by John Hess
Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 15-17
One of the highlights of my trip to Cuba last June was the opportunity to see two excellent films by Manuel Octavio Gómez — USTEDES TIENEN LA PALABRA (NOW IT'S UP TO YOU, 1974) and UNA MUJER, UN HOMBRE, UN CIUDAD (A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY, 1977) — and to talk at length with the director about his work. I want to write about these two films because I find them very stimulating and suggestive examples of Marxist filmmaking. If we can adequately analyze what the Cubans have done in films such as these (and in films such as MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, LUCÍA, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, and THE OTHER FRANCISCO), we will learn a lot about the possibilities of dialectical, Marxist filmmaking and something about what the differences between Marxist and bourgeois films are. I hope, too, that we will have expanded our ideas about what kinds of films we can make here.
Unfortunately, neither of these films is yet available in the United States. Since I saw each film only once during a very busy week of film viewing and discussions at ICAIC, I cannot analyze them (politically and artistically) as closely as they merit. I hope that they will soon become available to us. Beyond their theoretical importance as examples of Marxist art, these two films are among the few Cuban features that present and explore the complexity of everyday life in a revolutionary society. They are both critical films and, for that reason, show more of the openness and humanness of Cuban society today than other, more self-congratulatory, Cuban films.
Since few Jump Cut readers will have seen these films, I will begin with brief plot summaries. Then I wish to show how Gómez has used popular film forms to involve the mass audience in Cuba (who love movies passionately) in a discussion of serious political issues, particularly the key revolutionary question of growth through self-criticism. Much recent film theory condemns conventional narrative films as hopelessly tainted by bourgeois ideology and therefore completely inadequate for conducting a political dialogue with an audience. While much in this critique merits careful study and discussion, an examination of many Cuban films raises serious questions about the universal applicability of these anti-narrative theories, particularly in terms of the potential relation between the mass culture audience and a politicized, accessible, and popular art.
After that, I hope to show how Gómez has transcended the bourgeois forms he uses by reversing their usual narrative flow. If these bourgeois films include politics and social issues at all, it is usually as a background theme, which the filmmaker soon abandons in order to concentrate on the moral and romantic concerns of a few central characters. Manuel Octavio Gómez's two films, however, move in the opposite direction. They open with moral questions and move out to the underlying historical and political questions. The director and scriptwriters begin with simple events as a starting point from which they dialectically unravel and analyze their whole society.
Finally, I want to criticize these films politically for their presentation of women, especially insofar as they depict women as icons or symbols rather than as ordinary participants in society.
NOW ITS UP TO YOU, a conventional, black and white, documentary-style film, is based on several real events in the mid-1960s. It takes place on a timber cooperative where in 1967 several counterrevolutionaries started a destructive forest fire that took the lives of eight workers. The film opens on the trial of the four suspected arsonists in a burned-out storage warehouse. In front sit the prosecutor and the defense attorney, each behind a small table. Between them at a larger table sit four men from the farm who are acting as judges. Facing the judges are the accused, and behind them the workers who have gathered to listen, to testify when the court calls them, and to pass judgment on the accused. The camera roams around and over this shell of a building, a constant reminder of the destruction. At first, everything takes place here. But as soon as it becomes evident that the arsonists had tried to do their dirty work elsewhere and had failed, the trial broadens out and becomes a general investigation of the whole social unit. The prosecutor and the defense attorney collaborate to ask why such an act of sabotage could occur at this particular cooperative.
