I am Cuba / Soy Cuba

by Tom Barrance

Soy Cuba (I am Cuba) is an amazing Soviet/Cuban propaganda film from 1964, directed by Mikhail Kalazatov. It was made to celebrate the Cuban revolution. The Cubans didn’t like it because they thought it misrepresented their revolution (it did). The Soviets thought it made pre-Revolutionary decadence look rather too attractive (it did). So it remained virtually unseen for decades until its rediscovery in the 1900s by enthusiasts including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

What’s so great about it?

The script is simplistic propaganda. But cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky turned it into a dazzling visual poem. The black and white (and sometimes infrared) photography is startlingly beautiful, and the sound design is great as well.

Uresevky and Kalazatov’s extraordinary long take ‘emotional camera’ technique uses continuous camera movement, rather than editing, to go from wide shot to closeup to wide shot.

One scene contains probably the most remarkable tracking shot ever: the camera starts among the mourners at a revolutionary’s funeral procession, ascends vertically several floors to enter the window of a cigar factory, tracks across a room, and then leaves through another window and ‘flies’ slowly along the street at roof level several stories up.

There’s another scene at the beginning of the film which is almost as spectacular: the wandering camera tracks between musicians and fashion models on a hotel roof, descends several floors to mingle with revellers,  and finally sinks into a swimming pool.

The film wasn’t shot with a Steadicam – they weren’t invented for another ten years – but the ultrawide 9.8mm lens (roughly the equivalent of 10mm on an APS-C SLR camera) kept camera shake to a minimum. Cameraman Alexander Calzatti used the revolutionary lightweight Eclair Caméflex camera, a favourite of French New Wave directors.

What you can learn from it

You can learn a lot about how to use an ultra wide lens, how to shoot scenes as ‘long takes’ rather than separate shots, using dramatic high angle, low angle and canted angle shots, and creative use of natural light. There’s some great use of diegetic sound and silence, particularly in the scene where a revolutionary is killed during a demonstration. (Diegetic sound is sound that seems to be a natural part of what’s happening on screen; but in several scenes you can see how the soundtrack has been carefully constructed.)

It’s in Spanish with English subtitles. The Spanish voiceover is quite clear and easy for Spanish learners to follow.

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The UK DVD is a two-disc special edition which includes Vicente Ferraz’s  The Siberian Mammoth, a Brazilian documentary about the making of I am Cuba.

The Cranes are Flying

If you like I am Cuba, you could also watch Kalatazov and Uresevsky’s beautiful Second World War epic, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.