Movies about the making of other movies are generally of interest to cinema buffs only except when the epic that's being talked about is an artifact of a collapsed social system. Then everybody wants to feed at the trough of curiosity. Such is the lot of I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth, which retells the checkered history of Soy Cuba, the infamous Cuban-Soviet co-production that started out as a love letter to the Cuban Revolution but ended up a Dear Juan letter to communism.
Shown briefly in Cuba and Russia in the 1960s and then shelved for decades, Soy Cuba (literally, I Am Cuba) will always be a controversial work, applying gorgeous cinematography to a pro-Castroite story line that's questionable on a number of levels. Rediscovered in the 1990s, the movie played here during the 1998 Central Florida Film and Video Festival, where the right-wing Cuban-Americans in the audience practically took tar and feathers to special guest Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the film's co-writer. The latter didn't help matters much, his enduring arrogance allowing only that well-meaning naiveté had got him suckered into preaching the glories of a now-discredited regime.
Likewise, the fascinating documentary The Siberian Mammoth largely treats Soy Cuba as an oddity of filmcraft, not an ideological calamity. Veterans of the shoot reveal that Soy Cuba was assembled over a punishing 14 months, with an indigenous crew following the orders of Russian master artists who barely understood their adopted environment. Technical personnel were plucked from behind the camera to fill vacant acting roles. A crucial musical sequence was lip-synched in reverse (composers penning a tune from scratch to match lip movements that were already on the screen). And all the while, director Mikhail Kalotozov and his countrymen allowed themselves to be seduced by the alien "eroticism" of the island.
What resulted was a technically marvelous, fatally grandiose quartet of intertwined stories that condemned Batista's decadence and championed "the people's" rise to power. The participants interviewed remember the dismay they felt when they saw the details of their native culture fatally misinterpreted on the screen. Length of the movie's Cuban theatrical run: one week. The historical portrait is comprehensive, unique and sometimes even thrilling.
It says something, though, that the most affecting passages in The Siberian Mammoth are ones lifted straight from Soy Cuba particularly the miraculous tracking shots that swoop over a pool balcony and parade down a busy street from a vantage point that's stories high. Transcending political discourse and even rational thought, such sequences show that a heart-stopping image really is worth a thousand words. That's what makes them so dangerous.