Everyone connected with the farm testifies about the events leading up to the forest fire. Each witness's account is accompanied by flashbacks. Both the testimony and what we get to see in the flashbacks reveal to us those weaknesses in the farm's social organization that made it possible for the counterrevolutionaries to operate there. Overcentralized and paternalistic leadership, individual ambition, an apathetic union, ignorance among the local peasants, and systematic pilfering from the farm's warehouse are all traced as interacting factors, which contributed to making the fire possible. At the end of the trial, one of the investigators says,
A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY has a far more complex plot. As the title indicates, the film relates two parallel biographies — and also the history of a city. In the beginning of the film, Marisa Sanchez (Idalia Anreus), the housing director (an extremely important position in a socialized society) of the rapidly growing port and industrial city of Nuevitas in Camaguey Province, dies in a car accident. Miguel Mauri (Mario Balmaseda), a young native of Nuevitas who has just finished his education in Havana and has begun a comfortable career there as a sociologist, reluctantly agrees to replace Marisa, but only temporarily. Miguel becomes the detective figure, the investigator, as he tries to find out about Marisa — who she was and how she did her work. He starts out with very personal reasons for conducting this investigation. The ghost of Marisa's exemplary political life suffocates Miguel, who only wants to return to Havana as soon as possible. Everyone he talks to on his new job describes Marisa in glowing terms, and he feels unfavorably compared to her. Also, he can't comprehend the records she has left behind. He can't figure out the basis on which she assigned housing and thinks she did it subjectively and without any rigor (i.e., without using any of the scientific methods he has learned at the university). He wants to prove her wrong to validate himself. He represents the new breed of university-trained sociologist who believes he has modern scientific methods for making social decisions. Typifying this new generation of Cubans, he feels superior to the prior generation, who while not specifically trained for their jobs, just did them the best they could. In addition, he prefers life in Havana to life in the provinces and never examines the political implications of the lifestyle he had chosen.
The basic format resembles that of CITIZEN KANE. Miguel talks to a great variety of people — Marisa's mother, former husband, lover, colleagues, other workers — all of whom tell him about aspects of Marisa's life. These people's stories introduce flashbacks that relate her life in chronological order from 1959 until her death in 1976. At the same time, these flashbacks relate the rapid development of Nuevitas. Early in the film, Miguel watches a black-and-white documentary that Marisa made about Nuevitas. (In fact, Gómez made the documentary in 1968. He reshot some of it to include characters from his fictional film.) A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY is complicated and drags sometimes. It is fair to say that Manuel Octavio Gómez crammed too much into the film to sustain a fluid pace. But for anyone interested in the interaction of the personal and the political in a revolutionary society (and I'm sure that includes most Cubans), the film is fascinating in its richness and complexity.
FROM BOURGEOIS FORM TO MARXIST MOVIE
In both these films Gómez has used rather conventional Hollywood genre formats — the courtroom drama for NOW IT'S UP TO YOU and the 'detective" film or film of investigation for A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY. To draw in the audience, he has used conventional techniques or codes of suspense. In recent years many leftist filmmakers have used this format to make mass socialist films: Francesco Rosi's SALVATORE GUILIANO and ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES, Costa-Gavras' STATE OF SIEGE, and even Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS, which begins at the end and works back up to that moment in order to transcend it.
Both of Gómez's films begin by setting up enigmas that could be the starting points for quite other stories. NOW IT'S UP TO YOU could have been a story of espionage and counterespionage. It could have centered on how one Cuban became a counterrevolutionary or how one policeman or prosecutor tracked down the arsonists. A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY could have been the story of how one man finds himself in a new situation or of how his clever investigation of the past uncovers some mystery.
These enigmas are set in motion by very dramatic opening sequences in each film. The credit sequence of NOW IT'S UP TO YOU consists of a raging fire and the desperate efforts of workers to put it out. A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY opens on a grey, rainy day; police cars and an ambulance with glowing red lights have gathered on a country road to pick up the pieces after a car wreck. The death-bringing fire and Marisa's death in that car accident are the conventional dramatic events that set the films in motion, events that create mysteries other people must solve. Both events are repeated later in the films when we have a greatly enhanced understanding of their significance. This repetition is a cannon device in Cuban films (e.g., MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT and ONE WAY OR ANOTHER).
