III Participation practices and the ‘political’ turn

6 Dialogues between culture and politics

Dialogues between culture and politics: a case study of Cuban revolutionary films


Revolutionary films are often said to be propaganda, and ‘propaganda’ understood as mere rhetoric to convey a certain idea from a position of authoritarian governance. Essential to this presupposition is the relationship of liberal democracy and socialist democracy as two knowledge systems that tend or seek to promote a favourable attitude and understanding of one and denigrate the other. Irrespective of which system one leans towards, if these films are seen as propaganda, it is important to understand the workings of propaganda and then effects on the political experiences of many people who live under that kind of system. These films could be more than propaganda if they constitute a certain kind of intervention that move people towards actions for political and social change. It would be even more important to appreciate and seek to understand the ways in which these films could do that at moments of their intervention and for longer-term impact. According to Johnson (2017), the motion picture is perhaps the most important 20th-century communication medium for researchers seeking to understand how political power is exercised through culture in socialist states.

Cinema is a valuable instrument for shaping Cuban political discourse (Balaisis 2010). Watching films has been a way for Cubans to engage with present concerns facing the country Cuban revolutionary films, particularly those that were made in the post-revolution period, have a significant role in the political, social, and cultural transformation of Cuba (Chanan 2004). The contents of these films reflect the influence of the Cuban Revolution’s cultural policies on Cuban documentaries in the 1960s (ya Salaam 1980). At the same time, these cinematic texts provide a forum for filmmakers and the audience to make public expressions (Balaisis 2010).

Guided by the three-domain political participation framework developed in Chapter 2, this chapter examines the effects of Cuban revolutionary films in formulating a system of knowledge about political participation during a key moment of Cuba’s social revolution and emergence of politics in the post-revolutionary period. Although many institutional changes have occurred in Cuba in terms of restructuring political and economic systems since 1960s, the present government of Cuba is the outcome of the social revolution (Perez-Stable 1992). Cuba’s contemporary political space is still laden with revolutionary' characteristics featured in these films: ideologies, charismatic leadership, mass mobilisation, nationhood, and transformative social change (Perez-Stable 1992). Thus, examining these films could illustrate the public sphere (Habermas 1991) occupied by cinema within Cuba’s distinct national context, and unveil the perceptions of socialism and commitment to the value of national unity and human will as a social revolution during the post-revolutionary years, and for politics in Cuba today. The ami is to understand the extent to which these revolutionary films constitute authentic political expressions by filmmakers for their audience in the context of postrevolutionary Cuba and what it means for contemporary political participation.

The films analysed are selected from the archive of the British Film Institute called ‘Socialism on Films: The Cold War and International Propaganda' (Socialism on Films 2018), sub-collection ‘Revolution in Cuba & Latin America’.1 In domain 1 analysis, the chapter investigates how these films are mechanisms of producing and mobilising the regime of truth about the Cuban Revolution, the Americas, Cuban society, and the chief of the Revolution, Fidel Castro. The analysis focuses on reciprocal relations between filmmakers, the Revolution, and the audience within contexts of these films' production. In domain 2, the chapter discusses the effectiveness of these films as the apparatus wielded by the Revolution and filmmakers to raise the Cuban public’s consciousness about the Revolution and social change that the Revolution brought about. The analysis focuses on how truth-mobilising mechanisms identified in domain 1 move both the filmmakers and the audience towards critical thoughts about Cuba’s social and political environment, and from that ‘critique’, what they should and could do to partake in the Revolution. In domain 3, the analysis aims to understand these films as communicative action (Habermas 1984) that demonstrates democratic capability of filmmakers. In this regard, the filmmakers’ values, goals, and responsibility to the Revolution will be discussed in light of the influences of the Revolution upon filmmakers’ aesthetical innovation and vice versa. In the final section of the chapter, some implications are offered in relation to studying the connections between cinema and politics in Cuba, and broadly along the three domains of the political participation framework offered in this book.

Data sources

The documentaries analysed in this chapter are sourced from the British Film Institute (BFI), Socialism on Film. This unique collection of documentary films, features, and newsreels reveals aspects of life about the communist world, as seen by filmmakers from the USSR, Vietnam, Cuba, China, and Eastern Europe communist bloc in the period from the Russian Revolution to the end of the Cold War (Socialism on Film Archive, SFA). The footage was originally sourced from com-nmnist states and then versioned into English language for private distribution in Britain and the West (SFA). Table 6.1 lists the films analysed in this chapter. Only dociunentaries and those with English transcripts were selected because of their similarity in genre and text transcripts. The selected films were produced between 1960 and 1963, except for To Die for One’s Country Is to Live Forever, which

Table 61 Selected Films


Production Date

Country of Production

Island Ablaze

c. 1960s


Invasion of Cuba



Long Live Cuba!



To Die for One’s Country Is to Live Forever



The Path of the Revolution


Czechoslovakia: Cuba

Source: Author (based on Socialist on Film Archive)

Table 6.2 Key events in Cuba from 1959 to 1962



8 January 1959

The Cuban Revolution: President Batista resigns and flees the country Fidel Castro and the revolutionary forces - led by Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara - enter the capital Santiago de Cuba. Castro becomes the prime minister of Cuba.

19 October 1960

The United States breaks off diplomatic relations with Havana and imposes a trade embargo in response to Castro’s reforms. US businesses in Cuba nationalised.

19 December 1960

Cuba claims solidarity with the Sino-Soviet bloc, issuing a joint communiqué with the USSR.

1 January-22

December 1961

17 April 1961

Cuba begins the Literacy Campaign to improve literacy, forming part of the government’s ‘Year of Education" campaign.

