Travel Notebook. A People in Arms
Joris Ivens' work in Cuba

by Thomas Waugh

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 25-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

"This young nation needs a brand new cinema … and it needs it quickly. The cinema for a free people isn't a carnival sideshow. The screen is for laughing and crying … the screen is for singing the sufferings of the past, the struggles of yesterday, and the hopes of today. The Cuban cinema is born … young filmmakers, young cinema, young nation …"

"In Cuba everyone is young …" [1]

In the fall of 1960, Joris Ivens made a teaching-filmmaking visit to Cuba and attached this voice-over impression of the new Cuban cinema to one of the two short films — CARNET DE VIAJE (TRAVEL NOTEBOOK) and PUEBLO ARMADO (A PEOPLE IN ARMS) — that resulted. When Ivens came to Cuba in 1960, he had already been filming revolutionary struggles for over thirty years. He had begun within the workers newsreel movement in his native Holland during the late twenties and had since worked on virtually every continent. His most famous film had been THE SPANISH EARTH (1937), a document of the Spanish Civil War, but he had also filmed the combat against fascism in China, the U.S., and Canada and against imperialism in Indonesia. He had also paused regularly along the way to film the peaceful struggles of socialist construction — in the Soviet Union (1932), in Eastern Europe (1946-1956), and in China (1958). The two Cuban films extended both of these currents of his career: TRAVEL NOTEBOOK surveyed the accomplishments of the Revolution at the end of its second year, and A PEOPLE IN ARMS focused on its defense against continuing external threats.

The purpose of this article is not to make a claim for Ivens as a major formative influence on the Cuban cinema. By the fall of 1960, the Cuban cinema had already built up its own distinctive momentum under the vigorous leadership of ICAIC and Alfredo Guevara, and of such already established directors as Tomás Gutierrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa. (For a more detailed look at the various influences shaping the Cuban cinema at this time, see Julianne Burton's historical introduction to Part I of the JUMP CUT Special Section on Cuban Film.) My intent is simply to shed some light on the two lines of film history intersecting at the point of Ivens' Cuban work — to fill in a little-known chapter in the career of the dean of all socialist filmmakers and to suggest at the same time some of the parameters of the exhilarating creative struggle taken up by Cuban documentarists in the early days of the Revolution.

The Militant, the Poet, and the Traveler

Although TRAVEL NOTEBOOK and A PEOPLE IN ARMS are very much the product of their Cuban context, it is helpful first of all to locate them as "Ivens films," as personal works fully consistent with the evolution Ivens had been undergoing since his move to Paris from East Berlin in 1957. During the prolific decade that followed this move, Ivens worked primarily within the lyrical essay mode, both in Europe and the Third World. The films from this period are mostly short, poetic works, full of humor and warmth, sentimentality and whimsy. But there is also the ever-present base of political analysis beneath the surface of the lyricism, articulated with varying degrees of explicitness. LE MISTRAL (1965), for example, Ivens' essay on the landscapes and winds of Provence, just happens to explore shantytowns of North African immigrant workers and to record how difficult it is to carry water by hand to the workers' homes. A VALPARAISO (1963) uses its engaging confrontation with the hilly topography of this Chilean port city as an entry point for an essay on its historical and political topography. The new personal tone of such films suggested an abrupt turnabout from the cold, official quality of some of the less inspired work of the Eastern Bloc period, a period in which Ivens had been moving further and further from the cinema and was nearly absorbed into the DEFA bureaucracy (the film industry of the German Democratic Republic). Western critics were quick to acclaim the return of the sixty-year-old filmmaker to the "Art" of his youth after his having been distracted by "Ideas" and "Politics" for decades. But Ivens repudiated this response with great vehemence, maintaining that the militant and the poet had always both been present in his work and that in effect the two were inseparable.

The dozen of so "lyrical essays" have much in common with the European and specifically French context in which they were produced. In fact, they should be seen as part of a last prolific wave of French documentary before the technological revolution of cinema-verité, a series of evocative and personal documentary essays often deriving their inspiration from the travelogue genre.

The best known of this last climactic wave of the classical documentary in France are Chris Marker's LETTER FROM SIBERIA (1957), Alain Resnais' NIGHT AND FOG (1955) and TOUTE LA MEMOIRE DU MONDE (ALL THE WORLD'S MEMORY, 1956), Georges Franju's HOTEL DES INVALIDES (1951), Agnes Varda's AU CÔTE DE LA CÔTE (ALONG THE COAST, 1958), and Jean Rouch's LES MAITRES FOUS (THE MAD MASTERS, 1955) (though these last two films also look forward to the period of verité which would soon replace the "lyrical essay phase).

