An informative bit of cinematic archeology that also provides insight into vintage Iron Curtain ideology, “I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth” is a worthwhile venture that overcomes a few notable shortcomings.
Brazilian director Vincente Ferraz’ documentary explores the making of a 1963 propaganda film called “I Am Cuba,” the first Cuban-Soviet coproduction. Using clips from that picture and talking-head interviews with surviving participants, Ferraz reconstructs a unique collision of entrenched political beliefs and surpassing artistic ambition.
Shortly after Fidel Castro led the communist revolution in Cuba, the Soviet government recruited director Mijail Kalatosov to work with Cuban filmmakers on a movie that would celebrate the revolutionaries’ efforts. Kalatosov and a host of Russian filmmakers spent a year in Cuba consulting with their Cuban collaborators, then spent another two years filming and cutting the movie. The result was the 140-minute “I Am Cuba,” which managed to alienate audiences in both Russia and Cuba.
Cuban viewers in particular disliked the film because of its arty, poetic aesthetic, which they found out of sync with their vivacious national character. So after an unceremonious one-week run, this super-production was shelved for decades.
The movie was rediscovered by Western film scholars in the mid-1990s, and released in the U.S. with the support of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppolla. The American release of “I Am Cuba” generated splendid reviews, especially because of the mind-blowing cinematography by Serguey Urusevsky.
But, as Ferraz reveals, many of the film’s original participants remained ignorant of the rediscovery for many years. Over the course of his documentary, Ferraz happily surprises actors and technicians who seem bemused that a film they disliked a lifetime ago has been reborn as a minor classic.
Ferraz takes a somewhat scattershot approach to his story. Very near the beginning of his picture, he shows a breathtaking excerpt from “I Am Cuba” — an incredibly complicated shot in which the camera rises from a street and flies over an urban neighborhood. Yet then Ferraz remarks, in his first-person narration, that he’s not going to detail the intricacies of how shots like that one were created.
Instead, Ferraz offers a subjective history wherein participants talk about how they joined the project, whether they enjoyed the work or not, and how their opinions of the movie have evolved over the years. The interviews aren’t especially insightful, and Ferraz fails to prod his most articulate subjects beyond standard cinematic punditry.
There are a few interesting details along the way. Urusevsky is described as a hard-driving perfectionist who kept himself blindfolded between shots and made crews wait for picturesque backgrounds because, as he pontificated, “a sky without clouds isn’t interesting.” Kalatosov comes across as a loyal Soviet whose efforts to comprehend his subject matter were stymied by a lifetime working in the Russian system. In the words of one of the Cuban filmmakers: “Maybe we didn’t understand his personality. He certainly didn’t understand ours.”
Neither a straight making-of doc nor a clinical political history, “I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth” offers some elements of both approaches, then fails in some important ways to provide a guiding context. Even with all of his first-person narration, for instance, Ferraz never clearly indicates why he made this movie at this time. “I Am Cuba” came out nearly 40 years ago, and the revival happened in 1995. The timing of this retrospective seems arbitrary.
Moreover, Ferraz’ movie is compromised by the absence of Kalatosov and Urusevsky, both of whom died in the 1970s. Without their perspectives, we’re given a piecemeal view of how “I Am Cuba” was made.
Still, the original film comes across as such a unique artifact — and its making the product of such unusual circumstances — that it’s worth the effort to parse Ferraz’ incomplete story for the most relevant information.