The US CIA backs an invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt of regime change in Cuba. The invasion force is defeated within three days by the Cuban army.

2 December 1961

Castro declares Cuba a communist state, himself to be ‘Marxist-Leninist’ and will remain so until the end of Iris life.


November 1962

Cuban Missile Crisis: the transfer of Russian nuclear missiles to Cuba initiates a 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. After a series of tense negotiations, it is agreed that Russian missiles will be removed from Cuba in exchange for the dismantling of American weapons in Turkey and southern Italy.

Source: Author, adapted from Socialist on Film Archive

was produced in 1971. The first author downloaded the English transcripts from the archive and analysed the texts in conjunction with the footages of the films.

Table 6.2 summarises the key events during this period to provide the contexts in which these films were made. References to these events are made throughout these films, and thus the events are important as contexts and content that create the discursive system of knowledge about political participation during that time. Following the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, Cuba experienced radical social change and politics especially in the early 1960s. The dominant class lost its power along with the United States’ loss of presence in Cuba. The Rebel Army of the Revolution backed the programme of the new government with the support of the popular classes, constructing an anti-imperialist mood (Chanan 2004).

Domain 1: power relations

Cinematic content and knowledge of the Revolution

The contents of these films present specific ideas about the Revolution. First, the Revolution is represented as the Cuban people’s straggle against imperialism. Second, the Revolution brought about transformative social change from a life in domination to a life of freedom. These ideas are conveyed as a knowledge con-naissance (Foucault 1994a); at the same time, they engage the audience in knowing (savoir) about the Revolution.

To Die for One's Country’ Is to Live Forever is a film about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) terrorist activities on Cubana airlines, including the in-flight bombing of a jet which killed 57 Cubans. The film mounts a series of Castro’s speeches condemning the activities of the CIA intersected with newsreel footages of the Cubans’ reactions to the air crash. These montages of destraction and life images are narrated with Castro’s speeches to convey the Revolution as an ideological cause. Parallel images of the passengers killed and the Cuban people marching and listening to Castro’s speeches present the Revolution within Fidel Castto’s charismatic rhetoric. Both visual and imagery contents represent those who died as the heroes of Cuba, which position the Revolution as the ideological straggle against the US atrocities on Cuban people.

While Castro’s long speeches convey the knowledge that ‘to die for Cuba, they live on for Cuba’, they are also Castro’s call for the people to ‘die and live for Cuba’. In that sense, the film persuades the people to the revolutionary cause by locating them within Cuba, the nation and beyond its borders. Images of the Cuban people clapping for Castro highlight their support for the leader in an ideologically charged mood. The film's juxtapositions of life and death construct ideological contrasts between Cuba and the United States. Its representation of support for Castro and collective mourning and celebrating those that died suggest a national unity that accords with Castro’s speech. There is a sense of morality that the film imposes on the audience through the events already known to them. The call to the Revolution is a call for justice, which the Cuban people must take on to defend Cuba.

In addition to the idea of the Revolution as a cause and its moral justification, these films present the transformative social change that the Revolution achieved. For example, Island Ablaze framed the story of the Revolution around new-found education opportunities for the country boy named Buenaventma. These opportunities are presented as open to him by the Revolution and closed to him by the previous regime. The film begins with defirring the name of its main character Buenaventura to tell the audience about the boy’s fate but also the Revolution as a destination:

Our story begins with Buenaventma. That's a name, Buenaventma. Translated, it means kind fate.

Montage editing technique, which was common among Cuban revolutionary documentalists, is used to juxtapose and superimpose many images in a single pictorial composition to convey narratives of a long period of time into a fast-paced story line (Fox 2018). This technique allows the narrator to weave images in order to tell the Revolution’s story of opportunities:

Buenaventura doesn’t yet know how many people gave their lives so that he could descend to the valley. Buenaventura will be the fust of all generations of his forebearers who is able to write his name. Here’s your school. Look at it, Buenaventura. It was built for you by the Revolution.

The narrative of a good life brought by the Revolution is similarly told in Long Live Cuba! This film emphasises the Revolution as a miracle that the people make for themselves though self-determination. In this film, juxtapositions of images are accompanied with contrasting words sttch as ‘blood’ and ‘new sun’, or metaphors of ‘new day' and ‘freedom’ to contrast the Cuban revolutionaries and the United States’ counter-revolutionaries. As this quoted text suggests, the language of “invaders” or “enemy” alongside “our country” convey the boundaries between those that are ‘with’ the Revolution and those that are ‘outside’ the revolution (Balaisis 2010):

On April 17, mercenary gangs supported by the United States began an armed attack on our country. We replied with mobilisation of the entire people, and we went to meet the invaders. The enemy was confused. He had thought that our defence would crumble under the very first attack. He did not expect all the Cuban people to rise against him.

This kind of rhetoric about the armed forces is used throughout the film to cultivate the idea of the Revolution as warfare that was fought and won: a sacrifice and struggle by the revolutionaries and people that are with the Revolution. Illuminations to the war are placed next to ‘freedom’ and ‘native land’ to emphasise the idea that the Revolution process brings about opportunities for Cttban people.

The Path of the Revolution is about life after the Revolution. It illuminates the Revolution process as an ideology in action. For example, the audience is taken on journeys of educated 14-year-old teenagers out of the cities to teach older and illiterate people in the mountains. The main character is Laura, a 14 years old girl who begins her journey into the mountain to become a teacher. The news reels follow Laura from the city to the mountain accompanied by the narration below:

The teacher Laura carries the message of written speech though the Siena Maestra mountains, but Laura is not 14 years old. No, Laura is 1,000 years old. The thousand years of her Indian, Spanish, and African ancestors. A thousand year-old woman. A thousand year-old mother. A thousand year-old longing for recognition.

