In 1964, the propaganda film 'I Am Cuba' was released simultaneously in Cuba and Russia. Dismissed after a one-week run, the film was then unearthed decades later and presented to the world on behalf of filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, earning the film much critical praise. 'I Am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth' takes a retrospective look at the lengthy journey from the film being an initial letdown to an eventual landmark of Cuban cinema.The original film was a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban filmmakers, as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying) was fascinated with the ongoing revolution in Cuba and the response to American aggression. His intent was to make an epic visual poem that would depict the social struggles via four different narrative threads, and a shoot that should have lasted no more than twelve weeks ended up taking two years, with the majority of the cast consisting of untrained crew members. When the film was completed, the response to its release was one of disappointment, particularly from its participants, who were expecting a much more compelling work that demonstrated the Cuban spirit as opposed to the aimless result on the screen.
Mammoth benefits greatly from the wealth of information provided by archives, as well as the remaining cast and crew of the film, whose interviews allow for a intriguing degree of illumination when the film they had so disregarded is eventually embraced by the world. However, the most compelling moments tend to be clips from Cuba itself, the outstanding cinematography and poetic sensibility of which speak louder than the interview footage can. The passion of the project is so evident through the footage, it’s nearly enough to consider some of the interview sequences as slightly redundant, even with a ninety-minute running time. Director Vicente Ferraz keeps the proceedings relatively simple, maintaining a fair balance of footage and interviews without doing anything above and beyond to keep the audience’s attention.This film compares the rediscovery of 'I Am Cuba' as the equivalent of finding a perfectly preserved Siberian mammoth, and while the cultural significance is apparent, the somewhat dry presentation of the historical context fails to engage beyond the average niche documentary. Perhaps if the original film was paired with 'The Siberian Mammoth' upon its DVD release (I’m looking at you, Criterion), viewers may then get a better grasp on the big picture behind a big picture.