These films were almost all silently filmed explorations of various landscapes, natural or architectural, usually using travelogue conventions. A characteristic structural feature of these films was the commentary, a suggestively poetic voice-over narration that enriched the images with its allusions and overtones of intimacy rather than confine it with literal explications as U.S. commentaries usually did at the time. Marker himself was at the center of this lyrical-travelogue-essay wave, writing the best commentaries for the film essays of Resnais and Ivens as well as for his own. His film impressions of visits to Peking, Japan, Siberia, Israel, and Cuba set the pattern. His excursion into the realm of African art with Resnais, LES STATUES MEURENT AUSSI (STATUES DIE TOO, 1950-1953), Resnais' tours of the National Library and Auschwitz, and Rouch's enthnologically inspired films of West African life are variations of this pattern, as Jacopetti's MONDO CANE (1962) is its inevitable debasement. It was a period of great maturity and inventiveness not matched anywhere in the English-speaking world, where documentarists were too involved in straining against the restrictions of nonsync, non-portable technology to be able, like their French contemporaries, to work within the limits of the traditional hardware.

Predictably, Ivens outdistanced even Marker during this period, recognizing that for a European filmmaker in the era of peaceful co-existence, light years distant from any apparent threshold of revolution, one increasingly important setting for political filmmaking could be found in the Third World. Between his last East Berlin film of 1956 and his Indochina series of the late sixties, Ivens made films in China, Cuba, Mali, and Chile (twice). He also saw one Brazilian project aborted by the 1964 coup while another in Venezuela never got off the ground. His European work took him to Italy and France (twice), where he examined underdevelopment in Sicily and Provence, and finally, in 1965, to the homeland from which he had been exiled thirty years before to make a "come-home-all-is-forgiven" film commissioned on the port of Rotterdam.

One of the critical problems raised by the travel-inspired lyrical essays of French filmmakers in the fifties and early sixties was their ideological avoidance. Sometimes the personal subjectivity of the traveler-author served as a means of circumventing any in-depth social analysis of his or her chosen landscape, surface impressions being ostensibly more reliable and less presumptuous, as well as less difficult to convey, than any serious analysis. The temptation of the Exotic was also used from time to time as a means of avoiding struggles at home, commitment being much more aesthetic and much less risky abroad. (To be fair, most serious discussion of Algeria was forestalled by French censors.) Godard touches upon the dangers of the Exotic — and is in turn touched by them — in his moody, aloof statements of a few years later on Vietnam, FAR FROM VIETNAM (1968), and Palestine, ICI OU AILLEURS (HERE OR ELSEWHERE, 1970-1976). These liabilities of the travel-essay also compromise Chris Marker in his various films, despite the fact that the best of them, LETTER FROM SIBERIA, is a spoof of the travelogue form and well aware of the limitations of its own subjectivity.

Ivens' travel-essays are a different story because they were very much a pretext for Ivens the teacher to make a contribution to a small national cinema struggling against the imperialist monopolies. Confronted with the Third World, Ivens was incapable of issuing a Godardian call to inaction. He would inevitably plunge right into a given situation, as he did in Cuba, trustfully and openly transmitting to his world audience the enthusiasm of his local students and associates. Never the skeptic, Ivens would pay each host society a warm and encouraging tribute, offering his services as teacher, publicist, and resource person with complete modesty and generosity. The Cubans, Chinese, and Chileans in particular reciprocated this trust with feelings of great affection and indebtedness.

Eight filmmakers, two cameras, one jeep

Joris Ivens was in the new African republic of Mali when the invitation reached him in early 1960 from Alfredo Guevara, head of the recently formed ICAIC. Ivens took the next few months to finish his ongoing project, DEMAIN NANGUILA (TOMORROW AT NANGUILA, 1960), a survey of the economic and personal challenges of African independence, boy-meets-irrigation-dam variety, and headed immediately for Havana.

Once there, Ivens got to work without delay. The evening of his arrival, the entire staff of ICAIC, already 300 strong, turned out for the lecture he had been asked to make. The Cubans were aware of Ivens' prodigious reputation as a political filmmaker but hardly knew his work at all: his East German epic, SONG OF THE RIVERS (1954), a film on the world labor movement, had had some clandestine screenings before the Revolution, and a few Cubans who had recently been to Europe had seen LA SEINE A RECONTRÉ PARIS (PARIS MEETS THE SEINE, 1957), Ivens lyrical tribute to his adopted home which had won the Palme d'or at Cannes in 1958. Not untypically, the lecture was turned into a dialogue by the Cubans' impatience to get to know their mythical visitor.

The next day, Ivens screened a copy of LA SEINE, found at the French embassy, and engaged the ICAIC filmmakers in smaller sessions on the subject of documentary theory and practice. That evening, Guevara took his guest over to a cafe at the corner of 12th and 23rd Streets, where Fidel Castro had paused on one of his evening rambles and was carrying on animated conversations with fifty fellow Cubans. Castro welcomed Ivens to Cuba, talked over his film project with him, suggested a visit to the new Chaplin Cine-club which was about to open (Ivens followed his advice and used a sequence shot there in TRAVEL NOTEBOOK), evaluated the quality of a newly arrived shipment of Chinese rice, talked over the idea of charging varying prices for seats in the Cine-club as a means of accommodating the unmanageable crowds anticipated, suggested a second film idea on the volunteer militia for Ivens, and sounded out Guevara on a plan for improving the bus service to the Cine-club location during show times.

