Art

Cuba’s Cinematic Revolution

Humberto Solás, still from ‘Lucía’ (1968) (image courtesy Kino International/Photofest)

As much as it is written about, participated in, and put down, revolution exists largely as an undertaking that’s watched (notwithstanding Gil Scott-Heron’s famous dictum). The revolution can be painted or sculpted, but more often than not it has been filmed, and most of all, viewed. This was already true in the early days of film: Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and other radical Soviet filmmakers turned revolutionary action into something cinematic. Lenin — he of the “for us, the cinema is the most important [art]” quote — recognized film’s ability to reach a huge audience. And in their radical path followed a somewhat infamous progeny: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, and many others.

Less appreciated is Cuba’s contribution to revolutionary cinema. Critical, frenzied, imaginative, and committed, the works of Communist Cuba’s first generation of filmmakers helped reinvigorate and reinterrogate the form. Drawing on Cuban history, radical politics, European filmmaking, and Brechtian ideas, they sought to excite and entertain their audiences into a new political awareness. They aimed to remind viewers that film was not a means for Hollywood escapism or distraction, but a lens through which to see the simultaneous truth and falseness of the political moment.

This was rigorous political cinema, just without a huge helping of the era’s de rigueur dogma. Many films from Cuba’s first Communist decade (the Golden age, or Década de Oro) stir with a verve and approach that now seem meta and modern — among them The First Charge of the Machete (1969), The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (1967), and Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) — attesting to a filmmaking movement that was both fervently committed and intensely creative.

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.

Mikhail Kalatozov, still from ‘I Am Cuba’ (1964) (image courtesy Milestone Film & Video/Photofest)

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 apparently liked 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.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, still from ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ (1968) (image courtesy Tricontinental Film Center/Photofest)

By contrast, Julio García Espinosa’s The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin and Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat embrace comedy as well as satire — and in the case of Juan Quin Quin, also westerns, comic books, and blasphemy, a nesting doll of parodied forms. Whereas Juan Quin Quin skewers its influences, Death of a Bureaucrat holds them up for acclaim: Luis Buñuel, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd. Juan Quin Quin‘s critique lies with film and way it’s made and viewed — a distancing, rough approach that came to be known as imperfect cinema — while Death of a Bureaucrat critiques Cuban bureaucracy itself.

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.

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