"Our country, or death": Castro's Revolution on Film

02 December 2016

Area Studies | History

With last week’s news of the death of Fidel Castro and Cuba’s nine days of mourning underway, I thought it would be fitting to explore Adam Matthew’s upcoming Socialism on Film resource to discover how the divisive leader and his legacy have been captured on film. I soon found my answer in the 1961 documentary Island Ablaze, a powerful propaganda film which tells the story of the Cuban revolution and explores its implications for Cuba’s future generations.


Island Ablaze, 1961 © BFI

The image above is a still from the film’s opening sequence which shows the journey of a little boy called Buenaventura who travels with his father down the Sierra Maestra mountains to a new school “built for [him] by the revolution”. The narrator explains:

“Buenaventura doesn't yet know how many people gave their lives so that he could descend to the valley. Buenaventura will be the first of all the generations of his forebears who is able to write his name.”

This powerful opening sets the tone for a visceral and passionate depiction of a rejuvenated country celebrating freedom from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. Island Ablaze was directed by Roman Karmen, an influential Soviet documentary filmmaker, and it presents a carefully curated vision of a living, breathing Cuba that has one foot firmly planted in tradition whilst the other takes a giant step into socialism. It portrays the timeless joie de vivre spirit of the city of Havana, the fecundity of the peoples’ tobacco and sugar plantations under new land reforms, and the promise of opportunity for children studying in new schools under Castro’s literacy campaign. It’s a heady mix and provides a fascinating example of the visual propaganda for which the Cuban revolution is famous.

The film’s presentation of this spirit of rejuvenation and the conviction to pursue it is captured most effectively, however, in footage of the celebrations for the second anniversary of the revolution. It features scenes of one of Castro’s famously impassioned speeches and can be viewed in the clip below.



A short clip of the celebrations for the second anniversary of the Cuban revolution, 1961 © BFI

Island Ablaze was originally produced in the USSR and Cuba by Moscow’s Central Documentary Film Studios, and is part of a collection of socialist propaganda films which were re-released with English subtitles by UK distributor Educational and Television Films (ETV). In conjunction with the BFI, Adam Matthew has digitised this collection which will be published in three modules in Socialism on Film

Wars and Revolutions, the first module of Socialism on Film, will be published in Spring 2017. To find out more about this resource, read the press release here or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for trial access and price enquiries.

About the Author

Amy Hubbard

Amy Hubbard

Since joining Adam Matthew’s editorial team in January 2015 I’ve had the privilege to work on some fantastic resources including ‘World’s Fairs: A Global History of Exhibitions’, 'Race Relations in America‘ and 'Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda’. My academic background is in literature and film and my main academic interests lie in visual culture, in particular anything to do with David Bowie.

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