Moscow’s Cuban Propaganda Movie Was a Cinematic Masterpiece — And a Commercial Flop
Critics loved ‘Soy Cuba,’ but its intended audience hated it
This story originally appeared on March 4, 2017.
In 1992, the Pacific Film Archive’s Edith Kramer was given a difficult task — track down a copy of the obscure Cuban-Soviet propaganda film Soy Cuba that had been produced almost 30 years earlier. Cuban novelist and critic Guillermo Cabrera Infante wanted to screen the all-but-forgotten piece of agitprop at the Telluride Film Festival that year.
Soy Cuba had flopped in both Cuban and Soviet theaters when it was originally released in 1964. The government agencies in Moscow and Havana that co-produced the film subsequently distanced themselves from it, leaving it to fall by the cultural wayside. The few remaining copies collected dust in libraries and archives.
Kramer persisted in her search and secured a copy of Soy Cuba in time for Telluride. Those who attended the film’s screening there were stunned by what they saw. Reviewers described a movie that suffered from a cumbersome political message but simultaneously demonstrated breathtaking cinematography and groundbreaking technical innovations.
A small New York-based production company called Milestone Films decided to distribute Soy Cuba in the United States for the first time. The film’s limited theatrical release in 1995 received support from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and glowing reviews from Roger Ebert and other critics.
“They’re going to be carrying ravished film students out of the theaters on stretchers,” Terrence Rafferty wrote in his review for The New Yorker.
When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, after his successful guerrilla campaign against dictator Fulgencio Batista, the Cold War was in full swing. Cuba quickly attracted a seemingly disproportionate amount of attention from Moscow and Washington.
Cuba’s growing economic and military ties to the Soviet Union gave the communist state a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, which it had never enjoyed before. From Washington’s perspective, a Soviet-allied Cuba was a grave threat to U.S. hegemony in the region.
The island nation, located just 90 miles south of Florida, could be used as a launching ground for attacks on the U.S. homeland or for supporting communist revolutions in nearby countries.
‘Soy Cuba.’ ICAIC capture
It was against this backdrop of Cold War tensions that Soy Cuba was envisioned. Production of the film began roughly four years after Castro came to power, three years after a U.S trade embargo was imposed, two years after the spectacular failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and just one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During that same time frame, Castro had survived several assassination attempts orchestrated by the CIA, including an attempt to slip a botulism toxin into his milkshake at the Havana Libre hotel, where he was living at the time. Castro and his security advisers would later acknowledge that the poisoned milkshake plot was the closest the CIA every came to offing him.
In the eyes of Castro and many Cubans, the United States was a constant and serious threat to their sovereignty and security. Western imperialism had to be defeated at all costs and battled on all fronts, including the cultural and psychological operations fronts. The Soviet Union agreed and wanted to help Cuba, not just militarily and economically but also with the production of anti-American propaganda.
In 1963, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry and Mosfilm partnered to begin development of a propaganda film about the Cuban revolution. The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry had been formed by the Cuban government a few months after Castro came to power, and Mosfilm was a division of the USSR State Committee for Cinematography.
Soy Cuba was intended to contrast the humble dignity and perseverance of Cuba’s peasants, working class and student activists against the flamboyant decadence and excesses of American capitalism. The government agencies producing the film hoped it could be a Cuban equivalent of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin, a cinematic celebration of the people’s struggle to overcome insurmountable forces.
Secondly, the producers hoped the film would unite Cuban and Russian audiences by romanticizing the Cuban proletariat, who were obviously counterparts to the Russian proletariat idealized in Soviet propaganda. Finally, the film would cast Cuba as a symbol of inspiration for communist revolutions in other Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The film was ostensibly jointly produced by the Cuban and Russian studios. However, Mosfilm had ultimate control of the project, including the directing and most of the writing. This led, at least in part, to the film’s commercial failure when it was first released.
Famed Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov was chosen to direct the film. When Kalatozov took on Soy Cuba, he was already a veteran director with 12 feature films under his belt and a Palme de Orr from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival for The Cranes are Flying. More importantly, he knew how to effectively weave political commentary into beautiful works of cinematographic art.
In fact, Soviet censors had banned one of his films, Nail in the Boot, for doing exactly that more than 30 years earlier. That made his relationship with the Soviet government somewhat precarious for a while, but after an eight year hiatus that lasted through the rest of the 1930s, Kalatozov returned to film and walked the official line, earning international acclaim and domestic adoration.
‘Soy Cuba.’ ICAIC art
Kalatozov recruited Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban novelist Enrique Pineda Barnet to write the screenplay for Soy Cuba. He enlisted cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, who he had worked with on The Cranes are Flying, to serve as lead cameraman.
Another cameraman, Alexander Calzatti, would be responsible for several of the technical innovations developed during shooting. Kalatozov even brought in a few of the old crew members from Eisenstein’s Potemkin.
In addition to the production crew he put together, Kalatozov had a generous budget and free access to basically anything he needed in Cuba. It was a director’s dream, and a situation that lent itself to striving toward the epic and experimental.
Kalatozov and the writers initially planned on creating a linear history of the Cuban revolution, but they scrapped that script in favor of a series of vignettes with the revolution as a central theme. In one vignette a young woman named Maria, who is engaged to a poor fruit vendor, turns to prostitution to earn money. In another, students support the revolution by distributing propaganda and organizing protests. Of course there is a vignette dedicated to Castro and his rebels as they fight their way down from the Sierra Maestra.
