The Commemorative Vision in I am Cuba

Funeral Scene, I am Cuba (Soy Cuba), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964

This is a monumental scene from the Russian-Cuban film I am Cuba, or Soy Cuba, telling the tale of four ordinary Cubans caught up in the economic, ideological and political struggle of their country previous to the 1959 revolution. Although the film was released in 1964, shooting began as early as 1962, thus barely two years after the revolution and the emergence of Fidel Castro, but also, during a time of mounting tension between the US following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October that year. The film itself was thus made during a time when Cuba was in a rapid state of transformation.

I am Cuba is widely praised for being one of the most innovatively shot movies of global cinema. The Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergei Urusevsky appear to use every trick of cinematography and mise-en-scène. This innovative approach is particularly apparent in a scene in which the body of a student protester, shot dead by the police moments earlier, is carried through the streets of Havana. The scene begins at the bottom of the stairs leading to Havana University – a symbolically relevant location since this was also a central axis point in the revolution. In commomeroration of the dead, there is absolute silence when the body is covered with the Cuban flag. As a group of fellow students carry the body away from the University Square, the camera rises above them. In the background there are cars burning, the university can be seen on the top of the hill, the water on the ground signifies the sacrificial blood of the revolution.

The next shot is taken from the top of a nearby church, the bells are ringing and Sergei Urusevsky’s camera makes four quick movements, to depict four bells ringing on four sides of the church tower. The emphasis on the number four mirrors the very format of the movie, telling four seperate, but interrelated, stories. The camera pans down, and what was at first only a handful of students, turned into a growing crowd. People throw flowers from the buildings nearby, as the procession of mourners navigates the narrow streets.

Then the magic begins. The camera is back on ground level as it focuses on Gloria and Enrique who the viewer has encountered in the first part of the movie. Enrique starts carrying the body of he dead student as the camera is moving upwards, to the top of a nearby building. As the camera is moving up, the volume of the music rises. The crowd meanwhile has turned into a mass of people. At this stage, the camera appears to defy gravity, as it hovers over the street into a cigar shop. The symbolism here is also important: the cigar being a locally produced Cuban product, not yet overtaken by the might of American cultural and economic imperialism. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara themselves famously made use of the cigar as a (phallic) signifier for national pride and independence.

Che Guevara with Cigar.

In a carefully choreographed mise-en-scène, the camera then follows the workers in the cigar manufactory, as they hold the Cuban flag out of the window. As the music soars to a crescendo, the camera flys above the crowds in an awe-inspiring climax of cinematographic ingenuity. Only then, does the cameraman Sergei Urusevsky reveal the tricks of his cinematography: there are four wires hanging above the window that lead across to another building. It is to these wires that the camera gets attached and then pulled with. The use of an extreme wide angle lens helps to reduce the shaking and smoothens out any movements.

Mural depicting the ensuing execution of Eight Medical Students in 1871, Havana.

Here too, as the funeral procession walks down the narrow street, the scene is greatly symbolical of Cuban visual culture and politics. Every year, Cubans commemorate the 27th of November, mourning the lives of eight medical students who were wrongly sentenced to death and executed by Spanish colonizers in 1871. After the revolution in 1959, the 27th of November had a regained symbolical relevance: while it originally recognized the brutality of Spanish colonial rule, the 27th of November became a metaphor for the struggle for equality of Cubans under an American hegemony. The photograph below shows, in comparison with the famous funeral scene in I am Cuba, an uncanny similarity with how the 27th of November was commemorated in 1960. The sign on the top left reading ‘Miami Car Parts’ remains as an almost comical symbol for Anglo-Saxon style capitalism.

Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 1960.

Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 2009.

Another important aspect in the 27th of November processions is that like, like in the film I am Cuba, it begins at Havana University where the eight executed students used to study medicine. While the actual location for the film might be elsewhere, the procession, as it is still acted out today, then continues along Calle San Lazaro down to the shores of Havana. Lazarus of Bethany, as it says in the New Testament, is the subject of a miracle in which Jesus restores Lazarus to life after four days dead. The procession along Calle San Lazaro on the 27th of November therefore becomes the allegorical restoration of life and memory in light of suffering under colonial rule. I am Cuba masterfully borrows these signifiers of national pride and mourning: from the university to Havana’s narrow streets, from the omnipresent Cuban flag to the masses of people, from the fallen protester to the rise of the revolution, the funeral scene signifies that revolutions come at a human cost, and the only way to recover the dead is by remembering them.

I Am Cuba is available as DVD. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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