Manuel Octavio Gómez interviewed
Popular culture; perpetual quest

by Julianne Burton

from Jump Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 17-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

Manuel Octavio Gómez, born in Havana on November 14, 1934, was among the first to reach creative maturity of those trained exclusively in Cuba. His films are characterized by their careful and often intricate plot construction, their interest in and dialectical understanding of popular culture, and by a great variety of cinematic styles. Gómez is married to leading actress Idalia Anreus, who appears in a number of his films. The following interview is based on conversations with Gómez in Havana in January of 1977 and June of 1978.

  • 1967: TULIPA
  • 1968: NUEVITAS

From aficionado to apprentice

Burton: You are one of Cuba's two most prolific feature filmmakers, but unlike your counterpart, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, you had no training abroad. What background did you have in film before becoming part of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC)?

Gómez: I had always had a pronounced interest in filmmaking. In fact, a large part of my work as a journalist (a career I chose because being a filmmaker seemed like an impossible dream in pre-revolutionary Cuba) was in the field of film criticism. I belonged to two film societies, but the majority of my activities revolved around the Visión group, which also produced other compañeros who are not part of ICAIC, like director Manuel Pérez (EL HOMBRE DE MAISINICÚ, RÍO NEGRO) and editors Nelson Rodríguez and Gloria Argüelles.

In that film society, most of our activity was on the level of wishful thinking, since it seemed inconceivable that any of us would one day be
making films in Cuba. Because of limited opportunity and resources, any instruction we did have was more theoretical than practical.

During the guerrilla insurrection, it was impossible to have any kind of organized film production aside from sporadic interviews and reports from the Sierra. But with the Revolution, one of the first groups organized by the Rebel Army was the National Board of Culture. Julio García Espinosa was selected to direct the film section, and since he had been giving us a class in film direction at the time, he called upon certain members of Visión to become part of that section. We only produced two documentaries  — ESTA TIERRA NUESTRA (THIS IS OUR LAND) by Tomás Gutierrez Alea and LA VIVIENDA (HOUSING) by Julio himself — before becoming part of ICAIC as soon as it was organized several weeks later.

I began my career as assistant director on those two documentary shorts and, after making two short educational films on my own, served as assistant director to Gutierrez Alea on ICAIC's first feature film, HISTORIAS DE LA REVOLUCIÓN (STORIES FROM THE REVOLUTION, 1961). My real apprenticeship in cinema began with these experiences, since my earlier preparation had been rather vague and unsystematic. It was an eminently practical kind of training: I learned how to make films by making them.

Popular culture: appreciation and critique

Burton: In what I know of your work, I have noticed a pronounced interest in popular culture. What is particularly interesting to me — in LOS DÍAS DEL AGUA (DAYS OF WATER), for example — is your exceptional ability to explore simultaneously the flaws and limitations of popular cultural tradition and to convey a real appreciation of it which is neither elitist nor patronizing. Another example of this dialectical appreciation of popular culture is LA TIERRA PROMETIDA (THE PROMISED LAND, 1973) by Chilean director Miguel Littín, who seems to have been influenced by your film.

Gómez: It's true that Miguel saw the film at the Moscow Festival. He was very taken with it and spoke to me at length. But I'm not sure how great an influence DAYS OF WATER actually had on Miguel's film, since he had already begun work by then.

Besides, DAYS OF WATER in particular is closely tied to other films from Latin America, particularly Brazil. At a given stage in the development of Latin American militant cinema, a similar set of circumstances existed which were responsible for the appearance of a group of related films. For like reasons, many Latin American directors were moved toward a quest for the most popular roots of our cultural expression. This kindled widespread interest in legend and folk mythology, among other forms of popular expression.

I have always felt the need to delve into popular life, to bring myself closer to forms of popular expression, to identify the problems of the common people and try to express them. Even before the triumph of the Revolution, I had a markedly sociological bent. (I'm now taking night courses at the university in order to get my degree in sociology.)

