Cuba’s Cinematic Revolution


This article by Jeremy Polacek appeared in Here’s an excerpt. For the complete article and additional photographs follow the link to the original report below.


Unfortunately, distribution of Cuban films was curtailed well into the early 1970s by the United States’ policy on Cuba, with the lingering impact that even Humberto Solás’s Lucía(1968) and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) — both regarded as high-water marks of 1960s filmmaking — are still little seen, if even known, stateside. In this context, BAM’s Cuba: Golden 60s series offers a rare chance to experience highlights from this first decade of revolutionary Cuban cinema: six features and one collection of short films, ranging from I Am Cuba (1964), an electric, Russian Constructivist–style tour of Cuban history, to The First Charge of the Machete (1969), a pseudo-documentary time-traveling piece.

That I Am Cuba is the earliest of six features in this series makes sense. The film is a joint production between the USSR (Mosfilm) and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). Founded in the first months following the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the ICAIC was in part influenced by the Soviet Union’s approach to film in the 1920s, but also materially aided by its revolutionary co-partner — in other words, movies rather than missiles. I Am Cuba was Russian made and Cuban focused (and apparentlyliked by neither), a zooming picture of protest and revolt. Working with few limits in this heady period, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov and his crew whipped and whirled long, moving shots, spinning screens into halos of electric cotton candy. One scene opens on a hotel rooftop, tracking mugging musicians and preening beauties, before descending the many floors to the ground-level pool, into which it unhesitantly dives. If seeing were believing, then I Am Cuba might make you believe. But with clichés galore and a belabored, agitprop plot, you might just end up an agnostic anyway — which would leave you free to be absorbed by the astounding visuals.

History is put to better, more interesting use in Lucía and The First Charge of the Machete. In the former, Solás scripts his story across three different chapters of Cuban revolt, the 1890s, 1930s, and 1960s, his camera alighting each time on a different main character, all of them named Lucia. Together, the Lucias operate as mirrors of the progressive tempers of their times, but they’re also developed and lived in enough to play as individuals of their own ages. Overlaying a feminist lens on its dialectical materialist review of Cuban history, Lucia is surprisingly human.

Skipping back to an even earlier war, Manuel Octavio Gomez’s The First Charge of the Machete uses a different time-traveling conceit: the film is a would-be documentary of Cuba’s 1868 war for independence, if there had been such things as documentaries back then, albeit shot in extremely high-contrast black and white. Hand-held cameras wave over towns and battlefields in cinéma vérité style, interviews with both sides are conducted, and an unnamed troubadour sings his traveling songs. Gomez’s intent is to be simultaneously immersive and self-undressing, re-creating a past that — he never forgets to remind you — is only a fiction. It’s a boldly stimulating, if tryingly self-conscious, take on politics, film, and history. 

Documentary would prove to be an influential genre in Cuba. In the beginning, much of ICAIC’s efforts were centered on it; Gomez, Alea, and Santiago Álvarez all started out making documentaries and newsreels for the foundation. Self-trained in the editing room, Álvarez never left. His documentary shorts from the ’60s are lighting strokes, flashes of footage, animation, montage, and music. Álvarez was an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink kind of director, especially in his lacerating salvos against American imperialism and domestic repression. “79 Primaveras” cuts and pastes together a furious tribute to Ho Chi Minh, not to mention a denunciation of the United States, barely containing itself in a ending that explodes and shakes so hard it flecks off pieces of celluloid, as if the violent battle depicted were destroying the film strip itself. “Now” sets newsreel footage of civil rights protests and police brutality to Lena Horne’s adamant protest song, ending in a blaze of gunfire that shoots “now” into an intertitle. Dubbed “nervous montage,” Álvarez’s style seems to mirror the feelings it seeks to produce.


Alea’s subsequent film, Memories of Underdevelopment, carries on this skeptical consideration of Cuban society. The highlight of the BAM series, Memories follows Sergio, a bourgeois intellectual who stays behind in Havana when his parents and wife leave for America sometime between the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the US-Cuban Missile Crisis. Able to criticize those around him (especially women) and note Cuba’s many problems, he also finds no path for him in the country’s new milieu. In this way Alea critiques both the society and the individual. What happens if you are able to sit by as time remakes the world around you?

Ultimately, these films are revolutionary in a provisional sense — products of a intoxicating present being swept away but not replaced by an impossibly optimistic future. Some render the anxiety of the transition, others its hopes and fervency. All are impressions of a revolutionary spring that, while fruitful and energetic, never lasts long.

Cuba: Golden 60s continues at BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through March 31. Check the website for individual screening times.

For the original report go to

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