Teaching is portrayed as a participation in the Revolution, transforming the Revolution to everyday activism for the mass, not actions of the political class or the elite. In the same text, teaching, as a Revolution activity, transcends age and class. It is a call on the audience to join the Revolution. These revolutionary actions, depicted as ordinary activities performed by ordinary people, are juxtaposed with scenes of the United States bombing a civilian airport and the continued military presence at Guantanamo Bay. These aesthetic effects of montages engage the audience in an act of knowing (savoir) (Foucault 1994a) about then-participation in the ideological cause. The audience is simultaneously told what the Revolution is and asked to consider what participation in the Revolution looks like in their everyday sense.

The education theme in this film, which also runs thematically through other-films, is attributable to the 1961 ‘Year of Education' campaign, which was a testing ground for many ideas that were later incorporated into the revolutionary style of governance through mass participation (Lent 1988). Providing literacy for the masses was an essential step in a process of civic education that brought about not only literacy but political education to produce a knowledge connaisance (Foucault 1994a) about national problems, citizenship, and its rights and responsibilities. The film follows the campaign by centring education and its transformative impacts and asks people to become part of the social revolution:

We leant to figlit, and we leant also to change our guns for skills and crafts. Fidel Castro said that by the end of the year, there must not be a single person in the land who cannot read and write. To defend our country' and to raise out-people, that is our purpose, that we will all learn to love the revolution and to defend it too.

Stories of the Revolution’s achievement and social progress for people from all parts of society are plentiful in these films. In Invasion of Cuba, achievement is portrayed through contrasting images of a shanty town with open sewers and construction of a school. The transition of stills from ‘bad' to ‘good’ life alludes the audience to the choice and opportunities that the Revolution brings. Moreover, it is a campaign to consolidate the base of rural audience to the new revolutionary' government (Balaisis 2010). Representation of the rural society is projected through narratives of change:

The fishermen have obtamed new dwellings. They are standardised, little houses and yet each is different. Gay and colourful like the flowers of the pearl of the Antilles.

A region of poor woodcutters and makers of charcoal, whose only school had been the hard struggle for a bare existence. But the Revolution changes even here. Today, these people work in the Jose Paise Woodcutters Cooperative.

A similar scene of prosperous agriculture is shown in Island Ablaze:

The generous soil of Cuba will give the people not only sugar, but also rice, and vegetables, and even cotton, which was always imported from the United States.

These films project authentic experiences of ordinary Cuban people with the imaginary of the nation. The narrative of the nation comprising everyday stories emphasises the idea of citizenship and citizens' responsibility to the Revolution. Narratives and montages also supplement each other to project the binary conception of hero (leader/the people/the nation) and villain (the extemal/the United States). Castro is the leader and hero who is close to the cause, who belongs with the people and can transcend the people - a representation of power in a performative manner (Foucault 1994b). Castro is positioned as the heroic and charismatic leader who is among the people, represented as an old and experienced fighterin his element, who inspires and strengthens the people. In this way Castro is presented in all places and spaces, from love, music, legal system, to mountains of battlefield or education, as the brother and leader all at once. The relationship between Castro and the people and the possibility of a new future are portrayed as the conditions for people to take part in the Revolution for themselves and for their children. For example, in Island Ablaze:

A handful of revolutionaries had returned from exile to liberate their country' or die. They were led by Fidel Castro.

‘This is your home, Fidel’. Read the signs on thousands, tens of thousands of homes. In each of them, the people regard Fidel as their brother.

16 boys are being brought up in Fidel Castro’s home. They study together, work together, and sit down together at table.

It could be said then that these stories of radical social transformation are the knowledge connaisance of a Marxist-Leninist teleology - that is, the purpose of these films is to instil confidence in the people about the future through the Revolution. The audience is told that Castro can lead the Revolution successfully, and he will lead the transformation of society successfully. These films focus on the role of the people in everyday lives because these everyday activities provide filmmakers the most graphic possibilities. From a political context at the time, grassroot experiences are the principle of education and land reform. The people are thus called upon to trust the Revolution’s success through Castro.

Filmmakers as the authorities and mediators of ‘truth ’

Cuban filmmakers were part of a generation of filmmakers who were committed not only to the Revolution but also to the task of revolutionising cinema (Chanan 2004). Many belonged to the Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry of Cuba (ICAIC), the first cultural act of the revolutionary' government that intended to educate citizens and improve the quality of Cuban films. The ICAIC’s

136 Participation practices and the ‘political ’ turn programmes aimed to provide cinema, which had previously been accessible to privileged groups in Havana, to the rural majority of Cuba (Balaisis 2010), as well as to demystify films generally and particularly the ideology and language imposed by Hollywood (Chanan 2004). From an aesthetic perspective, there was plenty of material about the Revolution's social change for them to use to create narratives about the newly sovereign island nation (Chanan 2004). The overwhelming public support for the Revolution provided a powerfill sense of direct democracy that these filmmakers, who saw themselves as allies of the Revolution, could draw on. Then dissemination of knowledge about the Revolution through films is their commitment to the Revolution because they saw themselves within the collective Cuba. As Santiago Alvarez, a Cuban documentalist, said in Cineaste Magazine:2

We start from the basis that we belong to the social reality of our country. We are not foreigners. We are part of the people and our films grow out of a shared reality. One can only be a revolutionary artist by being with the people and by communicating with them.

Alvarez, in the same interview, spoke about the position of non-elitist Cuban documentalists that underscored their desire to make films for the mass audience:

If we thought we were a privileged group, we would make films that communicated only with the minority or an elite group.