The next day, the arrangements for Ivens' filmmaking tour with a group of young ICAIC filmmakers were finalized and the third morning they set off in a jeep on the tour of the island that is recounted in TRAVEL NOTEBOOK. Along with Ivens were two camerapersons, two assistant operators, two assistant directors, a business manager, and two portable 35mm cameras. This crew included Jorge Herrera, now one of ICAIC's leading camerapersons and well known abroad for having shot Solás' CANTATA DE CHILE (1973-1976) and Gomez' THE FIRST CHARGE OF THE MACHETE (1969); Jorge Fraga, who went on to become a leading documentarist (THE NEW SCHOOL, 1973) and is now the new programming head for ICAIC; José Massip, who also went on to direct documentaries, including some prize-winning ones about dance; Ramon Suarez, an operator who had directed a few shorts under the old regime and was to shoot all of Tomás Gutierrez Alea's features through MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (1968) before finally emigrating; and Alberto Roldan, an assistant director who also wound up directing documentaries. The excursion was coordinated by Saul Yelin, ICAICs Head of International Relations until his much-lamented death in 1977. The filming was to be silent since Cuba's only sound system at that time was being used in a major feature project already underway. A general outline had been drawn up for TRAVEL NOTEBOOK, but there was plenty of room for improvisation.

For the second project on the People's Militia, the group waited until they reached the mountainous Escambray region, where they were able to follow a mopping-up offensive against bands of U.S.-armed counterrevolutionaries.

After six weeks of filming (during the peak of the rainy season), the crew returned to Havana and Ivens to Paris, the rushes under his arm, leaving Fraga and the others to finish some shooting for both films. The material was processed in Paris, a technically delicate matter Ivens said in a letter back to Yelin, but only two of the shots were out of focus. [2]

Other letters back to Havana requested additional material as the editing progressed, criticized with a firm professorial tone footage that was too abstract, undefined, or lacking in variety and dynamism, and enthusiastically praised the rest. When the Cubans apologized for delays in returning the required shots because of an imminent invasion, Ivens gently reminded them of the crucial propaganda function envisioned for the two films, which were to inform hundreds of millions of spectators of Cuba's strength. The material was finally finished in early 1961, and Fraga came to Paris to help Ivens put the finishing touches on the editing and the sonorization. Harold Gramatges, the Cuban ambassador to Paris, was persuaded to compose a score for the two films, the one for TRAVEL NOTEBOOK including a large amount of Cuban folk music.

The French censors swooped down the moment Ivens tried to release the films that same year, demanding and getting the excision of all unfriendly references to the U.S. (of which there were a fair share). The films eventually reached a substantial public in French political and cine-club circles in this censored form and among the domestic Cuban public in their undiluted Spanish versions. In Europe, they served alongside Chris Marker's better known, more personal film, CUBA SI! (1961), as an introduction to the achievements of the fledgling Revolution.

Today, Ivens' two Cuban films are seldom revived except in connection with Ivens retrospectives (including the eightieth birthday Ivens smash in Amsterdam in November 1978). They deserve wider exposure. Not only are they fascinating documents on the early days of the Cuban Revolution; they also offer stirring models of the kind of Third-World film activism which Ivens almost single-handedly pioneered a whole generation before anyone else on the Western Left, an activism that lends solidarity and resources to local initiatives without imposing external models of any kind.

All of the thematic preoccupations of the Cuban cinema in its early years, when ICAIC production was overwhelmingly dominated by the documentary mode, emerge in TRAVEL NOTEBOOK and A PEOPLE IN ARMS. A memorable sequence in the latter film, for example, demonstrates the top priority job of promoting the national literacy campaign: an illiterate recruit is learning to write, a close-up catching his rough peasant's hand firmly guided by the hand of his teacher. The early emphasis on housing and cooperatives is also reflected in one of NOTEBOOK's better sequences, an intense before-and-after treatment of a fishing village literally transformed by the introduction of a cooperative. The same film also echoes the early interest of Cuban documentarists in experimental forms of popular democracy, an interest which resulted in Gutierrez Alea's film ASAMBLEA GENERAL (GENERAL ASSEMBLY, 1960) about a 1960 mass meeting of one million Cubans in Havana. NOTEBOOK contained footage of the same mass meeting as well as of the popular demonstrations that were an important political forum during the period.

Ivens' two films in general express the concomitant feelings of extreme urgency and of euphoria which were prevalent in the filmmaking community in the early years. Cuban filmmakers felt very much involved in a race against the inevitable Bay of Pigs (it happened the following year); they saw their films as essential to the survival of the Revolution and exulted in this new conception of the role of the filmmaker in Cuban society. A PEOPLE IN ARMS contains angry denunciations of U.S. interference in Latin America, including footage of sugar fields set ablaze by incendiary rockets and close-ups of U.S. labels on captured weapons (shots almost identical to those in SPANISH EARTH twenty years earlier which had denounced the Nazi arms in use in Spain). There is also footage of the militant anti-American demonstrations in Havana late in 1960 in which Chase Manhattan and the United Fruit Company and the others are "buried" in a procession of symbolic coffins. The nationalization of U.S. companies having been finalized about this time, Cubans knew retaliation would not be long in coming.

