More than a making-of docu, “I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth” focuses on a delirious time during the Cold War when Russian director Mikhail Kalatosov (“The Cranes Are Flying”) and crew shot an epic celebration of Castro’s revolution. The result, “I Am Cuba,” the first Russian-Cuban co-production, disappointed audiences in both countries. Pic’s rediscovery in the capitalist U.S., and its reappraisal as a masterpiece of visual pyrotechnics, gives Brazilian documaker Vicente Ferraz’s tale an upbeat final twist — after some mid-film doldrums. Apart from brisk TV sales, docu could enlighten auds in a double bill with the recently restored Kalatosov film.
For the record, although Ferraz strongly implies that “I Am Cuba,” shot in 1963, reemerged from the Soviet freezer due to the efforts of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who endorsed Milestone’s 1993 DVD release of the film, credit for rediscovering the film belongs to Tom Luddy, who spirited an unsubtitled print out of Moscow’s Goskino and showed it at Telluride in 1992. The Telluride screening and a subsequent one by Peter Scarlet at the San Francisco film fest, both received standing ovations.
After the festival showings, Milestone bought the film from the Russians, who had forgotten Cuba’s ICAIC owned all North American rights — a dispute the co-producers eventually settled.
Filmed in Cuba, “Siberian Mammoth” saves the pic’s revival as the final plum at the end of an exhaustive and sometimes overly detailed reconstruction of how “I Am Cuba” was made. Interviewing every aging dolly grip, sound recordist and production secretary was probably not necessary amid the wealth of material available, including plentiful excerpts from the original film.
Knockout opening sequence of a student’s funeral on a crowded street illustrates Kalatosov’s breathtakingly intricate long takes. Film’s most famous tracking shot, aimed at showing the decadence of pre-Castro capitalism, snakes through a hotel to end on a rooftop swimming pool and dives underwater with a bevy of bikini-clad girls. Amusingly, Ferraz reports that this sequence’s popularity with Russian viewers is one reason the authorities so quickly withdrew the film from release.
Another fascinating thread is the political background of the time including the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the subsequent naval blockade in October 1962. This heightened Cold War tension brought sympathizing filmmakers Cesare Zavattini, Joris Ivens and French New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda down to Cuba. Docu ably captures the atmosphere of excitement behind the script by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Enrique Pinedo Barnet, and the visuals by d.p. Sergei Urusevsky and camera operator Sasha Calzetti.
After the adventurous 14-month shoot, the audiences’ negative reaction came as quite a cold shower. Cubans in particular thought pic’s stylized images, huge crowd scenes and acrobatic long takes failed to reflect Cuban reality, and took to calling the film “I Am Not Cuba.” They preferred Brazil’s Cinema Novo and home-grown product like “Lucia” and “Memories of Underdevelopment,” judged closer to the Cuban temperament.
For Ferraz, even “I Am Cuba’s” reevaluation and the influence of its bold visuals on contemporary directors and cinematographers hold a sad irony. Calling “I Am Cuba” a fossil unearthed by film archaeologists, he mourns its missed chance to affect the politics of its time.