These filmmakers see themselves within a collective of the Revolution. In undertaking the task of communicating the Revolution to the public, they are the authorities constructing a particular ‘truth’ (Foucault 1980) about the Revolution; vice versa, the Revolution facilitates the cultural dimension of their works (Chanan 2004). The power relations between the filmmakers, the audience, and the Revolutionary leaders serve as mutual forces that function as a political struggle as well as a cultural trajectory of these filmmakers (ya Salaam 1980). As Chanan (2004, p. 21) claimed, “if Cuban cinema constitutes an aesthetic imbricated with a political spirit it is because it answers to a vicarious role in the public sphere, a calling to speak not at people, but with them, and often in their own voices”.

The cinema screen also represents the space for preserving public speech, where filmmakers invite viewers to know what is going on and consider such knowledge and what it actually means for then lives. They take on the task of enabling the audience to a knowing (savoir) about the Revolution not as objective kind of knowledge about political change but as political subjectivity. It is this kind of conversation between filmmakers and the Cuban people in the public sphere that makes these films a mechanism of political discourse. The relationships between filmmakers, the ICAIC, and the revolutionaries also give filmmakers the power to make and disseminate truth-statements about the revolutionary state even though other forms of media were controlled by the state (Chanan 2004). As Johnson (2017) argued, documentary filmmakers, many of whom were Party members, sought to impose a ‘party-sanctioned’ sense of morality upon events alreadyknown to the Cuban people and the global community. For these reasons, developing revolutionary films are political activities in themselves because they tell people what is and what could be, by delving into very deeply held memory of the Revolution and pre-existing nationalistic and political sentiments (Balaisis 2010).

Cinematic tactics and mass mobilisation strategies

Filmmakers use cinematic tactics of montage and everyday life activities to represent the Revolution process. These tactics are part of the strategy of mass mobilisation that could only manifest from the genealogy of power relations between the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban people. This exhibits a ‘strategic’ cultivation of the sense of lived history to every identifiable sector of Cuban society (ya Salaam 1980). Wood (2009) argued that films like these give the people from different regions and provinces their first taste of the nation, which contributes to transforming the political idea of nationhood into the daily experiences and feelings of nationhood. It is what Anderson (1983) would call an “imagined community” of revolutionaries. These films typically begin with the experience of a single person in the present and quickly translate to shared experiences of social change that the Revolution brings about. By decentring the individual perspective, the broader concept of the nation is emphasised. This ‘tactic’ is employed to affirm positive values in society - human values, strengths, labours, joys, struggles, and dreams -mirroring the values of the working class. As ya Salaam (1980) said, Cuban cinema is a cinema of the Cuban people and their revolution.

The portrayal of the revolutionaries’ experiences side by side with everyday lived experiences and often with young people reinforces the relations between the rebel forces and the people, and at the same time, acts as a call for young people to join the Revolution. For example, in Island Ablaze:

Captain Rogelio Asavedo is in command of the Peoples Militia. He’s 19 years old. This is his 17-year-old brother Emique, chief of the schools run by the People’s Militia.

Loma Esben de Castr o, President of the Cuban Women’s Federation, went through the hard school of illegal struggle in the fighting in the Sien a Maestras. Joel Iglesias, who heads the Association of Yotmg Rebels in Cttba, is 23. He has been woimded in battle 10 times and has the highest military rank, the same as Fidel Castro: Major of the Revolutionary Army.

These narratives highlight the heroes of the Revolution as ordinary people alongside citizens. The use of the narrative method to tell heroes’ stories constructs a certain historical understanding of the process of the Revolution that happened (Fox 2019). They also remind people about the struggle for the modernisation of Cuba. These are important ideas about how the past can be put forward, imderstood, and used in terms of collective belonging. Memories of the rebels’ experiences, told through stories, are a ‘tactic’ used to draw on existing popular sentiment about the Revolution to bring people who experienced it to share those experiences and also put the Revolution in the moment and with the Cuban people (Fox 2019). The overarching strategy is to motivate the audience to construct knowledge connaisance about the reality of Revolution and grasp this social reality with a knowing savoir so they can participate in the social change. In this way, the genealogy of power relations between the revolutionaries and the public in these films propagates the idea of revolutionary heroism as a form of mass mobilisation. Although the messages may be offering an idealised version about the Revolution, the effect is much more than that. Tire construction of knowledge connaisance and knowing savoir goes beyond the idea of propaganda as a one-way top-down communication strategy. The extent to which these films act as mobilisation of the regime of truth and raise collective consciousness about that truth-knowledge lies in the ability of these filmmakers to draw on the power relations between them, the audience, and the Revolution.

Domain 2: ‘critique’

Documentaries as a revolutionary process

The reality that filmmakers wanted to convey through these documentaries is a kind of ‘consciousness’ they came to realise. The ideological contrasts that they projected on screen stemmed from their own self-understanding and ‘critique’ of the social conditions of the Batista regime. Many of them were members of the ICAIC, which was created by the Cuban Revolution, or they had participated in the straggle against Batista. They viewed documentaries with a social and moral purpose - that is, to keep the public informed but also educate them about the issues of the day. The moral sensibility within these films about the Revolution is constituted from filmmakers’ political subjectivity to the political context of filmmaking. At the same time, they were conscious of their cultural and intellectual ‘self’, and thus they saw these documentaries as opportunities to create their contemporaries and separate themselves from the past practices of filmmaking. Chanan (2004, p. 141) encapsulates the essence of the Cuban filmmakers’ subj edification to the immediate politics and possibilities of the Revolution: “We [the Revolution] are not making it for the generations to come, but for now. Who would follow us otherwise?”

