Michael Chanan’s The Cuban Image is the first full-length study of the history and role of the Cuban cinema to be written in English. It concentrates on the development of the political role of the Cuban film industry from the earliest newsreels of the Cuban-Spanish-American War at the turn of the century down to the present time. The British author traces the history of Cuban film through the period of what he feels was the cultural imperialism imposed by Hollywood values and standards, to the internal struggles of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) as to its proper role toward the revolution, and finally the present role of the film industry as mouthpiece and apologist for the Castro regime and developer of a political consciousness among the Cuban masses. Chanan’s point of view is clearly expressed in his foreword, where he critiques the film Improper Conduct (written and produced by Cuban exiles) and states, “[I]f anyone wants to call this book a partisan history, I will make no apology for it” (p. 7).
Indeed, it is partisan. While the author has set himself the task of providing a comprehensive history of the Cuban film, its major achievements and important figures, he gives only passing reference to those producers/directors who left Cuba after the revolution for political or artistic reasons. These include Alberto Roldán, leading director of major documentaries for which he received international awards, and Roberto Fandiño, Fernando Villaverde, and Eduardo Manet, among others. Equally inexplicable is Chanan’s judgment of the international prize-winning film El Desarraigo as a fiasco, an opinion apparently obtained second-hand from Ugo Ulive, since the author implied that he never viewed the film although he had access to it. Directed by Fausto Canel, who went into exile in 1968, this was the first full-length Cuban film to receive recognition at Spain’s San Sebastián Film Festival (1965). Serious omissions of this kind raise questions about the thoroughness of the author’s research.
Chanan gives major attention to P. M., a film of Cuban nightlife directed by Saba Cabrera Infante, brother of the well-known Cuban author, and the first film to be censored by the revolutionary regime with the personal intervention of Fidel Castro himself. It was this censorship episode which provoked Castro’s remark: “within the revolution everything, against it, nothing.” However, Chanan justifies the censorship by saying, “Rather than call this the Revolution’s first act of film censorship, it is more enlightening to see it as the dénouement of the incipient conflict between different political trends” (p. 105).
The Cuban Image does provide in-depth commentaries on films and filmmakers who have survived the Cuban regime’s guidelines. The contribution made by the Cuban documentary, as a genre, to the Latin American cinema is well presented. As a case study of cultural politics, a stated goal of the author, the book succeeds. It will be of interest to historians of the revolution, who cannot disregard the role played by Cuba’s vanguard filmmakers in promoting the revolution at home and abroad. It is also a valuable source of reference material, although the reader must confront the author’s myopia.