You know, that's the problem with all propaganda. They take true ringing human emotions/feelings/moments/whatever, with which they capture your sympathy, and dramatize them to the max. And then turn them into a message of their liking.
But, broadly speaking, isn't that what any film drama does? And if so, then where do we draw a precise line between the movies that are propaganda and the ones that aren't? Of course Soy Cuba does qualify as propaganda and was meant to function as such, but the question remains.
Anyway, there are some funny things about propaganda. For instance, its creators do not have total control over how their films' messages will be received by viewers. The intended audience might "read" a key ideological point correctly but secretly respond to it with indifference, wariness, or cynical dismissal. Or they might honestly misinterpret a given scene, shot, or line in a way that undermines the prescribed message. And we, watching Soy Cuba with fifty years of hindsight, are free to take any messages with a grain of salt.
On the other hand, a film pushing the goals of what we see as a malevolent political agenda may still contain fairly accurate portrayals of situations that truly resonate with the lived experiences, frustrations, and well-earned resentments of the home country's audience. In fact, if it's going to be persuasive, it would probably need to do that. (During the era of Soviet propaganda, it so happened that the Kremlin's analysis of America's problems was often spot-on, even though their solution for those problems-- changing to a state Communist system-- was not.)
So being a product of a soon-to-be-oppressive regime does not automatically invalidate this film's portrayal of the Batista era. Consider the early scene with the spoiled, arrogant "Ugly American" men procuring women at the hotel bar. Sure, it's a caricature, yet it was probably true in its essence. (It kind of drags on and on, overstaying its welcome... like those men do.) Then there's the scene where several American sailors corner a young Cuban woman with the apparent aim of raping her. After all that's been reported in the last fifty years, incidents from My Lai to Central America to just recently in Iraq, do we really imagine that such things never happened in pre-Castro Cuba? There must have been Cuban moviegoers who watched that scene and said, "Yes. That's what it felt like. Being young men with U.S. military power behind them, they thought they were entitled to do anything they wanted with us." In giving voice to some ordinary Cubans' experiences, the film may have merely been advancing its own agenda... but it does give voice to them, and now it's giving us a little taste of what they had to put up with.
Moreover, even if a film is commissioned as a propaganda piece, there's no guarantee that its creators will all be on the same page. Some may inadvertently be working at cross-purposes. Supposedly this film was poorly received by general audiences in Cuba and the USSR (though I'd like to know the source of that claim), but what else would one expect with a message piece that's also a 140-minute avant-garde art film, an nonstop, in-your-face tour de force of stunning cinematography? I haven't seen the "making-of" documentaries in the DVD set, but I'm puzzled as to why the powers-that-be spent so much time and money on the visual aspects of the film and allowed them to become so dominant, seemingly competing with the didactic message. Why do that, if all they wanted was "just propaganda"?
But, broadly speaking, isn't that what any film drama does?
Hmmm. I'd say no. They usually do not dramatize to the max. On the contrary, all the better films rather try to keep a balance between opposing views, like when showing us how one and the other might have some justification at the same time. Also, only the fewest films have a clear cut political agenda.
And if so, then where do we draw a precise line between the movies that are propaganda and the ones that aren't?
Good point. Is entertainment financed by the Pentagon - like "Black Hawk Down" - propaganda? For me, it clearly is. Others might say it's just entertainment.
And what about Riefenstahl's Olympics documentary? Is that propaganda? The common consensus is yes. But you could also argue that it's just that, a documentary.
I guess in many cases, to recognize propaganda you need additional background information. About the goals that stood behind the making of a film. Which is again testament to the cleverness with which propaganda has been done from the 20th century onwards. It's meant to be hard to recognize, or else people wouldn't that easily fall for it.
its creators do not have total control over how their films' messages will be received by viewers
Sure, but that's a different matter. When explicitly having a propagandistic goal, if their film - on average - doesn't achieve the intended effects on audiences it has to be considered a failure.
I'm sure there are examples where films have been pulled pretty soon after release because they didn't achieve what they were meant to. Soy Cuba might even be an example. But does that mean that it wasn't propaganda to begin with, or maybe just propaganda done badly? A lot of that surely depends on expectations, like those Soviet or Cuban politicians were having at the time.
a film pushing the goals of what we see as a malevolent political agenda may still contain fairly accurate portrayals of situations that truly resonate with the lived experiences
Maybe. But are the depictions accurate? Was the police chef of Havana really just a fat disgusting bastard who would shoot a demonstrator without actual need and in cold blood? Was the land owner really just that cynical pig who wouldn't compensate the farmer in any way when selling his land but rather laugh into his face? And a similar question would apply to the American being a "crucifix trophy collector" on top of everything else I guess.
Seriously, I'm doubting that what we're seeing here in this film was the average case, during the Batista regime. Mind you, without having any accurate historical knowledge myself. But the portrayals of the people here seem to be very one-sided and exaggerated. Leaning very distinctly towards a specific angle, by "demonizing" the one party and "glorifying" the other. I myself feel that's very obvious all throughout the film, and specifically these exaggerations - which I earlier called "dramatization to the max" - make me perceive this film as obvious propaganda.
Sure, it's a caricature, yet it was probably true in its essence.
But that's the point, as just said above. You now consider it a caricature because you can distance yourself and recognize the exaggeration. But it surely wasn't meant to be perceived as caricature at the time.
The exaggeration is the key here. That's a crucial element of propaganda, the one-sided, exaggerated view. Where at the core there obviously needs to be a believable element, or else people wouldn't buy it. But it's the exaggeration that stirs the emotions, and capturing people on the emotional level probably is what most propaganda tries to achieve.
Moreover, even if a film is commissioned as a propaganda piece, there's no guarantee that its creators will all be on the same page.
Might be just another angle on what you said above, that audiences might not respond in the expected fashion. Same applies to the various parties involved in the making of the film of course.
Still, what I'm seeing at work here is the typical techniques used in propaganda. Very one sided views. Exaggerated personalities and effects, in both directions, effectively amounting to "demonization" on the one hand and "glorification" on the other. And very obvious attempts at capturing people on the emotional level, while lacking a proper rational treatment of the subject at the same time.
I mean, if you've seen "Potemkin" or some of the Nazi films, like the "Eternal Jew", I'm sure you would agree that the techniques employed in this film are rather text book elements of modern day propaganda. Soy Cuba might be great otherwise, like cinematographically, just like Riefenstahl's films are. But we're still bound to recognize it as what it is I suppose.