In this context, Ivens has recently revealed that he was more involved in the defense of the Revolution than had previously been thought. In addition to the work he undertook with the young documentarists, Ivens spent some weeks giving emergency instruction in combat cinematography within the Cuban army. Ivens is fond of reminiscing about the spirit and energy of his students in this subject, most of whom were workers and peasants without any formal education. Forty trainees shared a single camera among them, a Bolex-like Payar, and fifteen successfully graduated the first year. Ivens provided them with twenty-five homemade wooden models of the Eymo camera, weighted with lead so as to have the correct feel. The students would stage mock battles with their fake cameras and guns, practicing their combat techniques "under fire" and afterwards telling their fellow students what footage they had obtained. Ivens in return would enchant them with his stories of real combat twenty years earlier on the Madrid front.


Of Ivens' two Cuban films, TRAVEL NOTEBOOK is the one which follows most closely the travelogue pattern which appealed so much to his French contemporaries. Literally tracking Ivens' progress around the country on his tour, the film first shows each stage of the trip on a map sketched in front of the camera. Each new location is used as the pretext for the exploration of yet another aspect of the Revolution: education, culture, health care, defense, agriculture, industry, and political organization. Perhaps just as important in terms of the non-Cuban public, each stopover also provides glimpses of the quality of life in the abstract, the atmosphere both of normalcy and of preparedness: that Cubans are happy and healthy, hard at work, and still fond of baseball, that children are playing everywhere.

At each stopover, it is an exploration of the physical environment, usually an architectural one, which leads directly into the specific aspect of the Revolution to be highlighted. Panning shots of the skyline of Havana, for example, lead into an analysis of the country's branch-plant economy before the Revolution and then to a dynamic visual depiction of the act of nationalization itself. The posters and banners of the demonstrators are seen covering up the signs of the U.S. corporations; the procession of coffins announces the demise of each corporation. Ivens intercuts all of this with shots taken from vehicles moving through streets filled with life and energy. The viewer gets the impression of a busy, healthy society retaking possession of its own environment. A similar procedure occurs in the Trinidad segment: a survey of the town's colonial architecture leads to a recognition of the importance of the Cuban artistic heritage and of how it must be preserved in a "positive" way.

The sequences dealing with the marsh region of Zapata and with the fishing cooperative at Manzanilla, the latter already mentioned, are perhaps the most successful in tying the physical landscape to the political landscape. In both cases, the visuals clearly and simply pursue the basic before-and-after logic of the film. In the Zapata sequence, the camera first moves about the marshes absorbing the landscape and noting the penurious traditional industries of the region, finally moving in on a new sight, a film of workers harvesting the rice for which "there had to be a revolution to plant, yet which was so simple." There are also some concise but evocative glimpses of the local lumber industry with late afternoon lighting in a mill casting a romantic tinge on workers gathered about the saw. The sequence concludes with the waterborne camera gliding up and down the new canals to demonstrate the metamorphosis of a landscape in the wake of revolution. Ivens has always found this theme, with its potential for great panoramas of earth-moving equipment and cranes, irresistible. In the final shot, the camera eases out into open water past a tourist city being built on a platform above the marsh, another new industry in view. The newly dredged canals reminded Ivens of his native Holland. This reflection added to the commentary is one of the frequent personal touches which tend to give the whole film the authenticity of an eyewitness account.

Ivens' cross-section of the new Cuban society also includes some glimpses of the Cuban cinema, which add considerably to its interest for film historians. The new Chaplin Cine-club which Castro had pointed out to him at the beginning of his visit enters the film as a symbol of the rebirth of the national cinema. Ivens used footage of the conversion of an old movie palace into the club in the introduction and epilogue of the film. He added the detail that it had originally been built for the mistress of a government official under Batista and addressed a dedication to Chaplin himself, "who used to sing so often of liberty and justice in your films."

The Manzanilla sequence has a similar rhythm. First some fine sunny footage at close range shows the village fishermen unloading their catch. Then Ivens exposes the squalor of their customary living conditions. Naked children roam about through a cluster of fly-ridden huts, apparently on equal terms with the local pigs, and passively drink the milk offered to them in front of the camera. Such scenes, once the picturesque staples of photo albums, the commentary suggests sardonically, are now becoming bad memories. The remark has the effect of deflating the "exotic" reading inevitably imposed on the scene by a Western public's stereotypes of "straw huts and naked children under a tropical sky." (Ivens later recalled how he had urged the crew in this scene to avoid the neutral sentimental eye of observation and to "attack reality.") A sudden close-up of a bulldozer blade abruptly interrupts the scene at this point and shatters the stereotype to usher in a sequence boasting of the new construction transforming the village, another architectural metamorphosis which provides an index of the Revolution's accomplishments. The camera now confronts rows of gleaming prefabricated houses and wanders through their interiors. Topping it all off is a final romantic vista of a new settlement rising up by the sea. For Ivens, the old chronicler of revolutions, social change must be visualized in material terms, as changes in people's everyday lives, their work, and their living conditions – "that it is good to find your name linked to Cuba, to images of hope and joy."

