by Chale Nafus
One of the most kinetically exhilarating films in the history of cinema was almost lost forever. Premiering in 1964 in Cuba and the Soviet Union, SOY CUBA was removed from distribution after only one week in both countries, both with state-run film industries. I AM CUBA was not shown in the US until a festival screening at Telluride in 1992, only made possible by the knowledge and perseverance of Pacific Film Archive’s Edith Kramer, who tracked down a print of the virtually unknown film. Even without English subtitles, the Russian-Spanish language film and its jaw-dropping cinematography became the talk of the festival. Newly formed Milestone Films, created by the husband and wife team of Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, secured an original camera negative of SOY CUBA from Russia’s Mosfilm and struck 35mm prints with English subtitles. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola offered to “present” the film, a credit which would heighten awareness of the unknown treasure. Sold-out screenings at New York City’s Film Forum in 1995 led to distribution of SOY CUBA across the US, generally accompanied by rave reviews and incredulity that this film was made in 1964 and only seen 30 years later. Aspiring and even veteran cinematographers were especially amazed by the acrobatics of the camera in a pre-Steadicam era.
How on earth did this joint Soviet-Cuban film production come to be?
One of Fidel Castro’s first decrees after taking the reins of the Cuban government in January 1959 was the creation of the official government film office, ICAIC. Just like Lenin in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Fidel knew that the best way to spread awareness of the ideals and missions of his Revolution was through motion pictures. Many farmers in the Cuban hinterlands were virtually illiterate and television was still out of the question, so the cinema would be the best means of educating people to the dramatic changes brought by revolution. But, unlike Mexico and Argentina, Cuba had a relatively insignificant film industry, so a lot would have to be learned and fast. Under Premier Khrushchev, the USSR was offering film production assistance for any country friendly to the ideals of Communism. Cuba must have been at the top of the list.
Soviet Georgian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973) was very interested in the changes in Cuba. He had enjoyed international success with his World War II romance THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957), made during the “Khrushchev Thaw,” the post-Stalinist period of greater openness in Soviet society and the repudiation of Stalin’s repressive regime. The director felt that going to Cuba to make a film about revolution was his opportunity to equal the success of Sergei Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) and OCTOBER (TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, 1928), films which had also shaken the world and proven that a new style of filmmaking had arrived on the world’s cinema screens. Besides an agenda of “creating a new film language to express his political beliefs and personal vision,” he wanted to celebrate and promote the Cuban revolution. And there was already much to celebrate – the beginning of a massive drive toward education with brigades of young people going into the remote areas of the island to teach literacy, as well as providing medical care and housing for everyone. Nothing like this revolution had ever happened in Cuba, for centuries a Spanish colony and then an economic colony of the US. Cuba was quickly becoming the model for social change in Latin America and Kalatozov wanted to be the one to show the world what Cuba had suffered and why a revolution was necessary and inevitable.
But since Kalatozov and his crew were outsiders, they must first do some research. The director took his trusty director of photography Sergei Urusevsky, who had filmed Kalatozov’s THE CRANES ARE FLYING and LETTER NEVER SENT (1960), to Cuba in 1961. Joining them were Belka Fridman – Urusevsky’s wife and eventual casting director for the film – and Alexander Calzatti, a camera operator whose technical skills would liberate the camera to do hitherto unseen maneuvers. Calzatti later reminisced: “When we got there, we didn’t know much about the history, about the culture, nor about the language spoken in Cuba. The Cuban revolution seemed more human than we had imagined.” He learned that it had “shed less blood than other revolutions.” Certainly far less than the Russian Revolution which turned into a bloody civil war in its first few years. The Soviet filmmaking team was not alone in its admiration for the early years of the Castro revolution. Writers and intellectuals of the world flocked to Cuba to see this revolutionary greenhouse. Everybody was moving towards hope for a New World. Many of us in the US were equally affected with optimism for radical change in the Old Order. The Cuban Revolution undeniably played a great role in the political demonstrations of the 1960s and early 70s. The people of Cuba were involved in a great social experiment of conquering underdevelopment through State-planning. We were naïve in not understanding the full ramifications of such centralized control. But no one was thinking about that in the early stages of euphoria and optimism.
Another member of Kalatozov’s team was the world-renowned Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933 – ), who was already familiar with Cuba, after working there for awhile as a correspondent for the official Soviet newspaper Pravda. It also helped that he had become a friend of Fidel. Even though he had no experience in screenwriting, Yevtushenko became Kalatozov’s first choice to create a script. Soon, they enlisted the aid of Cuban writer Enrique Pineda Barnet (1933 – ).