The opening credits play over a long take of the Cuban coastline and jungles shot from a helicopter. Then there is a brief tour through a fishing village, immediately followed by what several critics described as one of the most amazing scenes in film history.
The scene, another long take, begins at a party on the rooftop of a hotel, where guests are judging women in a beauty contest. The camera, facing out, then slowly slides down an external wall for several stories until stopping at the pool level. From there it tags along with random guests as they wander around the pool before following one into the pool, where it bobs in and out of the water while focusing on various swimmers. That had never been done before, at least not the way it was done in Soy Cuba.
“There is a shot near the beginning of I Am Cuba that is one of the most astonishing I have ever seen. Reflect that it was made in 1964, long before the days of lightweight cameras and Steadicams, and the shot is almost impossible to explain,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1995 review of the film.
“The camera approaches a bar, and then follows a waitress as she delivers a drink to some tourists, after which one of the tourists stands up and walks into the pool — and the camera follows her, so that the shot ends with the camera actually underwater… As nearly as I can tell, this is all done in one unbroken take. How it was done, I have no idea.”
The underwater portion of the shot is the result of one of the inventions Urusevsky and Calzatti developed during production. Prior to Soy Cuba, it was difficult to film a scene with a camera moving in out of water because water beads would remain on the camera lens when it resurfaced.
According to press notes for the U.S. release of Soy Cuba, the camera operators “had to make a watertight box out of sheets of DuPont plastic with three handles so the camera could be passed between Urusevsky and Calzatti [cameramen] at crucial moments. On the first take, the camera box refused to dive beneath the water surface, and Calzatti had to adapt the box with a hollow steel tube running through it so the air could escape the box, but no water would enter the camera.”
As the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias points out, fans of Paul Thomas Anderson might appreciate that Anderson was “so impressed that he lifted the shot wholesale for Boogie Nights” for one of the scenes at the pool party.
‘Soy Cuba.’ ICAIC capture
In another vignette, a distraught farmworker seeks revenge against the United Fruit Company and the plantation owner who stripped him of his livelihood. He decides to burn the owner’s sugar cane fields in retaliation. The image of the fields burning is truly mesmerizing because of two techniques the cameramen created specifically for the scene: a closed-camera video system and the use of infrared film.
“The filmmakers devised a closed-camera video system that let them view this complicated, crane-shot sequence while it was being filmed,” Gary Morris explained in Bright Lights Film Journal. “The unforgettable images of the old man cutting what appears to be luminous sugar cane against a black sky point up another of I Am Cuba’s breakthroughs — the use of infrared film to obtain jaw-dropping levels of black-and-white contrast.”
It is not only the technical breakthroughs that give Soy Cuba its power as a film. Kalatosov’s painstaking attention to detail is obvious in the decisions he made during every step of the production. The long takes help give the film its epic sensibility, and the cameramen used handheld Eclair Caméflex cameras for many of the shots. The handheld Eclair’s were relatively stable but still gave the film a slightly shaky and more human feel.
The filmmakers also played with perspective throughout Soy Cuba. In one shot the camera assumes the perspective of a machete hacking through sugar cane. In another it takes the perspective of Maria as she is being shoved around between American tourists in a nightclub, the jerking angles of the camera conveying the confusion and anxiety she experiences while being yanked back and forth.
It took 14 months to produce Soy Cuba. Unfortunately, the care Kalatosov gave to the aesthetics of the film didn’t carry over into its political message. The Russian director failed to truly capture the essence of his subjects, and that cost the film greatly with its intended audiences.
“[The film that eventually emerged was a Soviet take on the Cuban experience,” one reviewer wrote for The Independent. “The Cubans provided the history, the scenery and the actors, many of them amateurs, but the Russians controlled the direction, the script and the camerawork.”
The characters in Soy Cuba often come across as one-dimensional and stereotypical. They were insulting to Cubans and uninteresting to Russians. Where the film succeeded as a visual work of art, it failed as literary art and even as propaganda. In Cuba it was officially denounced, and was sometimes sarcastically referred to as No Soy Cuba.
There and in Russia it played in theaters for only one week.
Milestone Films, the production company that distributed Soy Cuba in 1995, released it on video and DVD, including a 1oth anniversary 35-millimeter restoration with bonus features released in 2005 as an “ultimate edition.” They also distributed the 2005 Brazilian documentary about the making of Soy Cuba, titled Soy Cuba: O Mamute Siberiano [I Am Cuba: Or the Siberian Mammoth].
When the documentary’s director, Vicente Ferraz, went to Cuba in 2001 to begin researching the film, he found former cast and crew members who remembered working on the film as an “incredible journey.” Despite these memories, many were surprised to learn anyone was still interested in the film and still wondered what, exactly, Kalatosov had tried to achieve.m, and the romantic and passionate environment was there. There was no need to force it. It was inside the country, inside us, inside myself.”
Regardless of its shortcomings and its belated rediscovery, Soy Cuba arguably still does not receive the credit or attention it deserves. It does, however, remain a cult classic among historians, film students, critics, general movie buffs and those who enjoy a bit of good old-fashioned of Soviet agitprop.