Thursday, January 12, 2006

I Am Cuba

Soy Cuba
Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos
Director: Mikheil Kalatozishvili
Length: 141 min.
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 11 January

I Am Cuba is told in four chronological stories, leading the viewer from Cuba the prostitute whosellss herself to America to Cuba the revolutionary, triumphing over the Battista dictatorship.

Forget for a moment that Castro is himself a fascist dictator (you heard me right) who rules his country every bit as strict as Battista did. Without this harsh understanding, the film is an amazing piece of art that shows how a country rejected capitalism and entered a perfect Socialist utopia.

The problem is that we cannot forget the true state of Cuba, and thus, the film becomes a simple piece of propaganda - naive and apologist - and a sense of dread falls over I Am Cuba as we realize that the people are being hoodwinked into thinking they will be truly free. We can only guess that Cubans had begun to realize this by the time the film was released five years after the Castro's rise to power; it bombed on its release and was almost completely forgotten until 1992. This is not to say that Cuba being a puppet of America and directly under a brutal dictator in Battista was better for the country; it most certainly wasn't, but the country has not importantly improved in any way outside of its wonderful medical program.

The film does accurately show the horrors of the Battista regime, from its opening story (the strongest of the four) of a young prostitute servicing Ugly Americans on a sex trip (she gets raffled off to a Pastor of some denomination, revealing, perhaps, Socialism's fear of religion's corrupting influence) to the selling of a serf's land to the United Fruit Co. - that company that wreaked so much havoc on the poor throughout Latin America - in the second story, to the corruption through murder and removal of civillibertiess of the Battista administration as seen in third story. These horrors are not exaggerated, but seem discredited when we reflect on Castro's vicious repression of homosexuals, the murder of those who oppose his regime and the lack of free speech.

This is not to say the film is without merit. Far from it, the stories are generally well-written, and the poetry narrated off-camera in between the four is haunting and moving. The first and third stories are particularly strong (though the irony of student revolutionaries wearing very nicepreppiey clothes and driving convertibles as they talk about making sacrifices for the revolution is rather funny), and the second and fourth are not bad, but are slightly discomforting in their leads' extremely selfish choices (think the selfishness of Roy at the ending of Close Encounters multiplied by 1,000) that are supposed to be revolutionary in their acts, but only lead me to think about how badly their wives and children are being screwed over by their husbands.

The most important thing about "I Am Cuba," though, is the cinematography. This is perhaps the most beautifully shot film of all time. Largely handheld, and using an extremely wide-angle lens (at times getting dangerously close to fish-eyed) and infrared film, the incredibly long takes (the average shot length must hover around 2 minutes) are a sight to behold, and the film should be viewed in a theater for this reason alone. Two shots stand out in my mind: one in which a camera starts on the roof of a hotel where a beauty contest is taking place, then wanders around an attached bar, focuses on a pool and then goes down three to five stories to get there (showing it through railing bars tosymbolizee the prison like feeling of this capitalist playground), following a woman who buys acocktaill and then enters the pool, and the shot ends underwater in the pool. In the second, we follow a funeral procession through the streets of Havana, go up three stories to a cigar rolling workroom, follow some of the men as walk to the balcony to drape a Cuban flag over the side, and the camera continues outside the building and down the street, three stories above. Breathtaking doesn't even begin to describe the two shots, and these are just two of the hundreds examples I want to share.

If you can ignore the naivepropagandaa, I highly recommend that you see this film, if for nothing else but the visuals.


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