The very first films I made were what we call educational or "didactic" documentaries. Each had a specific goal: teaching the peasantry the importance of boiling their drinking water, for example, or introducing the concept of agricultural cooperatives. These were purely instructional films, with no pretensions to anything more, so no background research was necessary.

When I was later called upon to make a documentary which might have more far-reaching implications (UNA ESCUELA EN EL CAMPO/A SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRYSIDE), I was moved to do some sociological research for background detail. The literacy campaign was just beginning, but the extent of mass involvement was already clear. I was interested in finding out what might motivate a certain resistance to literacy among the adult population. I constructed the documentary around a small boy who already knows how to read and write but must convince his reluctant parents of the need for them to learn these skills — and what's more, to learn them from him. So at this early stage I was already using sociological methods to find a narrative kernel for my documentaries. GUANCANAYABO, a documentary which recounts the lives of shore fishermen, also has this same interest in sociological and psychological motivation.

Burton: Is there some concrete circumstance in your career as a journalist, or perhaps in your family life, that has enabled you to establish such close ties with the people while still maintaining a certain critical distance?

Gómez: I was born into a petit bourgeois family, almost all Spanish immigrants who came to Cuba in search of their fortune. However, because of their line of work, my family always stayed very close to the working class. My mother's side of the family had two bakeries in very working-class, Havana neighborhoods. I spent a great deal of my childhood in the barrio called Jesus María, one of the most modest sections of the city, predominantly black.

In spite of my superior social position, I had close contact from a very young age with the local culture. I was allowed to attend certain Afro-Cuban rites and religious celebrations from which all other whites were excluded. Actually, the distinction was not so much based on color as on who shared certain beliefs. Aside from the fact that my playmates were present, my own curiosity impelled me to witness those rituals.

Perhaps this explains my familiarity with popular mythology. I see a part of myself reflected in it, but I also regard it with a certain distance. I am both on the outside looking in and on the inside looking out. I can be subjective enough to appreciate its good qualities but also objective enough to see its negative side.

Improvisation through control

Burton: Walter Achugar, leading producer of the New Latin American Cinema since the movement's inception, remarked to me once that of all the Latin American filmmakers, you are the one who most carefully composes the screenplay.

Gómez: Well, I'm not sure, but the fact is that I do go over my screenplays many times, perhaps to a fault. I'm the kind who arrives at the shoot with storyboards in hand and all the angles worked out. Whenever I'm setting up a shooting schedule, I try to film in sequence. As much as possible, I like to keep the shooting order the way it will appear in the final film. I think this gives a certain continuity and coherence to the actors' performances and to the film in general.

Many different approaches coexist here at ICAIC, but I'm one of those who holds that you shouldn't try to improvise everything once you reach the production stage. I believe that careful work on the screenplay is a very effective kind of shooting experience. This does not necessarily mean that I establish ironclad procedures or that I am irrevocably wedded to the screenplay. Instead, the very fact of having worked over the screenplay enriches the range of possibilities for improvisation and constructive changes.

Burton: Which cinematographers have you worked with?

Gómez: Principally with Jorge Herrera. We worked together on my first two features, THE SALT CURSE and TULIPA, as well as THE FIRST CHARGE and DAYS OF WATER. NOW IT'S UP TO YOU and A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY were shot with Pablo Martinez and EARTH AND SKY with Livio Delgado. I think that I have been most comfortable working with Jorge because our approaches are such polar opposites that we complement each other. I prepare for every contingency. Jorge is just the opposite; he likes to improvise, to make decisions on the spot.

I was very satisfied with Livio because he is one of our most careful cinematographers when it comes to framing and camera movement, as his work on LUCÍA shows. EARTH AND SKY required an aesthetic dimension, a high level of beauty, and I think that Livio brought that to the film.

Pablo is the opposite of Livio. He prepares less. He's quicker, more agile. NOW IT'S UP TO YOU needed that kind of photographic style, suggestive of newsreel techniques. Besides, since the film was made in l6mm and then amplified to 35mm, we could use a very flexible kind of equipment which allowed for maximum agility.

