At this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I was lucky enough to see another film by Xiaolu Guo. The film was dedicated to someone (I really can’t remember) involved with the 1965 Russian/Cuban co-production Soy Cuba. Perhaps the director, Mikhail Kalatozov. But, no matter. I asked her about it and was intrigued enough to rent both the DVD and the 2005 documentary chronicling the films rediscovery. When I found a documentary on the rediscovery and re-release of the classic collaboration, it certainly reminded me how Guo Xiaolu’s two films at TIFF 2009 went so well together as a viewing experience (She, A Chinese and Once Upon A Time A Proletarian).
The original film is an unrestrained piece of propaganda and a glorious piece of cinema – most especially the cinematography of Sergei Urusevsky, which was both visually spellbinding and “how did he do that” unique. No one liked it. Even, for the most part, the cast and crew. This is gleaned from interviews with many of the original actors and those involved in the 1965 production. It was shelved and (literally) and didn’t see the light of day, until it was re-discovered almost by accident in a Russian warehouse. Then Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola became involved in its restoration and rerelease. Scorsese has commented that had he seen this film in his formative years in the industry, he would have been a very different director. When the surviving actors from the mid-sixties film are given copies of the DVD of the film, they can’t believe it. They seem to change their minds as to the value of the film as a work of art as they hold the DVD cover. The Brazilian documentarians conducted the interviews in Havana in 2001. Fourty years on, there were a surprising number of people still alive that had ben involved in the original film.
Soy Cuba was maybe the first international collaboration between film studios from two countries (almost the norm today) and was certainly rediscovered at the right time. With its heavy propaganda message, it would have been difficult to appreciate the accomplishments of the film during the cold war. But with all that discredited, the film can be viewed with the amazement it deserves on the technical side.
Sweetness, tears, sugar cane and blood…
Soy Cuba begins in the pre-revolutionary countryside with a sugar cane cutter harvesting his modest piece of land (share-cropped) with his son and daughter. Then the patrone rides up on horseback to tell him that the land has been sold to United Fruit and he’ll need to clear out. Enraged, the farmer burns down the fields, after which the voice of Cuba speaks. These interludes are interspersed throughout, and all begin “Soy Cuba” (I am Cuba).
sometimes it seems to me that the sap of my fields are full of blood. Sometimes it seems to me that the murmuring sounds around us are not the ocean, but choked-back tears. Who answers for this blood? Who is responsible for these tears? (Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was involved in the writing of the script)
Cut to Havana. A drive-in theater is showing a newsreel of Batista. The crowd firebombs the screen and the ensuing conflagration mirrors the burning of the peasant’s fields. Rural and urban, the revolution is nearing its beginning. We are introduced to the police repression and murder through the eyes of a revolutionary cell. The differing philosophies of revolutionary cells are given a brief exploration. The leader of the cell is the more cautious. Enrique is more the man of action, the anarchist who is impatient to strike and strike hard. Yet when he has a bead drawn on the police chief, he fails to pull the trigger. It’s hard to kill a man after all. Later, Enrique exhorts a crowd from the public steps:
There are two paths for people when they are born. The path of slavery – it crushes and decays. And the path of the star – it illuminates, but kills. These are the words of Jose Marti. You will choose the star. Your path will be hard, and it will be marked by blood. But in the name of justice, wherever a single person goes…thousands more will rise up. And when there are no more people, them the stones will rise up…I am Cuba.
There is a scene where a cadre of guerillas is ambushed and captured. As the army asks them which one of them is Fidel, one by one they reply “Yo soy Fidel”.
How can I say too much about the images produced by the vision of Urusevsky? I can’t. Firstly, this is black and white imagery at its best, rivalling Orson Welles. And the technical achievements…In an early scene in Havana, the camera is on a rooftop, looking down and away at a hotel pool. The camera somehow descends dramatically, down and down and closer to the pool until it is underwater. Later there is a large funeral procession that begins on the top floor of a building from the outside looking down, the camera circles inside where workers are rolling cigars, then follows a worker to the window as he unfurls a Cuban revolutionary flag and we see the larger procession packed in the streets as far as the eye (the camera eye) can see. Then the camera seems to descend in mid-air in a breathtaking move, slowly, smoothly to ground level. There are also some complicated shots and angles of people going up and down stairs, winding staircases, in a dance with the camera. As a sniper looks out over the city to his prey across the way, we see thorough the telescope of the sniper rifle, through the concrete blocks upon which his rifle rests from both the inside and the outside. The astounding thing is that each and every one of these shots are so flawless and smooth. As if the camera is afloat mid-air, defying gravity. What I wouldn’t give to see a meta-camera outside the film to see how this all worked. It’s simply marvelous.
If you are a moviegoer who appreciates great technical imagery, this is some of the best in the history of world cinema – and it’s well worth it to view both of these films in tandem.