These films are political and social documentaries because they document the old and new political regimes and the social life under both regimes. They reveal a truth-knowledge (Foucault 1980) and invite the audience to participate in con-stracting that truth-knowledge. Seeing themselves as allies of the Revolution, these filmmakers aim to break the regime of truth about the Batista, which they saw as conditions of ignorance and political powerlessness, lack of means of expression, misery, and dehumanisation of the popular masses (Rodriguez 2008), while constructing a regime of truth about the Revolution. For these reasons, these documentaries became the revolution in cinema (Chanan 2004). The aesthetic innovation is fragments of reality filmed spontaneously, as they unfolded, and without filmmakers interfering (Rodriguez 2008). The montages and

Dialogues between culture and politics 139 narratives were employed in newsreels in an agile and mobile way to invite the audience to engage with the revolutionary politics on screen. The fusion of politics and aesthetics into frames of film ignited the audience imagination and helped to consolidate a revolutionary consciousness. These filmmakers understood the Revolution as their own revolution of documentaries. They were revolutionary in documentaries because they were “part of the revolutionary process in [their] country” (ya Salam 1980, p. 90).

Constructing audience’s self-understanding

By locating documentaries in the reality of people’s lives, these films also raise critical consciousness about the conditions of people’s political power. Power is suggestive to the people not as a top-down approach or one-way messaging but rather a positioning of people in the public sphere as citizens of the Cuban nation, who have rights and responsibilities towards Cuba (as analysed in domain 1). This invitation could only be effective if people see themselves as part of the collective Cuba with a collective political power. Thus, these filmmakers built on the Cuban people’s overwhelming support of the Revolution at the time on screen through content and images montaged. The production of images is not simply a reflection of reality but becomes, in the act of the film, a reflection upon it - first by the filmmakers and then by the audience (Chanan 2004). The disposition to participate in the Revolution as a collective happens through films because the truth-knowledge (about the Revolution) remains immediate and material in the moment of communication between filmmakers and audience. As Wood (2009) said, these films need not be accurate or perfect fit between images and what they picture. The meaning of what is shown depends as much on the viewer’s position as on the system of signs within which it functions. In other-words, the effect of these films in constructing the audience’s self-understanding relies on the relationship that the films construct with the audience, which, at the time, is the relationship between the Revolution and the audience. The audience is what Stanley Fish (1980) termed “interpretive community”, made up of those who share “interpretive strategies” of serving the social and political interests of the revolutionaries. Their- political ‘selfs’ are constituted by the ways of thinking and seeing that inhere within the power relations with the Revolution.

The audience’s subjectivity (Foucault 1994b) to the images compiled by filmmakers is a critical element of the filmmakers’ ability to challenge the audience to charge, confront, and critique old viewpoints and project new ones. The audience is subjectified to the filmmakers’ activist outlooks which were critical and creative, committed and contemplative of the social revolution (Chanan 2004). This kind of production of meaning, not just decoding of meaning, underlies the idea of Forrcault’s ‘technology of the self’ in which oneself (filmmaker or audience) is understood as a citizen of Crtba, and thus is the srrbject of the Revolution (Foucault 2010). Tire conversations between filmmakers and the audience, often led by the film's narrator, are constructed on the collective defence of revolutionary Crtba. In Island Ablaze, tire film calls on Buenaventura to be conscious of whathe is about to leant and on the revolutionary soldiers to be conscious of then-responsibility in helping the young boy to find his consciousness. In Path of the Revolution, the audience is asked to be conscious of Cuba’s national beauty as a discovery of a new free Cuba. The effects are realised from the power relations between the revolutionary leaders and the ordinary people:

500 years later, Cuba discovered itself. It has not discovered all, but it already knows that it can be the most beautiful country in the world. The children dance and sing, like Jose Marti, like Fidel Castro, like Cornado Benitez, like Laura. The children too are Cuba. Free Cuba.

Prose like this quote is common across tírese frhns, srrggesting self-consciousness of their producers who try to create the same kind of self-consciousness in the audience. This kind of collective consciousness constructs a disposition for the collective (filmmaker and artdience) to partake in the Revolution as self-searching and self-realising political actors. The revolutionary ideals of labour (to work), warfare (to fight), or education (to leant) are elevated in these films as projections of individual characters and personal experiences, and at the same time, decentring the individual and highlighting the collective.

Cuban revolutionary films also target audiences outside of Cttba, with the aim of acquiring solidarity and support from mainly other communist-bloc states. Bienvenidos compañeros! Willkonnnen, Genossen documents the visit of Erich Honecker, the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany to Cuba. The first scene shows the reporter recounting a festive reception at the Palace of the Revolution. The presence of diplomats from 72 countries with normal diplomatic relations with Cttba shows that Cuba and the German Democratic Republic, both directly confronted by imperialism, have become respected members of the socialist family of nations. This film could be said to be a continuation of the legitimacy of the Cuban Revolution and its beginning effort of solidarity with other states sharing the same worldviews. This is about Cuba seeking connections with other countries as well as telling the Cuban people about ideals of communism. These kinds of external connections and solidarity are also seen in other films through economic partnerships, particularly with the Soviet Union. For example, in Island Ablaze:

The Republic [of Cuba] has many sincere friends. Tankers brought oil from the Soviet Union and other friendly countries.

Pinchases of Cuban sugar were found in many countries that are friends of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba’s enemies proved powerless in face of genuine friendship. Tire signatures of Anastas Mikoyan and Fidel Castro sealed this friendship.