Before writing a word, this team of writers joined Kalatozov and his camera crew in tours around Havana and the countryside. They visited the scenes of the battles in Oriente Province, where the Revolution successfully began in January 1957. Pineda Barnet became their tour guide into Cuban folklore and regional customs. They took photos and even shot some film footage to record what they were seeing and learning. Barnet later commented that his guests seemed most interested in “the moral fallout of Cuba’s colonial past.” To that end, they also visited the few Havana night clubs still managing to hang on.
Kalatozov tape-recorded interviews with many who had participated in the rebellion in Oriente Province and in the student demonstrations and assaults. Likewise they watched documentaries, which were becoming the first manifestations of the new Cuban film industry. Ironically, they often crossed paths with Fidel who also visited the ICAIC screening rooms. But instead of documentaries idealizing his revolution, the Cuban leader more often watched classic Hollywood movies. Che Guevara and Raúl Castro also told their stories to Kalatozov. Meticulous research provided lots of information and ideas for scenes in the future film.
As pleasant as it may be, research has to finally end. Back in Havana Kalatozov, Urusevsky, Yevtushenko, and Pineda Barnet began regular meetings to discuss “subjects, ideas, characters, situations.” Once agreement about a particular scene or sequence was achieved, the two screenwriters would go their separate ways to write their own version – Yevtushenko in his 17th floor room at the Havana-Libre Hotel [formerly Havana Hilton] and Pineda Barnet in his home near the waterfront. Meanwhile Kalatozov and Urusevsky wandered around Havana, trying out camera filters and natural lighting in a variety of locations, and doubtlessly still visiting those nightclubs.
What was clear to the two writers was that Kalatozov did not want a traditional 3-5 act script, but instead an epic cinematic poem about the revolution. “The main heroine would be the revolution – the hero would be the people.” No individual, even Fidel or Che, would be elevated to heroic stature, but that was already traditional Marxist film propaganda – masses, not individuals, change history. The director also wanted to present the Revolution as an historic inevitability, brought about by oppressive forces such as decadent American tourists, arrogant American sailors, and brutal American corporations such as United Fruit Company (“the Octopus”). The Cubans who sided with the dictator Batista would be represented by corrupt police officials and avaricious landowners.
Once Yevtushenko and Pineda Barnet had fleshed out the first portion of the film (a prologue and the Havana nightclub scenes), they submitted it to the board of ICAIC, along with synopses of the four other proposed sections involving sugar cane harvesting, student rebellion, Fidel’s attack on Moncada Barracks in 1953, and the final success of guerrilla warfare. The ICAIC board included filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who would soon find his own success directing MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (1968). After listening to the board’s observations and suggestions, the three Soviet members of the team returned to Moscow. After being joined there by Pineda Barnet, they completed the script.
The film would be divided into four “stories.” The one about Castro’s failed first revolution in 1953 was scrapped. Wisely so, for that failure, though heroic, would have down-shifted the movement toward the successful rebellion. The four sections would be:
1) a young woman lured into prostitution during the Batista regime, when Havana was world-renowned as “the Latin Las Vegas”
2) the struggle of an aging tenant farmer trying to maintain dignity and feed his family, while suffering the arrogance and power of landlords
3) the Havana-based university student fight against the dictatorship, torn between heroic but futile efforts of individuals and an organized mass movement
4) the successful rebellion in the mountains of Eastern Cuba, exemplified by a non-combatant peasant who loses one of his children during a Batista bombardment and takes up a gun
After May 1962 Kalatozov returned to Cuba to assemble a cast with the help of Belka Fridman. Together they looked for people whose faces Kalatozov liked for their cinematic qualities: “I think that cinema doesn’t really require professional actors, because what counts more than anything is the human presence.” Naturally there were some semi-professional actors with experience on stage. Some of these were also recruits from Pineda Barnet’s acting classes.
All this pre-production activity was suddenly interrupted in October 1962 with the Soviet-US confrontation over the unexpected placement of missiles (with nuclear warhead capabilities) in Cuba. The Cold War was distressingly on the verge of heating up all the way to the unthinkable – nuclear war. The infamous Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) invasion of Cuba had failed a few months before, and an understandably angry and legitimately paranoid Castro needed to make a show of power. Already forging an economic and military alliance with the Soviet Union, he had welcomed Soviet missiles onto the island, all pointed at locations within the US. After a tense 13 days, cooler heads prevailed and JFK and Soviet premier Khrushchev agreed to back down. Missiles and bombers were removed from Cuba, and the US secretly removed its own missiles from Italy and Turkey. More importantly to Castro, the US agreed not to invade Cuba.