Other reflections on the "brand new cinema" going about its job are scattered throughout the film. After repeating the slogans "Yankee go home," and then "Nylon go home," the commentary adds a new one, "Western go home." At another point, there is a sequence showing Ivens among ICAIC students in an editing room demonstrating some kind of animation technique. Live-action views of firefighters in burning canefields are followed by animated depictions of them based on children's paintings. The commentary explains that the cinema is born in the simple job of recounting just such struggles. It adds that the cinema must show how the Revolution was not a spontaneous accident, but that it "comes from way back, from decades of struggles," at which point the camera moves through the editing-room group (including Gutierrez Alea and Jorge Fraga) onto a Moviola screen where archive footage of those struggles then appears. There are pre-revolutionary demonstrations, guerilla groups in 1958 with guitars as well as guns, a shot of Castro and Che relaxing around a campfire, and then one of them leading a liberation procession on horseback. Later on in the film, we see the director Oscar Torres shooting a film about peasant uprisings in the thirties (REALENGO 18) on location in the colonial city of Trinidad, and the commentary reminds us again that the Cuban cinema must remember and retell this history.

From time to time, other landscapes as well conjure up memories of Cuba's revolutionary past. The streets of Santiago de Cuba reveal traces of past struggles — a plaque, for example, which points out the spot where a revolutionary hero, Frank Pais, "the soul of the underground struggle," was assassinated. The Havana section of the film includes a funeral sequence in which six million flowers, one for every Cuban, are sent out to sea in memory of Camilo Cienfuegos, another revolutionary leader, recently dead. It is a passage which communicates in simple but compelling terms the intense collective emotion Ivens witnessed and participated in on this occasion.

It is clear then from this brief description of TRAVEL NOTEBOOK that Ivens had quickly assimilated all of the concerns of the new Cuban cinema and had incorporated them into this work. As one of Ivens' students recalled later, Ivens came to Cuba not so much to make his films but to be of service to Cubans making theirs. [3] Rather than the subjective impressions of a tourist, TRAVEL NOTEBOOK is a summation of Cubans' images of themselves in 1960; an open, passionate tribute to the Revolution, not an "objective" evaluation. This historical resonance and ideological commitment, together with the personal Ivens touches and inflections throughout, give the film a continuing relevance, despite the occasional evidence of hasty shooting, of the obvious shortage of stock, or of inexperienced camera handling. In fact, these latter aspects of the film increase its impact and vitality in so far as they evoke the learning situation going on behind the camera during every take.


A PEOPLE IN ARMS has for its subject popular preparations for national defense and thus has a much more concentrated dramatic and topical focus than its companion film. The urgency of the subject comes across clearly in the film, giving it a stronger emotional force. The film was designed to inform Western audiences of the Cuban people's mobilization and of their unanimous determination to defend their Revolution. In the domestic market, it was intended to reinforce this determination and aid in recruitment for the volunteer militia like a number of ICAIC documentaries on related subjects, such as Gutierrez Alea's MUERTE AL INVASOR (DEATH TO THE INVADER, 1961), a 1961 Bay of Pigs reportage. Ivens' particular slant in his film was the genuinely popular character of the Cuban mobilization, the fact that the Cuban masses themselves and not just a professional army were participating fully in it. The film commentary constantly hammers home this message:

"… with 500 million dollars, a fleet, and rockets you can buy a government, but you can't snuff out the will of the people. To retake these oil refineries, you'd need six million mercenaries, one for each Cuban."

"Only a government that fully answers the aspirations of a people can distribute arms to it … Every factory becomes a fortress, every furrow a trench…"

The recurring images of the film are just that — views of whole crowds of men and women being issued guns or rushing out of a workplace for militia exercises.

Because of this populist inspiration and because the film crew followed a single brigade over an extended period of time, the film has a more intimate feel than NOTEBOOK. A series of individuals acquires a concise but vivid identity in short close-up confrontations with the camera. The brigade itself apparently grew accustomed to Ivens and the crew and began to relax in front of the camera. There are some fine informal scenes of soldiers lunching, clowning with each other, grouped under plastic tarpaulins in the pouring rain, or boisterously strumming their guns like guitars on the back of a truck. Ivens' relationship with the militia also meant that he was easily able to reconstruct the lengthy combat sequences with the men, filming jungle skirmishes and pursuits that are quite effective within the terms of the semi-dramatized classical documentary still used by Ivens at this point.

To emphasize the grassroots bases of the Cuban mobilization, Ivens begins the film in a remote mountain village, watching the local men drilling for the first time. The scene is affectionately comic with its inclusion of the confusion and errors of these peasants, who have never had to march together before, and of their obvious embarrassment at their children running alongside, imitating them and making fun. From this point, the structure of the film is climactic, the militia appearing more and more disciplined and formidable as the film progresses through various early phases of the training, notably the literacy program, and then follows the seasoned brigade in its pursuit of counterrevolutionaries in the last part of the film. The final note is one of confidence, even defiance, a strong "up" ending being a requirement of agitprop filmmaking mastered by Ivens decades earlier. The initial perspective of the single village steadily expands through views of mass militia drills in large urban and industrial settings until an entire nation, editorially synthesized, seems on the march.