In spite of their conventional beginnings, both these films are dialectical and materialist in conception. They investigate and reveal the interconnectedness of people in society, of past and present, of the personal and the political. Gómez does not portray his characters as static, unchanging entities but as historical persons who grow and change in response to their environment. At the time of the revolution, Marisa is an uneducated housewife. After seeing what the revolution is about, she decides to participate. She becomes a dockworker, a literacy teacher, a party member, and finally struggles with the problems of assigning housing in a mushrooming seaport. Miguel begins as a smug professional who feels aloof from ordinary people. He slowly becomes more and more integrated into provincial life. Gómez does not portray these characters' growth as the inevitable unveiling of their hidden essence, as is common in bourgeois films; their personal growth comes as a result of intelligent responses to historical and social change. Who Miguel and Marisa are is not fixed but develops as the result of their struggles with their environment. History determines these characters, and they in turn make history. In fact, Marisa has freely chosen to make revolutionary history from the very beginning of the revolution, and Miguel is, by her example, impelled to make that choice — to step out of an ahistorical sense of "comfort," of having "arrived" in his career.
Although they begin with conventional dramatic incidents, the films don't follow the usual development of tension and narrow plot lines found in the bourgeois narrative film — the formats and narrative codes of which Gómez has borrowed. His films' plots continually open up new possible connections. Each incident, each forward movement in the plot, creates new possibilities for action, more concerns that the characters and we must consider, and new connections between those elements which had been presented before — all of which must constantly be seen in a new light, from a new perspective.
In NOW IT'S UP TO YOU, what starts out as a simple matter of arson quickly becomes an analysis and critique of the whole social unit — here the timber cooperative. The head of production has been too rigid as a boss and too concerned with meeting quotas. As a result, he didn't involve other workers in decision making and didn't listen to their ideas about the work process even when they told him that things weren't going well. The head of the union realized just before the fire, but too late to stop it, that he and his comrades had been apathetic. They saw that things weren't right and had criticisms, but they didn't pursue the matter. The main health worker (played by Idalia Anreus) emerges from the flashbacks as having been very clear sighted about the problems at the cooperative. She was one of the most dedicated and hardest working people in the group and continually argued with the administrator about how the farm was being managed. Only at the film's dramatic climax do we realize that she was one of the victims of the fire.
The personal and political relationships on the farm led to black market activity around the warehouse. Its superintendent was taking things home to sell to his friends, including the counterrevolutionaries. At the trial, it turns out that the arsonists obtained the gas they used to start the fire from the warehouse, the burned-out shell of which is now the setting for the trial.
However, the forestry workers also contain among them a strong revolutionary counter force, centered primarily on the Idalia Anreus character, and this revolutionary determination is also documented in the flashbacks. In fact, a number of the workers who have become aware of the pilfering use an evening cultural event to expose the head of the warehouse. In a series of skits, they reenact the guilty man's activities. Up until this time the farm's administrator rejected warnings that such pilfering had been going on. Yet after this performance of political protest, the cultural event dissolves into chaos and a near-brawl ensues because of the outrage people have felt all along about the mismanagement and pilfering. At this point, people notice the fire and rush off to fight it. The internal and external threats to socialist reconstruction come to a head at the same time — revealing the deep connection between them.
As mentioned above, the film opens out to the audience at the end. Manual Octavio Gómez offers no pat solutions to the social problems he raises. Instead his narrative develops political principles to guide political behavior. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys are shown working together in a courtroom situation that encourages dialectical rather than dogmatic thinking. Gómez involves the film's audience in the same kind of process the forestry workers are participating in at the trial. The Cuban film audience and the fictional workers view a drama about the very basis of their existence — the production process. In both cases the audiences are encouraged to see their own work group not as a collection of isolated individuals but as a whole social unit for which they are ultimately responsible. In a very direct way it's now up to both of these audiences to take responsibility. The director lays out contradictions and complexities and not certainties. NOW IT'S UP TO YOU says that working politically, building a socialist society is a matter of ongoing struggle, of constantly applying what we know to what we are doing, then testing the results.
A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY also starts out simply. A housing director dies in a car accident. A young, recent graduate replaces her — it happens all the time. But Marisa's effect on the people around her and Miguel's curiosity, aggravation, and pride lead him to find out more about her — and in the process more about the city and himself. His personal life — his marriage, apartment, and friends, his interesting professional job, in fact his whole personal situation in Havana — seems to him to be in order. But the film reveals that his political life and his commitment to the revolution are unexamined and weak. This contradiction becomes especially obvious when his primary technical concerns about the job — procedures, paper work, etc. — are compared with Marisa's sensitivity to and understanding of the needs of the city and its people.
