In her all-too-brief life, the film-maker Sara Gómez (1942–74) applied a critical ethnographic eye in documenting everyday lives in Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
One of only two black film-makers in ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos), and the institute’s first (in her lifetime, Cuba’s only) woman director, she was “concerned with representing the Afro-Cuban community, women’s issues, and the treatment of the marginalized sectors of society” (black people and women, the poor, religious, and young)—highlighting social injustice, as well as racial and gender discrimination. *
From De cierta maniera.
Most of her oeuvre consists of short films, such as her debut Iré a Santiago (1964)—visually innovative despite some almost touristy images, its voiceover as yet unchallenging but eschewing the clichéd travelogue style later parodied by Monty Python—note the funeral from 4.07, and Carnival from 11.53:
The social agenda (both the regime’s and her own) develops in Una isla para Miguel (1968):
In her final, full-length, masterpiece De cierta maniera (One way or another, 1974) Gómez incorporates a fictional love story within a documentary style to shed light on tensions in the revolution, using real people playing themselves alongside professional actors. While the style of the criticism session that opens the film may recall China under Maoism, her message is far more probing than in Chinese films of that era. Here it is:
As Alonso Aguilar comments,
Melodramatic outbursts of emotion are followed by an erratic camera flowing freely inside crumbling edifices. Sociological musings fade in favour of heartfelt musical renditions. Transitions are rarely seamless, clashing with every canon possible (even the revolutionary ones), but precisely because of such frontal disregard, Goméz’s cinema feels liberated. Only answering to the concerns of the souls framed on screen, every moment is used to challenge official narratives and position the urgency of the work still to be done.
Note also the vignette on the Abakuá religious fraternity (14.35–18.23)—here Gómez’s analysis concurs with socialist orthodoxy:
This cultural manifestation epitomises the social aspirations, norms, and values of male chauvinism in Cuban society. We believe that its traditional, secret, exclusive nature sets it against progress and prevents it from assimilating the values of modern life. Therefore, in the present stage it generates marginality, promoting a code of parallel social relations that is the antithesis of social integration.
Discuss—for a range of more nuanced approaches to ritual, refer to Catherine Bell…
With Gómez’s black middle-class background (see her 1966 short Guanabacoa: crónica de mi familia), her musical training was classical—but she was animated by the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the streets, lovingly documented in the fine Y… tenemos sabor (1967): **
The procession from 22.27 even features a shawm! ***
Here’s the illuminating documentary Sara Gomez, an Afro-Cuban filmmaker (Alessandra Müller, 2004):
* * *
More recently, note the films on Cuba in the Growing into music series. Akin to Goméz’s stress on marginalized groups, for the Maoist decades in China Guo Yuhua documents “the sufferers”—ironically, the peasant majority, again including women. For musicians’ “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”, click here. ****
Sara Goméz dancing the cha-cha-chá, from Agnes Varda’s Salut les Cubains (1963).
* Making Gómez a fully-paid-up member of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati—and quite right too.
** More piffling linguistic pedantry: the three dots should indeed follow the opening word Y, although many citations put them before it. No less pedantically, I note that the 2004 documentary seems to lack the accent on Gómez’s surname. Yes, I should get a life.
*** On YouTube the coda appears to be a promo for Nicolás Guillén Landrián‘s 1963 short En un barrio viejo, another intriguing film.
**** This isn’t the place for an analysis of suitable venues for a revolution (cf. Bill Bryson), but I recall a tour of France with an early music group playing worthy recreations of Qing-dynasty court music, where we ended up in the same hotel as a young early music group from Cuba, playing recreations of early Cuban music in the same festival. While our group were all buried in our arid, ponderous early music conservatoire shtick, the Cubans exuded sensuous physicality from every pore, laughing, grooving, alive. With All Due Respect, I realised I was doing the wrong gig—like the musos’ recurring dream. For the denial of the body, cf. Madonna and McClary.
One thought on “Sara Gómez films the revolution”
**** After having watched most of the above videos I am inclined to sympathise with your preference – as ‘fine’ as the Chinese court music must have been…
Your 4-star note is one of my favourite ‘moments’ in this piece, together with all the music and SG’s genius!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person