When Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 I Am Cuba was rediscovered and re-released by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in 1995, it was an event for Western cinephiles, a fevered piece of Communist propaganda shot through by some of the most technically astonishing camerawork in history. Its impact on young American filmmakers was immediate: For his 1997 breakthrough Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson lifted an amazing long take in which the camera dives into a swimming pool teeming with beautiful women. That this landmark Cuban-Soviet co-production finally found an appreciative reception remains deeply ironic, because it was only embraced after its naïve revolutionary notions had safely gone to seed. As poetry, it's ravishing; as politics, it's bunk.
Vicente Ferraz's competent documentary I Am Cuba: The Siberian Mammoth looks back at the project's fascinating history, which came about at a time when the newly simpatico Cuba and the Soviet Union were steeling themselves against U.S. pressure. Under the aegis of the Cuban Institute For Art and the Cinema Industry, a team of Soviet filmmakers—principally, Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, and Urusevsky's wife Bela Fridman, who oversaw the casting—I Am Cuba was the first filmic collaboration between the two countries. Working with a Cuban cast and crew—several of whom Ferraz has rounded up for interviews—Kalatozov and his team tried to capture the island's robust revolutionary spirit, but they wound up with wildly sensual Communist kitsch. After an arduous 14-month shoot, the result pleased nobody: The Cubans thought the camera pyrotechnics overwhelmed and distorted the realities of their recent uprising; the Soviets were put off by the inadvertently seductive portrait of Western excess in the film's early sections. Shortly after its première, the film was quietly buried.
Though it doesn't rise above the cut-and-paste aesthetic of other making-of documentaries, The Siberian Mammoth assembles many members of the disparate Cuban cast and crew, and unearths some rare production photos and footage. Perhaps the best moment comes when Ferraz shows his interview subjects a copy of the U.S. video cover, which is emblazoned with rapturous quotes from many of America's premier publications. Their reactions are somewhere between bemusement and gratification, pleased that the film had found some admirers but also surprised that a production this badly muffed could ever be appreciated. Ferraz's documentary still seems a bit obscure for a theatrical run, but it helps to have some context for such a strange accident of history. Best to wait for its inclusion on the inevitable special-edition DVD.