Documentary vs. fictional modes

Burton: Another characteristic which I've observed in several of your films is your intent to call attention to the fact of the filmmaking process. This is extremely apparent in THE FIRST CHARGE OF THE MACHETE because of the anachronistic use of various contemporary and archaic media forms. It is also apparent in DAYS OF WATER in the way you use color and sets. Your most recent film, A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY, incorporates actual and simulated documentary footage. Do you think this kind of formal self-reflexiveness is a crucial component of your approach to filmmaking?

Gómez: I think that my own work is characterized by a great degree of thematic and stylistic diversity. I have never repeated myself; nor do I intend to do so. I think that kind of self-reflexivity is essentially restricted to the films you have mentioned, but in order to explain what motivated this kind of approach, I'll have to backtrack a bit. When I belonged to the Visión group, my goal was to make fiction films. First of all, it was because people tended to look down on documentaries (due to their grossly commercial nature and their use of "filler" in pre-revolutionary times). But from the point of view of the Revolution in its early stages, the documentary was of crucial importance. We certainly couldn't begin by making feature-length fiction films; documentary shorts had to clear the way first. Besides, documentary cinema had a more immediate connection to what was going on in the country.

But I started making films without a clear conception of what a documentary really was. I thought of it as a short fiction film. Naturally my attitude suffered repeated collisions with reality. In the process of making a film like GUANCANAYABO, I began to discover the true motivations and worth of the documentary mode: I saw how it could be used to capture reality in a quicker, more immediate way, offering greater richness and authenticity.

But when I undertook my first fiction films, I somehow erased from my consciousness everything I had learned. I tried to make your "classic" feature film, according to the tenets of traditional cinema. This was a big mistake. It explains why my first two films don't have as much range as the subsequent ones.

The third feature, THE FIRST CHARGE OF THE MACHETE, was to be based on one of the most important battles in our War for Independence from Spain. To follow a traditional narrative strategy, making a number of main characters the pivot of the film, would have been totally out of keeping with the theme. Once involved in the research, I was amazed to discover a kind of journalism in the archival sources which seemed remarkably contemporary, based on interviews and direct reportage. Suddenly, the right approach came to me full-blown: información directa, a very contemporary, news-oriented reportage similar to what we now associate with televised documentary.

In the process of preparing THE FIRST CHARGE I rediscovered all that I had learned and temporarily forgotten from my work with documentaries and from HISTORIA DE UNA BATALLA (STORY OF A BATTLE), my fourth effort, in particular.

Story of a Battle

Burton: That film is an extraordinary microcosm of the whole first stage of the Revolution. Was this your intent when you made it?

Gómez: It was an early custom at ICAIC to assemble each December a kind of retrospective of the rear's events from existing footage. The first made in 1959, was called AÑO DE LIBERTAD (YEAR OF LIBERTY); the second, AÑO DE LA REFORMA AGRARIA (YEAR OF THE AGRARIAN REFORM).

I was asked to do 1961. I knew from the start that I wanted to do something other than a mere news summary. When I began looking at the archival footage, I found a lot of material on the Bay of Pigs invasion and on several other important events but a disproportionately small amount on the Literacy Campaign, which I saw as the year's most significant effort.

I knew that the volunteer teachers were on their way home to Havana after an absence of many months and that their arrival would be a very emotional event. I decided that this homecoming would provide the overriding structure of the film, the framing for the achival footage.

The day arrived and we went to the train station to begin shooting. Thousands of parents and children were being reunited for the first time in months. It was incredibly moving. There was such a wealth of material that we couldn't possibly record it all, and many good scenes were getting lost. I decided that it was necessary to lend a guiding hand to all this spontaneity.

