Watching Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba in a theater 2017 is a strange experience. I first watched the film by myself for a class assignment, later writing up a paper about the history of this film being one of failed and misdirected narrative, a theme which found ironic reflection in the Art Theatre’s screening of the film earlier this month. Produced by a supergroup of the USSR’s best storytellers–the film’s director and cinematographer, Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky, were the architects of the Soviet triumph at the 1958 Cannes Film festival with their film The Cranes are Flying, and the screenwriter Evgenii Evtushenko was a leading poet in his home country–I am Cuba was intended as both a gift and a love letter to Cuba. A gift in the sense that the production, tremendous both in length and budget, served to train a while generation of socialist Cuban filmmakers, and as a love letter from the Soviet intelligentsia to the Cuban Revolution. The film goes to great lengths to romanticize the “island of freedom” and sympathize with the plight of its residents.
Unfortunately, the love letter was returned to sender. Cuban audiences hated the film so much that in some cities riots broke out after screenings. Ordinary Cubans rejected what they saw as a stereotyped, exoticized version of themselves and their struggles on the big screen. Meanwhile, Soviet critics and audiences panned the film for its self-indulgence and seemingly positive attitude toward certain aspects of bourgeois life in pre-revolutionary Cuba. So a film intended to symbolize the international relevance of the socialist cause and to invoke a revolutionary spirit in its audiences failed because it was too narrow-minded and bourgeois, in the judgment of its intended audiences. For this reason, the film ceased to be in theaters quite quickly, and was only ‘rediscovered’ in the 1990s through Kalatozov retrospectives in the West. It was here, far from the tropical battlefields depicted in the film that I Am Cuba found an eager and celebratory audience. Hailed as a forgotten masterpiece, acclaim from American directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola provoked the licensing of the film by the Criterion collection, and thus its canonization as a classic within the Western cinema establishment. I Am Cuba was a film with radical socialist politics that failed to appeal to any liberated proletarians in the USSR or Cuba, and instead received acclaim only after communism fell and in the eyes of the Western cultural elite.
With this in mind, I had mixed feelings about seeing the film in a theater for the first time. Earlier that week, a conversation about the film with an older woman exacerbated my trepidation. She was going to see the film because she and her husband had travelled to the island as tourists recently. She then described her trip, and her tour guide who, unbelievably to her, was passionate about communism. To her total surprise, he enthusiastically championed the accomplishments of the regime in healthcare, education, and athletics. In her judgment, he had clearly “drunk the Kool-Aid” of the “dictatorship” and would be blown away by the freedom and prosperity he would see if he ever got to visit the United States. I held my tongue rather than openly question whether a man from a country with higher literacy and life expectancy than our own would really be impressed by the poverty and racial violence that only seems to be getting worse here; whether a country with a criminal who was not popularly elected as its president could claim to be more “free” than any other nation.
My fear that the rest of the audience would echo her sentiments was realized once I arrived at the screening. The theatre was lousy with Americans loudly discussing their recent trips to the island. It was as if they were the advance scouts, seeking to resurvey the location, for the impeding US incorporation of Cuba within the same imperial system of neoliberal economics, aka a booming tourist destination where the locals live in absolute poverty, as the rest of the Caribbean, reducing it to yet another destination for those sections of the Western white middle class looking to prove themselves more “cultured” than their neighbors back home in the suburbs. Cinematic tourism as an imperial project.
The movie itself is quite good, if a tad long, and my misgivings about the screening should not be misconstrued as dismissing a flawed but enjoyable film by one of the great directors of the twentieth century. It depicts the gradual development and eventual victory of the radical movement in Cuba, from initial outbursts of spontaneous resistance to the development of a full-fledged insurgent army; similarities abound to the better-known 1966 film The Battle of Algiers which also tells a revolutionary story in discrete stages. Of particular note are I Am Cuba’s depictions of villainous Americans. Having grown used to ethnic stereotyping of non-Americans, it’s almost refreshing to experience how the rest of the world must look at you and your countrymen: as nasal-voiced, cocksure brutes prone to spouting off platitudes about liberty and our own exceptionalism while terrorizing others. The section of the film depicting the struggle of student rebels and their insurrectionary efforts felt especially familiar and included some wonderful shots as it depicts the development of a riot. One wonders how the audience felt about the overturning and incineration of cop cars in the streets of Havana; are they more or less sympathetic when people fight back against police in the US? Finally, it must be said that the film has no feminist component; while one of its main characters is a woman, unlike the others she never asserts her own agency and rather serves as a hapless victim whose plight sets the tone at the start of the film.
As for what message the audience took away from all this, I cannot say. It was clear from the way that the film was introduced that it was intended to be somewhat polemical, to serve its original purpose as revolutionary propaganda. This is not why this audience came to the screening, however, and when the time came for a Q&A afterward, rather than queries about the political implications of the film or its relevance to contemporary social problems, the comments fell into two categories; one, graduate students trying to prove their intelligence by asking about the most esoteric details of the film and its production, and two, middle-aged filmgoers complaining that the movie was too long and that it bored them (“Were all Soviet movies from this period so awfully slow?”). Cinematic tourism can disappoint, I suppose, and narratives can fail to achieve their goals.
Franziska Yost is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her scholarly interests include Russian national identity, diaspora nationalism, and Cold War geopolitics. She is currently researching Russian immigrant communities in South America.