The film is more than a conglomeration of marching columns, however. Everywhere are indications of the new life which is to be defended. Aside from the pointed reference to the literacy campaign already mentioned, there are also hints of changing sex roles, of advances in agriculture and health care, low-key scenes of soldiers fraternizing with peasants, and once again continually recurring views of children at play. There are also pauses in the sprightly pace of the film for a particularly lyrical perspective of some landscape or other, a waterbird taking off from a jungle river or mountain mists filtering through waving trees. Every sequence projects the insistence that life goes on in the midst of crisis, as it had in SPANISH EARTH and would in THE SEVENTEENTH PARALLEL, and that it is beautiful.

The commentary for A PEOPLE IN ARMS leaves a somewhat more overbearing impression than NOTEBOOK does, perhaps because the visuals in the militia film are tighter and need a verbal counterpoint less. Some of the mannerisms of the late classical documentary soundtrack seem unnecessarily distracting in A PEOPLE IN ARMS — dramatized voice-over dialogue, for instance, to liven up a few silently filmed group scenes, ironic musical phrases (an off-key Marine Hymn when the counterrevolutionaries are captured), and the somewhat excessive use of action music and percussion during the semi-dramatized combat scenes. The commentary itself is less personal than the other film's reflective counterpoint. In short, too often the soundtrack appears to be trying to compensate for the lack of sync recording rather than making a virtue of this necessity like the other film and the best pre-verité travelogues. But this is the only major aspect of the film to have aged badly — otherwise it stands well among Ivens' other records of the courage of peoples under siege.

One of the most interesting aspects of A PEOPLE IN ARMS is the light it sheds on the problem posed for Ivens and the Third World as a whole by the ascendancy of cinema-verité during the early sixties. On the surface, this film has more of a verité orientation than TRAVEL NOTEBOOK, not only because of its greater intimacy with its subjects and the spontaneity this implies but also because of the greater flexibility and mobility of its camera handling. Despite the awkwardness of the 35mm format, the severe limitation of silent shooting, and a low shooting ratio, Ivens and his Cuban crew were clearly responding to the potential of verité improvisation in the film — in the encounters with the colorful bit-part characters scattered throughout, as well as with the soldiers, and in the pursuit scenes with their opportunities for experimentation with hand-held camera and walking movements. In these latter scenes, there are a number of walking shots of considerable agility through the jungle undergrowth and frequent use of swish pans both expressively and as editing devices. In NOTEBOOK as well, there is a sequence where the camera literally takes part in a folk dance, moving rhythmically through a double column of dancers.

José Massip later remembered shooting a scene which puts the crew's growing awareness of verité into relief. [4] Massip recalled the exhausted men in the patrol resting around in a farmyard pump, some asleep, others drinking or lounging around. An old peasant wandered up carrying a bundle of squawking chickens at each end of a long pole over his shoulder. This opportunity for a colorful scene was unexpected and even unnoticed by the ICAIC men until they suddenly saw inspiration light up in Ivens' eyes. Ivens got them quickly to move the camera spontaneously in medium and close range about the old man and his indignant load as he chatted with the patrol. The scene is short but works well with its dynamic energy and the internal contrast between the resting soldiers, the frantic birds, and the man's vivid and natural gestures. The students thus saw their usual inclination towards careful planning and setting up challenged by this openness to spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

For the most part, however, it must be said that the verité sensibility does not dominate the film. Most of it shows the careful precision of a director who is watching the footage meter very carefully (though both films must have looked much more like the real raw thing to contemporary audiences). In fact, the factor of economy alone may be responsible for cautious use of verité in the Western sense by both Ivens and most Third-World filmmakers throughout the sixties. They simply couldn't afford the large shooting ratios that Western directors in TV and in state-subsidized bodies like the National Film Board of Canada took for granted. The most typical shots in unstructured situations in A PEOPLE IN ARMS involve careful setups in which subjects pass the camera in close-up one by one on a jungle path. Tripod shots are a staple of the film, as are the long motorized tracks from jeeps and boats (and even a helicopter), which Ivens found an inexpensive but expressive alternative to tripod setups at this point in his career and more reliable than hand-held improvisation.

There is another consideration as well in Ivens continuing reliance on classical shooting techniques during the sixties, an instinctive distrust of the more flamboyant uses of verité then becoming common. This distrust arises partly from what had always been Ivens' instinctive formal conservatism, his preference for the fully understood language of a given period over innovative effects which might have startled his public or drawn attention away from his subject itself. A second obvious factor was that Ivens had not shot in a country where his native language is spoken since 1933. The European variant of verité, the cinéma-direct, required the director's spontaneous linguistic participation in the event being filmed rather than simply a visual observation of it. Ivens' partnership in the late sixties with Marceline Loridan, a trained soundperson, would help him overcome this particular handicap.

