I Am Cuba is rightly celebrated for it's incredible camerawork, and sometimes for its effectiveness as agitprop, but one thing that's not frequently talked about is the structure of Kalatozov's cinematic argument. What's most impressive about I Am Cuba is how effectively dialectical the film is.
Helicopter flyover shots of Cuba's forests are accompanied by pastoral music and a voiceover description of her betrayal and rape for her sugar.
That shot, the energetic travel through the high life of Cuba on display for foreign money (including the implied prostitution/exploitation of her natural resources as leering men surround woman in bikinis who are literally on display). Next we go inside, exploring the prostitution thesis literally, as American tourists select Cuban women from a selection (the seedier, more complete version of the modeling that takes place in the light of day). American money = tourist mercantilism: "In Cuba, anything goes if you've got enough dough." The women are merchandise, subject even to the drawing of straws for possession thereof. The lone resistant tourist also falls prey to his ability to purchase a Cuban for the night. He's a sort of vision of capitalist liberalism: interested in a black Cuban woman, he wants to see where she lives before going to bed with her. He purchases an exotic experience, a faux-connection with those he exploits when playing within the rules of no-rules capitalist freedom. Everything is for sale in Cuba, even the illusion of 'authenticity' in a sexual encounter.
The heroism of field work is contrasted by the rights of landowners - with guns at their side - to keep workers off the land. Labor power is equated with value here: the kinetic energy of chopping sugar cane is shown from the outside and then - with the camera as the machete itself - from inside the physical motions of the process. The camera becomes the workers' tool, the object of force wielded to change the landscape, the blade that cuts what must be cut. This instrumental subjectivity seems like a manifesto for Kalatozov, and calls to mind Eisenstein: "I don't believe in kino-eye, I believe in kino-fist."
The farmer burns the sugarcane field in an attempt at revenge, and smoke blocks the sky. Then - an edit. Batista propaganda turns out to be a movie screening; a molotov cocktail is thrown and burns the screen (fire, then, is a tool of reclamation for the oppressed and the revolutionaries). The student revolutionaries have ideological debates about action and support of Fidel, but they are secondary to the actions themselves, which consist of resisting colonial oppression (American sailors chasing after a young woman) or institutional repression (police violence against a peaceful demonstration). As protestors march against the water cannons, the camera itself takes a point of view, aligning itself with the protestors as a sympathetic character. Again, the camera is tool of the revolution, but this time the weapon is solidarity. The final shot of this section is of the body of this section's main character, a now-murdered student radical.
The cut from this body bridges a transition to rebel fighters, trudging through a swamp in water up to their waists. When confronted by government troops, the troops threaten teh guerrillas with guns and ask where Fidel Castro is hiding. In a great Spanish-language double entendre, each answers with "Yo Soy Fidel" - which means "I am Fidel" - or "I have faith."
The next scene is of a haggard rebel finding refuge in a humble country home, but the rebel's support of violence as a necessary means leads the farmer to send him away. A violence done to the farmer's family by warplanes leads him to the rebel encampment, where he himself takes up arms - though he's told that each man earns his rifle by stealing it from a government soldier. And then we watch him fight...
Kalatazov's structure mirrors the Marxist dialectical approach to history. Each section transitions to another that more fully realizes the problems and possibilities brought out by the last. Look again at the trajectory of the narrative: the ideal state contrasted with it's corruption; colonial oppression; landowner oppression and peasant rebellion; student rebellion and sacrifice; guerrilla sacrifice and faith; farmer hesitation towards violence; farmer victimization; farmer joining the struggle. This series of concrete historical situations flows one to another. The oppositions are more than just battling historical forces, they are forces that create the next step in the progression to revolutionary victory. Each section is a personal narrative, but the film places them in a social context by establishing the historical conditions present in these personal narrative and then linking them together. It's every bit as sublime a narrative build as When A Woman Ascends the Stairs or even Flower of the Last Chrysanthemums, films where individual cuts have incredible narrative power (especially the final cut in Flower of the Last Chrysanthemums) and powerful images present an analysis of social relations (the final image of When A Woman Ascends the Stairs). But in I Am Cuba, what's being examined is the historical necessity of revolution. The film's final shot is the perfect culmination of what's preceeded it, the presentation of our present stage of history and the necessity for radical action. It's a dramatic call to arms that creates in the viewer nothing so much as the overwhelming desire to pick up a rifle.