Monday, December 9, 2013

From the Archives: A Philosophical Look at I AM CUBA.

Russia, 1964

I am Cuba is a Russian propaganda film about the revolt against the leader Fulgencio Batista while incorporating some aspects of Fidel Castro’s rise to power. It also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time.  The film is separated into four vignettes that follow different characters from different sections of society. There is the prostitute, the farmer, the student, and the father turned revolutionary. The film shows how peasants suffer and how they rise up against the bourgeoisie, high-class powers in control. When looking at this film from a philosophical point of view it is important not to look at everything literally. This film covers topics like social political philosophy, value theory and ethics through stories that feel very real. I am Cuba is, truly, a masterpiece of cinematography and also says something about philosophical ideas as well.

As a film, I am Cuba is incredibly beautiful. The filmmakers used many techniques which were revolutionary at the time, such as a camera lens that doesn't show water drops and long tracking shots down the side of buildings. These techniques act as accessories to the story rather than overpowering it which can often be the case with such dynamic images.

In terms of technique this film is way ahead of its time the framing, mise-en-scene and the quality of the film stock make the entire film feel like one continuous photograph. During key moments in the story, the film utilizes black and white infrared film, which gives the green landscape a noticeably soft glow unmatched by any film I have ever seen.

One important thing I have taken away from applying philosophical ideas to this film, is that, philosophy is all around if one takes the time to look for it. This film has a very powerful message about society and about the overall human condition. This film shows that all people, all over the world, want the same things. They want the right and ability to work a decent job, they want to have control over their own lives and not feel oppressed by the government. The value theory applies to almost every aspect of this film.

There is one particular scene that I believe, perfectly illustrates this idea. During the film, the student, Enrique is sent on a mission to kill the chief of police. The officer is a part of the Batista’s government, which Enrique and his friends are fighting against. They see the officer as responsible for the death of many other friends and revolutionaries. However, when the time comes, Enrique is unable to take the shot because the man is with his children. I think this says something important about value theory. Why is Enrique unable to kill this evil man when his children are around him? I think it is because, either consciously or unconsciously, people see children as innocent bystanders and Enrique, like most people, does not want to be the person who makes children suffer. So, this evil man is allowed to live on because of the way people value the innocence of children. In the end the Chief kills Enrique without ever knowing that Enrique spared his life for the sake of his children.

I am Cuba is a film about governmental revolution so social and political philosophical ideas are easily applied. But, this film was made in 1964 and the story takes places a few years before Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries over-throw the Batista regime. We can see through history how the Castro regime became, in many ways, just as bad as Batista’s in the view of the United States. Yet, in this film, Fidel Castro is the hero who has come to save the peasants, prostitutes and the disenfranchised. Even as an individual who has witnessed some of Cuba's struggles, I still feel triumphant at the end of this film because Fidel and the revolutionaries continue on their mission with passion and the belief that what they are doing is right.

Revolution is basically what political philosophy is all about. Political philosophy asks, what do we have government? Why do we have laws and how do we categorize and value those laws? Who gets to make the laws? This film shows what it is like when people start asking these questions of their own government. A question I find more interesting is why do governments so often become corrupt and put aside the needs of their people? What is it about power that blinds even those with the best intentions? 

What I like about this film is that it does not view the prostitute, the farmer or the peasants as lowly people. Instead it shows how tyranny and greed can destroy a large portion of society and force individuals to assume a life they never wanted. For Maria, or Betty, the prostitute who never smiles, her job is the only way she is able to survive. When we first see her, she wears a crucifix and a white scarf over her head. She is dressed very modestly and is very shy and reserved. Yet later, we see her other life in the bars of Havana where she dances and wears revealing clothing. Maria is quite young and in love with a boy that works as a fruit vendor on the streets. He wants to marry her, but she is too ashamed of what she does for a living that she doesn’t even allow him to kiss her. I think this brings up and interesting point about morals and values. Betty is very pious and moral, yet she is forced to set that part of herself aside. She is an example of how people often have to set aside what is right in order to survive.

Maria is also a great example how people question their identity. She speaks very little throughout the film and does not speak English, so all of her emotions are played out through gesture and facial expression. She does not give up her feelings willingly, but from my perspective, she questions who she is the entire time and wrestles with her faith and what she is forced to do. But, who is she? Is she the prostitute or the young, pious woman? The audience is able to understand the complexity of Maria’s situation, and we witness her struggle with an unanswerable question.

This film leaves a lot up to interpretation. There is very little dialogue, but an abundance of camera movement and music. In order to understand the philosophical questions, one must be willing to actively participate in the story. The narrator, throughout the entire film, speaks to the audience and asks them to look and pay attention because there are many subtle nuances in this film that are easily missed. 

The greatest strength of this film is the fact that is  about the people and the human condition. At no point does the film glorify the rich and at no point does it vilify the poor. This shows that an individuals philosophy can change depending on where they are on the socio-economic scale. These filmmakers passed judgment that the poor are ethical because they do what they need to do, they work hard and they don’t complain. Yet the rich are unethical because they are insensitive to the plight of those in poverty, they have no respect for property or ownership and they do not feel guilty when killing those who threaten the status quo.

This is what makes this film controversial. When I am Cuba was released in 1964, it was not well received. Many thought that it showed a stereotype of Cubans, and the lives of the ordinary people. Despite the controversy this film did not get wide spread distribution because it was produced by a communist film studio, it is likely that very few lower income people in Cuba would have seen or heard of this film.  However, in recent years, people have begun to discuss this film through an academic lens, especially the way in which American characters portrayed and how they were perceived in mid 60's Cuba. (How American.)

When I listen to the American characters speak, it makes me cringe because they refer to everything as their property including people. It is surprising to think that in 1964, no one challenged the portrayal of Americans in a film that would have been considered highly political. I have done a lot of reading on this film and I have never once seen or heard anything to suggest that Americans were unhappy with the way they, and upper class individuals in general, were portrayed.

I am Cuba is a difficult film to look at philosophically because it wasn't necessarily designed to take on such lofty topics. While it does bring up some interesting ideas about society, government, individual freedom, and ethics, on the surface, it was not necessarily created to provoke those kinds of thoughts. The film was created to show the weak rising up against the strong and why revolution is important. Yet, philosophical ideas are prevalent throughout the film, which I would have never thought to look for. Philosophy doesn’t always have to be complicated, I am Cuba shows how philosophy can play a role in in the most unexpected place.

I think there is a lot more to be said about this film and I intend to discuss the film on a more aesthetic level soon! Have you seen Soy Cuba? What did you think? Do you think there are philosophical ideas that I didn't touch on? Comment Below!

A++ : One of the greatest films ever made. See it now.  

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