Ideological contrasts and nationhood

The dialectical process between filmmakers and audience is underscored by the ideas of national liberation and the efforts of people to free Cuba from the reins of foreigners. Tliis collective consciousness of nationhood is offered as the reason for communicative action (Habermas 1984). In Island Ablaze, the audience is told:

Havana retained a spirit of its own - a pure and open heart. Nowhere on Earth could this city have existed other than on Cuban soil.

The model of a new state was bom there in the Siena Maestras.

In the following statement, the ‘nation’ is placed side by side with the Revolution in the struggle:

The whole country heard the rebels’ call. And it responded by a tempest of struggle.

Below, the Revolution’s leaders are situated as the nation’s leaders:

The revolutionary government of the Republic, with Fidel Castro as his comrade in amis, Osvaldo Dorticos, the first revolutionary President of Cuba, and the ministers.

The ‘nation’ is celebrated for its economic changes for the people, as seen in the below declaration about the nationalisation of economic organisations, mainly of the US establishments:

A historic decision is being taken - the nationalisation of the banks and large industrial and trading establishments. Tliis bank has been nationalised by the people.

The country’s memory of the sacrifice of the revolutionaries is the celebration of the ‘nation’:

Cuba is the island of bountiful nature, and hearts that are generous with song, an island of crimson sunset and exquisite flowers, an island of emerald plains and ancient towns. Some of them witnessed the struggle against tyranny.

Habermas’ (1984) idea of communicative action is explicated in these expressions to demand the Cuban audience to ‘reason’ their participation in the Revolution and its cause. It is huilier affirmed through representation of contrasting ideologies. For example, in Island Ablaze, the foreign occupation and imperialism are opposed to the idea of an independent Cuba:

The epoch of foreign conquerors on this island has ended, forever. Cuba, yes,

Yankee imperialism, no.

In many instances, ideological differences between capitalism and communism are made explicit through class issues:

The working class of Cuba bore all the hardships of the Batista regime. That is why it has such strong ties with the People’s Socialist Party.

Other instances refer to the war and contrast oppression and poverty against freedom:

For the land on which sugar was grown [. . .] belonged to others. American monopolists reigned supreme on this side of the barbed wire. While on this side, poverty reigned.

The use of contrasting ideologies is interesting in their suggestion of capitalism as a myth that must be demystified by the people to seek ‘truth’ of communism through the Revolution pathway. Such ‘truth’ or ‘myth’ could only be understood within the context of the Revolution. They suggest that knowledge production and people’s self-understanding are always interwoven with the material activities within the contexts in which those activities take place. Any understanding of ‘ideology’ needs to be understood in reference to who is doing the communicative action and what is their communicative reason (Habermas 1984).

Furthermore, the ideological differences presented in these films emphasise the performative aspect of Castro and the people’s loyalty towards Castro because he can protect the tribe against the perceived risks of outsiders’ threats. Castro becomes the focal point in the ‘us versus them' antagonism. At the same time, he is the producer and the symbol of the frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. These ideological differences, underscored by the idea of nationhood, denote a tentative consensus of power to Castro by representing him as the leader through the verbal discourse of the films’ narr ations, which are embedded in the visual discourse of the films’ images (Foucault 1972, 1998). It should be emphasised that Castro is not presented in these films in an autocratic sense. Rather, his representation is always as comradeship with the people. The intention is to invoke the audience’s political subjectivity to the Revolution in ways that they can recognise themselves as subjects in the Revolution who will seize on the opportunities that the Revolution will bring. This is Foucault’s (2010) concept of ‘technologies of power’ - a subj edification of the filmmakers and their audience to the Revolution within the polity in which both operate.

The analysis so far (domain 1 and 2) suggests that Cuban revolutionary films are a significant apparatus wielded by filmmakers to mobilise a certain knowledge connaissance and evoke a certain knowing savoir from the public audience; both influences contemporary Cuban political culture and values in supporting the Revolution. According to Roberts (2019), revolutionary films are never intended to be a fair representation. But it would be too simplistic and narrow to see them as merely propaganda because they provide real insight into the perceptions and the ways in which the Cuban Revolution wanted to present itself to filmmakers, the Cuban people, and the wider world. The collective intentionality of these dociunentaries is to commit to the Revolution and thus are political expressions within a clear and specific political-cultural context. As Wood (2009) argued.

Dialogues between culture and politics 143 they actively sought to bind the nation together in a common national experience. Filmmakers and their audience are premised on the theory' and praxis of Cuban cinema; that is. people become capable of acting in their world to transform it. In that way, the effectiveness of these films, whether one sees it as propaganda or activism, lies in the dialectic between culture and politics - the conditions for structural transformation of the public sphere in Cuba.

Domain 3: democratic capability'

These films were political and cultural deliberations of the Cuban documentalists, who saw themselves and the Cuban public as allies in the Revolution. Taking on Sen’s concept of agency, then' political expressions through these films reflect their values, goals, and responsibility to the Revolution and thus an exercise of political agency. Values of the Revolution are propagated thr ough the representation of nationhood and citizenship, which are posited as moral values. The interesting provocation of morality here is that it is not positioned as external to the society; rather, it is viewed as embedded within everyday life of ordinary people within their social relations. The rhetorical effects promote a ‘sensibility’ to the existing Cuban values and legitimacy for the revolutionary values. The image of social revolution that the Revolution brought about inserts revolutionary' values within the collective values, and at the same time an ascend of the films’ cultural values.

