I never thought I would sit through a propaganda film, but I did one hot summer night last year in a rep theatre. "I Am Cuba" has been on video for a few months now, though finding a video store that carries it is not that easy. Originally done in the Sixties as a Cuban propaganda piece to celebrate Fidel Castro's rise to power, it languished in obscurity until three decades later when it was reintroduced by Martin Scorcese. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, it was too bourgeoisie for the proletariat society and too anti-American to get much of an audience elsewhere.
Shot in a richly textured black-and-white, it is a beautiful series of vignettes outlining life in the Batista regime and the triumphant revolution led by Castro. You don't have to agree with the politics to enjoy this film. There is an exotic opening sequence in the playgrounds of the well-to-do in Havana, reminiscent of the NewOrder music video "World (Price of Love)". There is the tragedy of a poor city girl that prostitutes herself to eke out a living in Havana's slums and her relationship with a singing fruit vendor. There is the story of a sugar cane farmer that would rather burn the crop than give any more to the greedy landlord. Or how about the singing-and-dancing musical number on the neon-lit streets with a bunch of American sailors harassing the local women? And don't forget the student protest that is violently suppressed.
If you look past the annoying Russian voice-over and the really cheesy English dubbing for the dialogue of the American characters ("Mmmm... she looks nice. I'll have some of THAT!"), "I Am Cuba" is also a triumph in the technical sense. Filmed back in the days before Steadicams, the camera operator manages to do elaborate follow- and tracking-shots with hardly any jiggle. In a scene of a funeral, the camera rises from ground level up to the third storey, floats over the street, goes into a building and out over another street in one continuous shot. I'm not sure how they did it, but it certainly looks impressive.
So if you get a chance, be sure to check this propaganda film out. If there is anything to complain about it, it would be this: I wish it were easier to find in the video stores.