Why the Soviet propaganda film ‘I am Cuba’ was buried for decades

In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union attempted to create a propaganda film extolling the virtues of Cuba’s socialist revolution. It failed at that task and was consequently hidden because the film was too accurate about the reality of Cuba.

Giancarlo Sopo explains in his review of the film via Letterboxd:

I Am Cuba (1964)

It’s easy to see why Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) is revered as a masterpiece for its groundbreaking cinematography and also why the Soviet and Cuban governments buried it for decades. As visual poetry, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky’s work remains impressive even 60 years after its release. A fun thought experiment that Martin Scorsese poses in the special features of the Criterion Collection’s release is to imagine how different cinema might have looked in the ensuing years had the film not been sidelined by Moscow and Havana.

As the cultural ministries of both countries suspected at the time, the highly stylized film is largely ineffective as the propaganda both governments commissioned on behalf of the Cuban revolution because it undermines much of the Castro regime’s raison d’être. While Soviet propaganda films like Battleship Potemkin depicted men eating maggot-infested meat, I Am Cuba features the poorest campesinos, the very people for whom the revolution was purportedly fought, enjoying plates full of viandas with more than enough to share with los alzados of the 26th of July Movement.

This wasn’t a failure of the filmmakers; it was reality. Cuba’s poverty was hardly unique, often overstated, and certainly not the primary catalyst for the revolution. As Miguel Ángel Quevedo, the editor of Bohemia, akin to pre-revolution Cuba’s equivalent of The New Yorker, acknowledged in his 1969 suicide note, Fidel Castro’s march down the mountains of Oriente to El Malecón was paved by the fiction, lies, and exaggerations of publications like his. That is why the film’s most convincing and honest rationale for deposing Fulgencio Batista’s government is that he was an authoritarian thug. This was well-known to Cubans of the late 1950s, which is largely why his regime ultimately collapsed—only to then be replaced by another brutal dictatorship.

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