It is quite clear that the collective goals of the filmmakers were to advance the Revolution and create contemporaries of their aesthetic work. These goals reflect the cultural values, underscored by the politics of the films' production and dissemination in the public sphere. The dialectal goals of political and cultural actions make these films a mode of political activism within a space where culture intersects with politics. The collective goal of documentaries is intentionally and unintentionally political; their cultural deliberation is intentionally and unintentionally revolutionary.

With values and goals aligned to the Revolution, these filmmakers made films with the revolutionary function (ya Salaam 1980) of shifting people from passive viewers to active participants. For example, the idea of 14-year-old Laura going to the Siena Maestra mountains in Pathway of the Revolution is an attempt to influence parents to send then' young children to participate in the ‘experiment’ of socialist education. The revolutionary function of these films is to be of specific use to the mass, which can be either moral metrication or authentic stories about what social transformation means for them. This is particularly critical at that tune, when movies were for the elite class, while there were millions of peasants who had no time or money to go and see movies (Balaisis 2010). Furthermore, being revolutionary requires filmmakers to possess political consciousness and artistic capabilities, both of which are mutually influencing. Raising political consciousness in order to stimulate a revolution is not merely to disseminate knowledge but to enable the ‘will to know’ in themselves and in their artdience (Foucarrlt 2014). If these films are the documentaries campaign of Revolution, the responsibility offilmmakers is to test the revolutionary style of governance through mass participation. This was an essential step in a process of civic education to bring about political awareness, a deeper understanding of national problems, a new concept of citizenship and its rights and responsibilities, a new willingness to work for the transformation of the old society (Chanan 2004).

Political agency of filmmakers could also be argued through then- freedom to express artistically. While they are subjectified to the context of the Revolution, as members of the ICAIC, which shape their values, goals, and responsibility to the Revolution, they had the freedom to reject dogmatism in aesthetics (Chanan 2004). They make films as spectators of films and invite audience and themselves to construct meaning through ideological, materialist, and humanistic content. This praxis is premised on the idea of freedom - freedom to make meanings, freedom to judge, freedom to choose, and freedom to act - which is represented throughout these films. In this way, the idea of praxis makes these films propaganda and at the same time political deliberation of filmmakers and their audience:

She [Cuba] wants peace in her home, and is ready to defend everything dear to a Cuban’s heart - his land, his freedom, his labour.

Island Ablaze

The country will never forget how dearly it paid for its freedom.

Invasion of Cuba

From our blood, there rose a new sun. There was born a new day, freedom.

Long Live Cuba!

The Cuban revolutionary filmmakers’ democratic capability could be said to be the skilful joining of political line with cinematic techniques. The mutual influence of politics and culture constructs filmmakers' political subjectivity and artistic endeavours, which they recognise and express through then- films. People’s agency is implied by the presentation of ordinary Cuban people as heroes who are a critical part of the Revolutionary success. The consequence for the viewers is knowing someone - themselves - who are in the Revolution, and deliberating the notion of agonism for the freedom of power (Foucault 1972):

The gains of the Revolution are defended not by a cast of the military, but by the hands of plain workers and peasants.

Island Ablaze

Against this most modern war technique stood our People’s Army, fanners, workers from the plantation, and students.

Long Live Cuba!

In these lines and accompanying images, ordinary people are positioned alongside the revolutionary' anny to symbolise human agency based on shared values, goals, and duties. They place power within the people. They are about the

Dialogues between culture and politics 145 ideological vision of the Revolution, but they are also about the revolutionary actions of gr assroots movements. This is a very clever way of inculcating values and enabling political participation at the time, which suggests democratic capability of the filmmakers as much as a doctrine of the Revolution. They represent both a rupture and a continuity of existing public sentiments and connections with the Revolution. For these filmmakers, it could be said that then agency and democratic capability arise from the intimate connections with their own individual history within the Cuban contexts of filmmaking at the time, which lead them to see themselves as servicing the Revolution and their own creativity (Chanan 2004).

Documentaries and discursive practices of political participation

The ICAIC set implicit rules of making films, which, when overtly deliberated through ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’ of filmmakers, construct knowledge of the Revolution that people should know, do know, and will know. These rules and practices create heroes of the Revolution, which include revolutionary leaders, rebel armies, and the people. Then actions are legitimised by both the filmmakers and the prtblic response to the films. These films become the mediatory space where filmmakers occupy the role of both an authority of knowledge about the Revolution and a mediator of sttch knowledge. The audience occupy the role of both receiver of knowledge about the Revolution and mediator of such knowledge. Both filmmakers and audience become the mobiliser and legitimise!' of such truth-knowledge. The interactions of filmmakers with their audience through the communication process are dialectical conversations about the social, cultural, economic, and political events that the films highlight. The more these films focus on the everyday real-world problems, the more mediatory the films require and become, and the more possibilities in which both parties can exercise democratic contingencies. This suggests that communicative action, as political participation, is conditioned within the contexts in which the communication takes place (Habermas 1984,1987). The Crtban polity offers a political sensibility that predisposes filmmakers and their audience in a certain orientation, which also subjects them to create possibilities for different conditions of political participation. Thus, and as the analysis in the three domains has shown, it is worthwhile to examine filmmakers’ values, goals, and responsibility and how they are constructed through power relations, in order to understand the workings of these films as propaganda or exercise of agency. This is important because political participation does not occtu- out of nowhere; rather, it is based on a discursive system of knowledge about what ought to be said and done, and what can be said and done in the public sphere.