Throughout the mid-sixties, however, Ivens expressed specifically ideological reservations about verité which are worth considering. For one thing, verité quickly became associated with the auteurist cinema of individualist personal expression, clearly a second priority for the Third World, and for the same reasons for European radical filmmaking as well. Ivens also felt that verité encouraged filmmakers to avoid taking a political stand. "In verité," he said, "people often talk too much and the director not enough." It furthermore didn't require young directors to think during the shoot and sometimes even afterwards. "If you know how to swim," Ivens told an interviewer on another occasion, "it's better to swim towards something rather than to flounder about." As late as 1965, he would insist that only a commentary reestablishes the fully responsible, personal intervention of the director, the author, or the commentator, the stand taken by the film. Verité posed the danger of staying on the surface of the truth, of "caressing reality instead of penetrating it." [5]

Lessons with Joris

By late 1960, Cubans were already feeling the effects of an embargo that was cultural as well as economic. This is one reason, no doubt, that ICAIC so eagerly welcomed the procession of foreign filmmakers who came to Cuba in the early years to witness and to film the achievements of the Revolutions. The foreigners' contributions to the Cuban cinema varied widely.

The Italians Zavattini and Armand Gatti actively collaborated on co-productions (though the strong debt the Cubans owed to Italian neorealism more likely came from the facts that several of the leading Cuban filmmakers, including Gutierrez Alea, García Espinosa, and Oscar Torres, had studied in Rome; that Italian films had been a staple of the active cine-club circuit before the Revolution; and that there were many similarities in the production contexts of postwar Italy and post-Revolution Cuba). Also involved in co-productions were directors from socialist countries such as the Soviets Roman Karmen and Mikhail Kalatazov and lesser-known figures from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Frenchmen Claude Barret and Claude Otzenberger came as well and gathered some rather superficial journalistic impressions of the Revolution, which were broadcast in France and on CBS in the United States. The American Richard Leacock's film, YANKEE NO! (1960), urged more U.S. sympathy towards their ex-colony (whose khaki-clad leader had just created a sensation at the U.N.) before it was too late, i.e., before Cuba Went Over to Communism.

Of all the visitors, the Cubans themselves felt particularly grateful to the Danish filmmaker Theodor Christensen, as well as to Ivens, who came in the fall of 1960 and returned for a second teaching visit cut short by illness in 1962, and Chris Marker, who made films in Cuba in 1961 (CUBA SI!) and again in 1970 (BATTLE OF THE TEN MILLION). Both of Marker's witty and perceptive essays are commonly shown. But despite Marker's close interaction with Cuban filmmakers, there was never the sense as with Ivens that he had come to put himself completely at the disposal of Cuban filmmakers and that the filming of his own work was secondary to this aim. One filmmaker referred to Ivens' role as that of a "technical adviser" rather than a "theoretician" and that his influence was less as the maker of films to be imitated than as a filmmaker whose "conduct in the face of today's reality" was an inspiration. [6] The impression Ivens made seems to have been out of all proportion to the briefness of his two visits. [7]

Undoubtedly it was the period in the jeep with the seven young filmmakers which was most responsible for this impression, each sequence turning out to be a valuable lesson. One sequence which had considerable pedagogical impact was a filmed conversation of two militiamen guarding a bridge. The crew had come across the pair quite by accident, an old peasant animatedly telling stories to his partner, a much younger man. The final version of A PEOPLE IN ARMS retains only a few shots from the incident, a jeep-borne track coming up to the bridge, panning as the camera discovers and picks out the two guards, and then close-up explorations of their faces as they talk. For all the brevity of the scene, the effect is one of concentrated energy. At the time of the shoot, the crew were struck not only by Ivens' instinctual recognition of a good scene and of "natural actors" but also of the way in which he was able to make the two subjects feel comfortable and trustful with regard to the camera. Aside from absorbing the mechanics of shooting such a scene — the avoidance of a close-up lens and the provision of good covering material — the students watched how Ivens picked out the expressive and typical details of the men's gestures and appearances. His additional secret for bringing out the "natural actors" in such subjects was his authentic respect for them, his involvement with them as human beings rather than as subjects.

To this effect, Jorge Fraga remembered a heated argument between Ivens and a peasant that he at first found shocking because of the obvious social disadvantage of the latter. But he suddenly realized that it was rather a total absence of paternalism and sentimentality that was responsible for Ivens' attitude, his assumption of the peasant's equality despite social and cultural barriers. [8] Ivens' attitude was essential to the active collaboration between artist and subject in his work, which the Cubans greatly admired, a clear challenge for Havana intellectuals such as Fraga and Massip. The triumph of Ivens' approach came when he-attempted to persuade captured counterrevolutionaries to reenact their nighttime surrender for A PEOPLE IN ARMS. The prisoners, no doubt bewildered by the Communists' generous treatment, consented and can be seen in the film emerging from the jungle, hands above their heads.

The ICAIC filmmakers drew another lesson from the shooting of the village drilling sequence early in the film where the new recruits are training for the first time. The camera enters a small neighboring house at a given moment where the wife of one of the participants is laundering, and for a few moments the drilling is seen from her point of view framed by her doorway and verandah. As her husband takes his shirt to go to join the drill, Ivens decided to involve the woman more completely in the scene by the simple twist of having her hand him the shirt as he was leaving. The gesture is eliminated from the final version as far as I can see, but the crew were impressed with the importance of involving all elements in a given scene in dynamic interaction to enchance its dramatic value.

