, while the Soviet Union advocated peaceful coexistence between its political system and that of its rival superpower, the United States. Kalatozov, who set out to make I Am Cuba while many on the island still felt betrayed by the Soviets, ultimately aligned with his host country on the question of armed action (it’s anyone’s guess if that played a part in the chilly reception the film received in the Soviet Union). Set in the late 1950s, Kalatozov’s four-part film is a highly stylized, technically accomplished panorama of Cuban life that dramatizes some of the struggles faced by the country’s population in the run-up to the revolution. Precisely in its characters’ epic representation—which emphasizes the necessity of confrontation and sacrifice, even of one’s own life, in order to achieve emancipation—the film suggests that the tensions coming to a head within Cuba in the fifties would inevitably be resolved via armed struggle.

Diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union had been cut off during the tenure of President Carlos Prío Socarrás (1948–52), but after the triumph of the revolution, these links were reestablished. The new alliance would reverberate through every sphere of Cuban life, including cinema, for the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC)—the first cultural institution created by the revolutionary government, on March 24, 1959—had no solid cinematic tradition to draw on, even if filmmakers such as Ramón Peón, with La virgen de la caridad (1930), and Manolo Alonso, with Siete muertes a plazo fijo (1950) and Casta de roble (1954), had established important precedents. In the early days of ICAIC, many invitations thus went out to foreign sympathizers of the revolution who might be able to help with technical and artistic training.

Visitors in those first years included such celebrated filmmakers as Cesare Zavattini, Joris Ivens, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Armand Gatti, and Theodor Christensen. The first to arrive from the USSR was Roman Karmen, who wound up filming the documentary Blazing Island (1961). Kalatozov arrived in Cuba renowned for having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Cranes Are Flying (1957), which had been chosen by Cuban critics as one of the top ten films shown on the island in 1959.

In those early years of the revolution, ICAIC filmmakers tried to stay true to the spirit of change that animated the country’s politics. The very first “whereas” in the preamble to the law that created the institute asserted that “film is an art form,” which made imperative the search for a language that could move beyond the national cinema’s reliance on stereotypes of Cubanness (as in those films where, for example, it was obligatory to include a cabaret that would allow for song-and-dance scenes).

At the same time, the world was witnessing the emergence of cinematic modern­ism, a response to the exhaustion of so much classic cinema, which had been transformed by Hollywood and its imitators into a uniform set of rules. Many of the filmmakers who visited Cuba during this time drew on that modernist impulse not only to participate in the revolution but to make the revolution within cinema itself, often by using lightweight equipment to accentuate the documentary-like realism of their images.

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