As Miguel finds out more about Marisa and becomes more involved in the city and its people, he begins to change. We see his discomfort with his Havana friends, who are shown as aloof professionals living the good life in the capital. As Miguel changes, he also has difficulty relating to his wife, an architect who has no personal or even political relation with the working people who will live in the apartment houses she is designing. At the end we see Miguel in the back of a truck with a boyhood friend and his wife, neither of whom have ever left Nuevitas. They are all on their way out to work in the countryside. Miguel has decided to stay in Nuevitas.
The very fact that this film so heavily critiques a character like Miguel, who received his university education after the revolution, tells us something about contemporary Cuban society. Jobs are handed out by the Ministry of Labor, which gives first choice to people with the highest university grades. If you don't like your job or are denied all privileges at work (the equivalent of being fired), the Ministry of Labor will then give you one other job at your old salary. From then on you can move as much as you like — but starting at the bottom. Not only does such a job system promote a meritocracy, but it also discourages people from challenging bosses or leaving a comfortable job to try a new career. If you can live in Havana, you have access to culture and city life and have arrived; Havana is still the lamp drawing its moths. In this film, Miguel's and his wife's apartment is depicted as far more luxurious than those in which Havana professionals actually live. The film, by using such a set, comments on the Dream of the Good Life in Havana, which Manuel Octavio Gómez knows Cuban professionals still have. In many ways, this film is a courageous critique of a new class, including the filmmaker's own peers. It invites everyone throughout the country to articulate a protest against that kind of meritocracy which Gómez knows will hold the revolution back.
Marisa is the opposite of Miguel in that she has her political life in order while her personal life is in disorder. She maintains a very strong commitment to the revolution, which she understands clearly. Her revolutionary skills and know-how have developed over fifteen years of struggle. In the flashbacks we see her constant efforts to participate fully in social labor. Right after the revolution, she pushed for the right of women to work on the docks. This effort failed when the male dockworkers forced the women to quit. Marisa then got another job and her husband, also an active revolutionary, supported her in this. But when she became increasingly involved in more committee work and long meetings in the evenings after work, her husband rebelled and asked her to quit. She refused and the marriage ended. After she moved from factory to office and become responsible for assigning housing, she began a relationship with another man, also an activist. Although she needed and wanted his love, emotional support, and friendship, Marisa was unable to come to terms with this situation in her life. On the one side were her former husband and her child; on the other side her new lover. Because of the weight of old ideas about family and women's roles, Marisa was unable to overcome this contradiction. At the same time that Marisa's lover was offered a new job in another province and asked her to accompany him there, she tried to persuade him to stay by assigning him a new apartment. This was the first time that she ever made an assignment on other than a strictly political basis. The man easily saw through her offer and decided to take the new job and leave Nuevitas. Soon thereafter Marisa died in the car accident.
The interweaving of Miguel and Marisa's lives, as well as the portrayal of Nuevitas' development, is brilliant and deserves further study. As in NOW IT'S UP TO YOU, but in an even more complex way, Gómez has allowed certain political principles to evolve out of the characters' struggles to participate in and integrate themselves into a rapidly changing revolutionary society. More so than in NOW IT'S UP TO YOU, it is clear that the experience of history doesn't produce specific solutions to problems. But from that experience we can learn certain principles, certain ways of approaching difficult situations. The audience gets a clear sense that this process doesn't stop. Each solution, each forward movement, produces new contradictions which people have to deal with.
PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN
Along with my great admiration for these two films, I'm also critical of the way they portray women. The criticisms I will elaborate here apply to most Cuban films I have seen, even the best. Too many Cuban filmmakers ignore the question of women's roles altogether or portray women in patently stereotypical and derogatory ways (e.g., THE TEACHER). In contrast, Gómez clearly takes the question of women in the revolution very seriously and wants to deal with the New Woman in his films. But his limitations — both cinematically and thematically — in dealing with sexual politics are instructive to us. We see how sexism can remain in a revolutionary cinema and learn about issues that are areas of struggle in Cuban society as a whole.