Cuban documentalists work on themselves to become willing subjects of a particular discourse - the Revolution - and at the same time revolutionise it. They explore new aesthetic means of capturing and expressing in order to register political and social reality at a particular moment. The public sphere in which they deliberate their voice is political; therefore, then' films are inseparable from thepolitical. In other words, politics and art engage in dialogue. This dialogue allows the cinema screen to become more than propaganda; that is, it becomes an important space for public speech, a space that engages large sectors of the population to consider the meaning and quality of their lives. In that regard, revolutionary films become artistic revolution, and the revolutionary context propels these film-makers and their audience towards the ‘political turn’. It is important to recognise that these revolutionary films occupy a unique cultural space as a major site of public political discourse because their makers had privileged relation to the Revolution (Chanan 2004). Filmmakers created dialogues between them and then-audience, between the state and the public. They drew on the relational aspect of culture and politics to create films as space for political participation. Making documentaries is a political activity that is transfonnative because of their historical and culturally specificities.


This chapter on Cuban revolutionary films provides ways of examining Cuban political participation through broader historical contexts of Cuban film institutions and relations between filmmakers, the Cuban Revolution, and the public. Guided by the three-domain framework developed in Chapter 2, this chapter suggests these films are dialogues between culture and politics, which are propaganda as much as they are political deliberations. Domain 1 provides insights into the workings of these films as the genealogy of power relations between the ICAIC, filmmakers, Fidel Castro, the revolutionaries, and the people. Narratives, voices, and images in films are used to project participation in the Revolution as ‘everyday activism’. We can get a sense of what it is like to live through times of straggles and how such practices continue then historical trajectory in ciment days, that is heeding people to practise the Revolution using historiographical narratives of the revolutionary processes and social transformation of Cuban society. In doing so, the films crystallise pre-existing public sentiments about the Revolution and its leaders.

Domain 2 follows the suggestion of films as regime of truth that feature mass mobilisation, charismatic leadership, and moral values of nationhood. Cinematic techniques are ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’ that move both filmmakers and audience towards self-understanding of then- place in the Revolution and reason to be agents of the social revolution. By unpacking these ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’ of raising consciousness for ‘critique’, we can see how filmmakers see themselves and act as revolutionaries by helping to build people’s power (Foucault 1972). Political movements could be understood from the practices of the documentary filmmakers as the apparatus of the Revolution.

Analysis of domain 3 highlights the dialectical relationship between filmmakers and the state, filmmakers and the public at large, the Revolutionary state and the people. These power relations are mutually influencing relationships between culture and politics. Revolutionary' filmmakers were doing a certain kind of political and cultural work, and the audience is persuaded to understand then- creations.

Their political agency and democratic capability lie in their- values, goals, and responsibility to the Revolution. At the same time, they developed and deliberated their aesthetic and intellectual abilities through these films as an aesthetic revolution which led to worldwide acclaim for Cuban films (Chanan 2004). The public sphere in which these films are disseminated and received is dynamic and mutually influencing interactions between filmmakers and the viewers.

The three domains provide analytical entry points to understand the workings and effects of these films in informing the structural transformation of the Cuban society in the post-Revolution period. This chapter suggests that the public sphere encompasses active and mediated political actions of filmmakers. The implications are to find connections between any kind of filmmaking techniques as political ‘tactics’ or ‘strategies’ and the wider political events in specific moments of struggle, and discursive power relations that intensify or suppress such struggles. Studying revolutionary films to understand plurality of political participation is insightful for understanding not what these films are supposed to be but what they can become. We can appreciate that the slice that we see through these films is the kind of slice that the Cuban filmmakers wanted us to see (Bradley 2019). But they also evoke a sense about Cuba’s public sphere and possibilities for political participation that otherwise would be lost to us if we choose to see them merely as propaganda by the Cuban Revolution. These revolutionary films construct a system of knowledge about the Revolution as an ideology and a historical struggle, and with that laying out the boundaries and possibilities for political participation in contemporary socialist Cuba. This chapter offers pluralistic and nuanced views of these films; that is ideas, information, and factual material are from a political and quite often geographical point of view.

More importantly, this chapter emphasises that revolutionary films have a social purpose. They reflect the social reality of the people in order to evoke their selfconsciousness about that reality. Effective propaganda acts in the same ways that effective radicalisation does, in the creative use of examples to teach revolutionary principles, and dialectical methods to mobilise humans towards self-liberation. This is the essence of Habermas’ (1984) communicative action theory - idealistic aim of conununication to liberalise oneself towards a political purpose. The aim of communication, as explicated in these films, is not immediately to inspire action but to impart the means for the acquisition of knowledge upon which action may be premised. This is the revolutionary aesthetics that these revolutionary filmmakers achieved (Chanan 2004).

Finally, this chapter points out that propaganda or political participation can take place everywhere and anywhere. We should be conscious of ourselves in surroturding cultural works, particularly cinema in terms of projection of images of social relations to truly understand who are the authorities that present certain kinds of truth-knowledge. This ability to reach self-understanding and ‘critique’ power relations to judge, criticise, and disrupt their effects is important for political agency. Without this consciousness of reality and ‘critique’, we watch cinema, read texts, engage in conversations as accomplice of a legitimated truth. Such consciousness could also allow us to interrogate, in the age of social media, where there are multiple modes of films and techniques, who is the propagandist or propagandee, whether something is govemmentality or democratic capability, or a combination of both.


  • 1 Socialism on Film is a collection of documentaries, features and newsreels produced primarily in the communist world and later re-edited for British and Western audiences. Originating from nations throughout the USSR, Asia. Europe and Latin America, these films have been digitised fr om the original 16mm and 35mm reels. The films in this collection come fr om the archive of the British Fihn Institute (BFI): www.bfi.org.uk.
  • 2 Interview with Santiago Alvarez in Cinéaste Magazine, vol 6, no 4. In ya Salaam (1980).


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7 Political education and political participation

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