Cuba: Golden '60s
The First Charge of the Machete, 1969.

A gentleman, nattily attired in a slim suit and sunglasses, saunters through his bustling urban environment with cosmopolitan ennui en route to his achingly modern apartment. It’s an image we’d expect to find in a 1960s Italian film, with actor Marcello Mastroianni gliding through scenes directed by Antonioni or Fellini. But when it appears in a post-Revolution Cuban film, like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment? That’s unexpected.

It’s a view of Havana and its people we’re unaccustomed to, but it’s hardly an anomaly.  Alea’s film is a part of a rich cinematic tradition celebrated in the series “Cuba: Golden ‘60s,” which opens at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn today. From March 20-31, BAM will screen six features, including Mikhail Kalatozov’s beautiful I Am Cuba (1964), Humberto Solás’ proto-feminist Lucía (1968), and Manuel Octavio Gómez’s rare The First Charge of the Machete (1969), as well as a program of shorts, all made in the decade following the Cuban Revolution.

Seeing these films in any kind of mainstream context in the United States is extraordinarily difficult — not only thanks to the embargo established in 1962, but because the state of the films themselves is perilous.

"Many of the copies of these films are very unique, very precious,” says Diana Vargas, Artistic Director at the Havana Film Festival New York and co-curator of the series. “The conditions are not that great, and it’s difficult to preserve those films and those copies. There was a long, long list [of films we wanted to show], but then we realized that there were not many copies.”

Having access to this work is cause for celebration. BAM located prints of Underdevelopment and Lucía outside of Cuba; the rest came from the country’s national film archive at the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). I Am Cuba was restored in the US in the 1990s by Milestone Film & Video. But more importantly, the series offers a unique opportunity to see Cuba as it was in its revolutionary afterglow. None of the films are documentaries, but they all feature a neo-realist aesthetic and a New Wave sensibility that allowed the filmmakers to preserve a valuable document of the era.

The country on view here isn’t the one we’re used to, dominated by crumbling 19th century villas and puttering post-war jalopies. It’s a Cuba not yet ravaged—physically, intellectually, emotionally—by dictatorship and embargo. Havana is a modern place, “the Paris of the Caribbean,” as it’s called in more than one of these films, full of soaring high-rises and a metropolitan attitude that wouldn’t be out of place in Brazil or New York. A scene midway through I Am Cuba, for example, finds a student revolutionary navigating to the roof of such a building to assassinate a police official. When he emerges, we’re presented with a breathtaking vista of Havana, its mélange of Spanish and modernist architecture preserved as it existed on the eve of the Revolution.

Likewise, the people here, both characters and filmmakers, are brimming with revolutionary fervor, yet also full of questions. They celebrate change while interrogating the long-term implications for themselves and their country. Sergio, the hero of Underdevelopment, frets about his comfortable, expansive world shifting and, maybe, contracting around him; the women at the center of Lucía, meanwhile, see an opportunity to break out of rigidly defined gender roles, yet are met with the grasp of deeply-ingrained machismo.

"I think many of those films are very analytical of the revolution and what's happening in that moment,” Vargas, the co-curator of the series, says. “You see Cuba in a very different view, but I think it's kind of honest in the sense that these filmmakers were talking about what they were living in almost a self-reflection.”

This is unfamiliar territory when it comes to Cuba. The American perception of the country post-revolution is narrow, one of destitution and insularity. But as “Golden ‘60s” shows, none of that is true. These cinematic dispatches, created by people Americans were institutionally conditioned to distrust, fundamentally alter our cultural, social, and artistic preconceptions of the country. It’s an invaluable series that comes at a crucial moment as relations between the US and Cuba shift and we begin the long process of normalizing our understanding of Cuba and the Cuban experience.

"Cuba: Golden ‘60s” screens at BAM in Brooklyn March 20-31. More information about the series is available on the BAM website.