In both the films I am discussing, Gómez greatly idealizes the Idalia Anreus character. Since she basically serves in the films as a symbol of the revolutionary woman, of the New Woman, he portrays her as morally superior to everyone else. She exhibits the greatest sensitivity to the problems of ordinary people and the greatest possible commitment to the revolution. She can stand up to men with a great deal of strength (as when Marisa refuses her husband's wish that she give up her political activity) and can articulate the needs of the powerless — other women, children, the sick, the uneducated peasants and workers. Nonetheless, her basic role in each film is passive; she becomes an example, a symbol. She does not propel the plots forward but serves as the locus of moral values. In both films, she is alone, untouchable, and has no women friends. She stands for the exceptional woman. She is the model revolutionary woman as imagined by men. In each film, she acts as a woman in a man's world, evaluated by men's standards, dealing with men's issues. Further, in each case the female character is paired with a "weak" man, who is threatened by her power and energy, who feels inferior to her. The films offer women the old choice between love and a career. And even worse, the message is strengthened by the fact that both women die a violent death: to choose a career seems to lead to martyrdom.
In NOW IT'S UP TO YOU the health worker's death is symbolic, indicating how counterrevolutionaries and internal weakness cost Cuba the lives of its best workers and revolutionaries. In A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY Marisa's death serves only a dramatic purpose and seems politically gratuitous. She dies so Miguel can replace her and discover her in the course of the narrative for our benefit.
When we compare these two films (which have some of the strongest women characters in all of Cuban fiction filmmaking) to ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, the feature debut of Sara Gómez (no relation to Manuel Octavio), we see the latter film's true significance. It is the only example I know of in Cuban cinema where a female lead is an ordinary person with no symbolic baggage to carry around with her. Yolanda struggles with her environment not heroically but humanly. I make this short comparison to argue that the Cuban film industry will begin to produce sensitive films about Cuban women only when it has women directors. There is certainly no ill will on the part of directors such as Manual Octavio Gómez, Humberto Solas, and Sergio Giral (THE OTHER FRANCISCO), who have portrayed significant female characters and who seem genuinely concerned with questions of sexual politics.
No, the problem is political. The Cubans at the Film Institute with whom I discussed this issue often seemed burdened with a mechanical and undialectical Marxism which assumes that since women have obtained basic material and legal equality — schooling, jobs, pay, benefits, child care, etc. — machismo and sexism will disappear automatically. We have, however, no historical evidence of this. The Cubans seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the idea that men have, a responsibility to seek out solidarity with the most progressive women and struggle with them against sexism and machismo. In talking with some Cuban film people and film critics I had the distinct impression that their mechanical materialism on this particular point was a convenient dodge, a comfortable defense of male privilege.
However well intended Gómez's female protagonists are, they can easily serve a negative function. By showing such strong, competent, successful women, in such an idealized way, the films lay the full burden of women's liberation from sexism on women themselves and free men of any responsibility. The message is, and I heard both Cuban men and women say this, that any woman who really tries can overcome the old prejudices and participate fully and freely in the revolution. There are, of course, many ways in which this is true. But only one woman has directed a feature film in the twenty-year history of the Cuban film industry, although more women than men seem to work at the Film Institute. Surely more than one of these women has the determination and the skill to make a feature film with a supportive crew. Men dominate ICAIC and they decide who will direct feature films.
Finally, it is important to realize that the Cuban Film Institute stands in the best possible position as a revolutionary cultural institution to wage a struggle against machismo both in the content of its films and in its promotion of women to directors. This organization has many incredibly talented people and the full support of the public, which not only likes Cuban films but also takes an enormous pride in them. The campaign around the issue of sexual politics is long overdue in Cuban cinema.
From the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, Manual Octavio Gómez has examined the interaction of the personal and the political. Because he thinks dialectically, he looks for change and examines it carefully. Rather than celebrate past accomplishments and memorialize the status quo, he continually reaches out to understand future developments in order to participate in and contribute to them. To understand and change the world — that is the responsibility Manuel Octavio Gómez has taken on.