The title of the documentary about the making of I Am Cuba doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue: I am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth seems to bear an especially obscure relationship with the country. For the puzzled traveler or movie fan, it’s enough to be aware that this Italian film explores a culture clash between the Soviet film-makers who went to the country to make a propaganda film on behalf of Castro’s new regime and the Cubans who were their audience.
The 2005 documentary The Siberian Mammoth opened up the processes behind the making of the mysteriously beautiful propaganda film I am Cuba, after it had been rediscovered by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola. In a time before Cuban tourism had become an option for the offbeat traveler, I am Cuba was a brochure of a political rather than commercial kind. In the 90s, it was easier for hip audiences to enjoy it for its unreal beauty rather than its uncomfortable revolutionary propaganda. The film was directed by a well-known Soviet film-director who ended up alienating Soviets and Cubans both. Kalaznov had worked for Soviet authorities who were impossible to please for long. Before making I am Cuba, he had been banned for several years by the authorities from film-making due to “negativism.” Given these competing demands it’s difficult to know what audience this film was really aimed at. It was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a “Bolshevik hallucination”. For the contemporary viewer, its beautiful imagery is confusing. Each shot wistfully points to some greater ideal, so that the pace is both slow and hard to follow, like melting ice—first static, then rapidly slipping into the sublimated, altered reality of the triumphant people’s revolution. The inevitable revolutionary sacrifice portrays Cubans as suffering idealists drawn towards action in a dreamlike state. This is a film that shows a Cuba of great natural beauty, but just like an advertisement, it has no real use for the reality of the place and its inhabitants. What’s stranger still is how the actors conform to its artificial purpose. The explanation behind this is that they were untrained Cuban actors selected by the Soviet Directors.
Cuba is a place that has been draped in romantic mystery for many reasons; often literary and cultural, but mostly political. Now that the country is open to tourists, it would be an interesting piece of homework for a traveler to watch this film along with its documentary counterpart as preparation for a visit. At this point the writer has a confession to make: I have seen I Am Cuba, but I have not seen The Siberian Mammoth. Nor have I seen Cuba. If I’m ever lucky enough to visit, I’d like to sharpen my memories of that beautifully shot propaganda film with this documentary about the culture clash between the foreign film-makers and their subjects.