(This is not to say that Ivens two Cuban films do not perceive more radical changes in women's roles than what is implied by this anecdote. Although the village recruits and the jungle patrol do not involve women, the scenes depicting industrial and urban militia organization have women participating fully and the issue is emphasized on the soundtrack in a voice-over conversation between two male militiamen:

"You know that the women in my village have organized a brigade? My wife with a gun? I'd sure like to see that …"

The narrator concludes,

"All the same at thirty years of age, its hard to begin … but a people in revolution learn very quickly …"

Ivens' decision to involve the woman in this simple action has another implication. His perpetual readiness to intervene and recreate reality through the use of semi-documentary dramatization is not very easily digested by contemporary spectators nurtured on the nonintervention orthodoxy of U.S. verité. The controversy between pro-interventionists and those who argue that the filmmaker must record reality from the outside only is not a recent one in relation to Ivens career. He defended his right to restage reality for the first time with the Vertov camp in the USSR back in 1932 when he reconstructed a scene for his film, SONG OF HEROES, on blast-furnace construction in the Urals. The scene in question was a nighttime shock brigade procession, torchlit, that could not be filmed at its original occurrence. Ivens continued to insist on this right to reconstruct even during the period of the orthodoxy of verité, maintaining that the classical documentarist's use of mise-en-scene was in no way outmoded by the new flexibility of camera technology. One of his Cuban students even praised the way Ivens reconstructs events, when necessary, "in the simplest way that most resembles life." [8] The counterrevolutionary prisoners emerging from the jungle, for example, are in extreme long shot just as they would have been if the actual event had been filmed. "If you steal, steal well," was a remark Ivens made on the subject in 1967.

It is of course Ivens' own total confidence in the commitment of the artist as the sole index of the authenticity of a film that leads him to this easily distorted position. While he was clearly right that the non-interference of the artist is no guarantee whatsoever of the truth value of a film in itself, it was not until the filming of HOW YUKONG MOVED THE MOUNTAINS in 1972 that Ivens would discover the solution to this thorny problem. In this film series, he consolidated the strategy of openly displaying, using, and even celebrating the collaboration of artist and subject as a primary condition of the film.

Ivens provided another insight for his crew on TRAVEL NOTEBOOK when it came to filming the archetypal Cuban activity, sugar-cane cutting. Ivens convinced the ICAIC group to get involved themselves in the action of cutting cane so that they would understand directly and subjectively all aspects of this action, the totality of the physical components of the job, including the resistance offered by the cane. Ivens urged them to discover

"the true secret of the rhythm of the mechanical action of cutting cane, the moment at which this rhythm can be interrupted by another action, drying one's sweat, taking a drink of water, resting."

Ivens had evidently never forgotten the Soviet workers in the early thirties who had praised his Dutch film of Zuiderzee dike construction because of its scrupulous adherence to shot angles, camera placements, and editing rhythms which authentically reflect the physical requirements of the work and the point of view of the workers themselves.

The final essence of what Ivens reinforced in his Cuban co-workers' minds during his visits was that the immediate, urgent task of filming the Revolution was more important than the development of individual techniques or styles or a foreknowledge of the classical principles of film aesthetics. He encouraged them to rely on their own instinctual feelings about a task, to trust in their own innate human sympathies and interactions with their fellow Cubans in a dialectical relation with their own clearly defined ideological aims. Perhaps thinking of his decade in the moribund East German film industry of the pre-thaw period, Ivens' advice was to avoid becoming bureaucrats of the camera and to "let life into the studios." This accumulation of immediate, urgent material, this filming directly and quickly of all that was happening, he said, was the major means of achieving a national cinema. [9] Ivens was uncannily perceptive in pinpointing in this way the formula by which the Cubans were already building one of the most dynamic of all contemporary national cinemas.


1. This and all other quotations from the commentaries of CARNET DE VIAJE and PUEBLO ARMADO are my translations from the French. I have consulted the copies of these two films in the archives of the Nederlands Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, and La Cinematheque quebecoise, Montreal for the purposes of this article.

2. This and other quotations from and paraphrases of the correspondence between Ivens and his Cuban associates are taken with thanks from the Joris Ivens Archive, Nederlands Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

3. Jose Massip's recollections of his work with Ivens were included in the special Ivens issue of Cine Cubano (Havana, 1960), Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 24-28. Translation of this and other material from Cine Cubano by Ross Higgins and myself.

4. Ibid.

5. Ivens' major pronouncements on cinema-verité, as referred to in this discussion, are as follows: interview on LE CIEL, LA TERRE (Image et son, Paris, 1965) translated and reprinted in Joris Ivens, The Camera and I (New York, 1968), p. 257; plus three interviews I have translated from the French for the purposes of citations and paraphrases in this article — Jeune Cinema (Paris), No. 15, May 1966, France Nouvelle (Paris), No. 1035, April 18, 1965, and Lettres françaises (Paris), No. 970, March 27, 1963.

6. Fausto Canel, interviewed by Ameria and Gerard Gozlan (January 1963), reprinted in Robert Grelier, Jane Ivens (Paris, 1965), pp. 128-29. My translation.

7. "Mesa Redonda Sobre Joris Ivens," Cine Cubano (Havana), Vol. 2, No. 14-15, pp. 18-40. An interesting discussion by a panel of Cuban filmmakers testifying to Ivens' influence on the Cuban cinema.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.