Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba is a Soviet propaganda movie, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a strange selection for TIFF’s Cinematheque series but this is one of the cases where strange is good. The wide shots of the lush Cuban forests wildly contrasts Sergei Urusevsky’s handheld POV close-ups. Both make me wonder who the camera represents, a question it answers later. Nonetheless, this film is a writing collaboration between Enrique Pineda Barnet and Russian poet Evgeny Evtushenko. The film shows four different vignettes of the country during the late 1950s.
The first vignette is about Maria (Luz María Collazo), a woman with a secret job. In a way, Maria’s story is the most sell-able because it captures what it’s like during the Batista era. Most of the film captures its characters through peep hole like lenses. But it’s direct with Maria, capturing her silence and her understanding of her limits within her own country. There’s an interchange of ideas to how the film portrays its characters, a neo noir Wellesian spontaneity. Batista exists as a subtext during Maria’s story. But he and his henchmen come in full force as the film progresses.
That’s especially true for in Enrique’s (Raúl García), a student activist. Enrique spends his first scene throwing a Molotov cocktail to a drive-in theater screen displaying Batista’s propaganda. The camera exposes that he and those around him are perpetually close to the dangers life produce. He eventually gets a complex assignment. He was willing to finish such an assignment but music and sounds echo through his mind. Both sight and sound reflect his clemency in comparison to, as we learn, Batista’s ruthless methods of staying in power.
The film eventually answers the questions of who the camera represents. The other two vignettes are about farmers, the last one being about Mariano, a farmer who becomes a revolutionary fighter. In a scene, he reaches across the screen and grabs a gun from an enemy combatant. Making the camera a representative of the West is strange. That’s especially true since this only had a contemporaneous theatrical release in Communist countries. But that point stings enough, that most of cinema propagates Western values and that it’s time for a counterpoint. I’m not oblivious to the contextual ironies here, but this film represents a promise that some people still believe in. This captures the whirlwind like life in a puppet state and the process of freeing one’s country. The innate artificiality of capitalism and a promise for something that might actually work.