It is impossible in these times to sit down quietly and write about a piece of media, pretending nothing is ever political. What does film say about history? Vice versa, what does history say about film? Are movies doomed to be an art medium purely for aesthetic enjoyment, or is there space for political engagement? These are a few of the questions that ran through my head as I watched I Am Cuba (1964), an epic film about pre-revolutionary Cuba told in four vignettes. Most movies would probably shy away from a positive depiction of militancy of any kind, but this was not one of them.
At first glance, I Am Cuba reads as the lesser-known cousin of The Battle of Algiers (1966). Hailed by the New Leftists in the 60s and 70s as the golden child, myth and prophet, The Battle of Algiers is an account of the Algerian liberation front’s resistance against the colonial French military. Despite also operating from an anticolonial standpoint, I Am Cuba takes more artistic freedoms and leans more towards the poetic. It’s more of an operatic docu-drama that brings in the overarching history of colonization and exploitation. The Battle of Algiers is much more cut and dry, confronting military combat head-on. That being said, the aesthetic gravity in I Am Cuba does not take away from the palpable indignation and fervor of people who were rising up against the Batista government.
For the longest time The Battle of Algiers was in my mind as the only frame of reference for political cinema. Very few movies can claim to have had an impact parallel to that of The Battle of Algiers, directed by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo in 1966, merely four years after Algerian independence. Throughout the years the film has served (willingly or unwillingly) as a reference guide on guerrilla warfare, representing what it means to “win militarily and lose politically,” as the French did in Algeria. It’s pretty ironic that the same film was used to inform both insurgent and counterinsurgent parties in political conflict. It means that the tactics being studied are the same, no matter which side you’re on.
All wars, however, are memory wars. The Battle of Algiers was censored in France until 1971, five years after its initial release. I Am Cuba was pulled from theaters after just one week of screenings, only to be rediscovered in the 1990s by American independent film company Milestone Films, who released a restoration in 2005. Film is politicized memory, situated within a certain time frame. The fact that both these films encountered difficulty upon their release attests to their force upon the viewer as a mechanism of collective memory. Restored and re-released when they were “safe,” these movies will no longer incite revolutionary potential. They have retreated into being ornaments, pretty things to look at and write about.
One downfall of censorship is that it inadvertently increases the interest and curiosity around the censored item. There must be something about the filmic presentation of political history — perhaps the way it imitates memory –– that was critical in rousing the masses. What would it have felt like to be radicalized and incentivized in the 60s by a political movie?
Most reviews of I Am Cuba capitalize on its amazing cinematography and artistic style, but the film also deserves credit for the symbols and historical narrative it constructs. Cuban actress Raquel Revuelta’s voice assumes an identity –– Cuba –– that is symbolic, revolutionary, historical and collective at the same time. Speaking as Cuba, Revuelta’s voice embodies a sentimental narration of suffering, struggle and hope, lamenting, musing, celebrating. This is a stark contrast to Gillo Pontecorvo’s cinematography. The Battle of Algiers is shot with practical, straightforward sequences reminiscent of Italian newsreel footage. It allows him to get his point across over a shorter runtime. I Am Cuba, on the other hand, lingers much more on the beauty of the natural landscape, drawing out certain shots. The camera is purposefully slanted at times, to produce poignant portraits of characters in the film. There’s something to be said about excess, especially in the context of political memory.
What do we need? Directions for combat or sentimentality? Co-opted battle tactics, or luscious, desensitized memory? There is a moment in I Am Cuba where three weary soldiers answer the demand “Where is Fidel [Castro]?” by saying, “I am Fidel.” No matter how vulnerable the movie makes them out to be, figures in I Am Cuba are just as heady and defiant as those in The Battle of Algiers.
It is pointless to immortalize revolutionary figures, just as it is pointless to immortalize movies or movie directors. It is possible to be galvanized by virtue of being transported into a different time-space, the one which these movies were designed for, the time-space in which these movies have a direct effect on us.
Skylar Xu is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Seeing Double runs alternate Thursdays..