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The Siberian Mammoth: An Unexpected Guide to Cuba’s Revolutionary Past

January 14, 2013 in Cuba, Film, History, Movies, Political History, Politics

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.

The Truth About Cuba: Seven Recommended Reads for the Curious Traveler

November 7, 2012 in Cuba, Literature, Politics

1. The Old Man And The Sea

Ernest Hemingway (fiction, 1952)

The Old Man And The Sea was Ernest Hemingway’s last fiction published during his lifetime. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1953. The novella tells the story of Santiago, an aging fisherman, and his attempt to transcend natural laws. In Santiago we find a hero, and a representative of Cuba and its people through the eyes of Hemingway.

2. Trading With The Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba

Tom Miller (non-fiction, 2008)

Tom Miller chronicles his eighth month trip with unrestricted access to the country and its people in this recent and eye-opening account of modern day Cuba.  Ripe with literary history, Miller follows the paths of Jose Marti, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway.

3. Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana

Isadora Tattlin (non-fiction, 2003)

Tattlin, after moving to Cuba in the early 1990s because of her husband’s job, kept a detailed narrative of her time in a country full of contradictions, and her reflections of being a wife, a mother, and an ex-patriot in a simultaneously beautiful and troubled country. It takes place during the peak of Castro’s reign.

4. Our Man In Havana:

Graham Greene (fiction, 1958)

A true page-turner and espionage thriller, Our Man In Havana follows the story of former vacuum cleaner-salesman-turned-secret-agent James Wormwold and his experience working in Cuba. Written by British author Graham Greene, (who was a part of M16) the book is part satire, part black comedy, and is a humorous and eye-opening view of Cuba during the Batista regime.

5. Cuba: Another Side of The Story: Memoirs of A Cuban Childhood

Iris M. Diaz (non-fiction, 2010)

The story of Ms. Diaz is the story of many Cubans who left the island in 1961, with no money in their pockets and dreams of a brighter future. Diaz’s story is one of struggle and tenacity, and her eventual success as a contemporary American citizen who remains loyal to her Cuban heritage.

6. The Splendor Of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors

Written by Michael Connors, Photographed by Brent Winebrenner (Art, architecture 2011)

In this stunning visual and literary history of Cuba’s architecture, Connors and Winebrenner capture not only the derelict Cuba of Castro’s reign, but also the lavish beauty of Cuba’s Spanish Creole aristocracy.  The book travels from Havana to Finca Vigia, (Hemingway’s home) and provides close-ups of balustrades, grilles and all that is Cuba’s faded glory and meticulously kept majesty.

7. Lonely Planet: Cuba

(Travel, 2009)

Included is a full color section on Cuba’s music, festivals, natural beauty and architecture, and a unique green index that makes eco friendly travel easy. Lonely Planet provides vital information on anything from deep-sea fishing to dining and traveling safely and efficiently.

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