After four more months of preparation, the production of SOY CUBA got underway on 26 February 1963. No one could have guessed that it would be another 14 months before filming ended.
The crewmember who doubtlessly would have had the most headaches would have to be Alexander Calzatti, who worked as camera operator under the direction of DP Urusevsky, described by many as dictatorial. It was Calzatti who would solve the technical demands for the amazing mobile shots proposed by the director and DP. He had to translate his bosses’ dreams – “Wouldn’t it be great if we could….” – into how to suspend the camera from wires in dangerous places in order to follow the actions out windows and along streets. An astounding 97% of the film was shot with a handheld camera, generally by Calzatti. There were no Steadicams yet. Martin Scorsese would later say that a Steadicam would not have achieved the same level of tension as seen in SOY CUBA. The Steadicam glides smoothly, while Calzatti’s handheld camera places us right in the action and betrays our nervousness through the subliminal, minute shaking at the edges of the frames. Fortunately for Calzatti he was holding the relatively light-weight Éclair camera, beloved of the French New Wave directors, and capable of holding a 5-minute magazine of 35mm film, critical for the continuous, long takes sought by the director.
From the very opening shot along the coastline, something about the palm trees looks other-worldly. Using infrared film, acquired from East German film labs – usually reserved for spy work – Urusevsky and Calzatti turned the foliage into a brilliant silver-white. Filters and wide-angle lenses which distorted perspective in various shots also added to the dreamlike (even nightmarish) quality in the look of the film.
For the crane shot of the farmer Pedro burning his cane field and hut, the crew devised a video system which allowed them to watch on a TV monitor while shooting film. This, a full 20 years before such a system came into use in Hollywood, should have revolutionized world filmmaking techniques, but few people would hear about it. A special underwater container for the camera had to be devised to facilitate the swimming pool scene.
“It is the Cuban reality seen through a Slavic prism.”
Once he had all the footage in the can, Kalatozov returned to the Soviet Union to begin the huge undertaking of editing the film with Nina Glagoleva.
To celebrate the opening of the Cuban Revolution (the failed first attempt), SOY CUBA premiered in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1964. A Russian premiere took place at the same time. The 140-minute film closed after only one week – not because of “poor box office” (a capitalist concept), but because neither the Soviet nor the Cuban government liked it. The shelving in the Soviet Union is more understandable – Khrushchev was on his way out of power, soon to be replaced by a very repressive Breshnev. Certainly images of a people rising up against an oppressive government would be dangerous for Soviet people to see, no matter what the nominal politics of the day. They were also concerned that the nightlife scenes in the early part of the film would look too beguiling to Soviet audiences who had never seen any such lifestyle and might very well envy it. Our present-day knowledge of post-Soviet Russian oligarchs and gangsters partying should lend weight to that 1964 paranoia.
More confusing is the repudiation of SOY CUBA in Cuba. One Cuban crewmember later said: “Many Cubans didn’t feel that the film reflected national characteristics. It is the Cuban reality seen through a Slavic prism.” Fidel, who was planning many great projects for his country while also instituting repressive measures “to guard the Revolution” against enemies, both internal and external, perhaps felt that SOY CUBA might suggest “reopening” the Revolution.
I haven’t found any discussion of the film in interviews with Castro. It’s unfortunate that for whatever reason, he caused it to disappear. It is such a stirring film, one which shows the inequalities of the Batista years in both city and countryside, that it certainly can’t be branded reactionary. And it is a sterling example of pure cinema, told primarily through the camera with little reliance on the spoken word.
Kalatozov died in 1973, followed one year later by Urusevsky, who reportedly spent his final years sorely distraught over the “failure” of SOY CUBA. Fidel is still alive.
This article first appeared on the Austin Film Society’s site. It is re-published on the Cuba Journal with permission. Chale Nafus is the former Director of Programming at the Austin Film Society. Film poster by www.stoneyroadfilms.com
I AM CUBA, THE SIBERIAN MAMMOTH [the making of SOY CUBA], directed by Vicente Ferraz, Brazil, 2005, DVD released by Milestone Film and Video.
“I Am Cuba, the Ultimate Edition,” a booklet included with Milestone’s 3-DVD release of SOY CUBA