I began following those arriving volunteers whose families were unable to meet them at the station. I would offer to give them a ride so that they wouldn't have to wait for a bus. Obviously, I was not about to drive up in front of their houses in the ICAIC car because that would certainly break the mood, so I'd stop about a block away and ask if they didn't mind walking the rest of the way. They were much too excited to wonder about this strange request. We followed them on foot and that's how we were able to capture those tearful and joyous homecomings. Even though I was there because I had a job to do, there were often tears in my eyes as well. I filmed dozens of such reunions, many more than actually appear in the film, and incredibly enough every single one turned out well. There wasn't a dud in the lot. These homecoming scenes are what gives the film its formal and emotional unity.

Burton: Aren't the last scenes from Octavio Cortazar's feature EL BRIGADISTA (THE TEACHER, 1977) taken from STORY OF A BATTLE?

Gómez: Yes, all the documentary footage Cortazar uses comes from my film, though he changes the order of some scenes. Octavio altered the sequence — so that the final scene was of the homecoming of a male volunteer — because this was more in keeping with the film, whereas the final scene in mine was the homecoming of a young woman.

The experience of making STORY OF A BATTLE taught me that preparation could enhance spontaneity instead of negating it. Above all, it gave me a perspective on the expressive potential of the documentary mode. I learned how a filmmaker could confront an actual situation and, without either violating it or totally subordinating himself to it, interact with existing circumstances to the best advantage of his own creative purpose.

I brought this knowledge, derived from the documentary, to the filming of THE FIRST CHARGE and later was able to apply what I learned from both these experiences, in an even more deliberate fashion, to the making of DAYS OF WATER.

Comic theater and the cabaret aesthetic

Burton But between STORY OF A BATTLE and THE FIRST CHARGE you made a number of films.

Gómez: Yes, five to be exact, three fiction films and two documentaries. Because of your interest in the theme of popular culture in my work, perhaps you would find CUENTOS DEL ALHAMBRA (STORIES FROM THE ALHAMBRA, 1963) to be the most interesting of these. The film uses interviews to reconstruct the story of the Alhambra Theater. Its frivolous comedy in the style of the théâtre bouffe was not always lacking in political content, and the theatre played a very important cultural role during the first three decades of this century, under what we call the "pseudo Republic." By means of interviews with old performers and writers, I tried to reconstruct the history of that theater as a means of recapitulating these thirty years of national history. Unfortunately, I put too much emphasis on the interview as the only expressive device. The film needed more period footage, more of a context.

Burton: In DAYS OF WATER, one of the more lumpen characters narrates a legend concerning the protagonist in voice-over, while on the screen we see a kind of Fellini-esque tableau. In addition to being self-consciously theatrical, the sets and costuming are baroque and extremely gaudy. To what degree were they inspired by popular taste and decor?

Gómez: The sets and costuming in that sequence are based on popular expression but in one of its most alienated forms. I was trying to capture the kind of cabaret aesthetic which dates back to pre-revolutionary times. In the shows performed in nightclubs like the Tropicana, there were many derivative and exploitative elements, but there were also genuinely popular forms — Cuban music, for instance. All this was packaged for tourists — and for the Cuban elite, the only ones who could afford such entertainment. Genuine forms of popular expression were thus misrepresented and falsified. Television began recycling that cabaret aesthetic back to the popular masses who had originated it. This ersatz popular culture began to have a real effect on the masses. The sequence you refer to was very carefully planned in order to underline the insidious circularity of this cultural phenomenon.

Between ritual and rationality

Burton: One of your most recent films, EARTH AND HEAVEN, deals with the experience of Cuba's large Haitian immigrant population over a period of some twenty years. To what degree did the Haitian community participate in the filming?

Gómez: Their collaboration was essential for plot development, language (both Creole and Spanish are used), and folkloric elements including music and dance. The actors were largely nonprofessional members of the Haitian community.

Burton: Is the film based on the life of an actual personage?

Gómez: Actually, the answer is somewhat complicated. The film was inspired by a tale written in 1969 by Antonio Benitez Rojo, but that in turn was based on an ethnographic research project done in 1961. It is the story of a young man who returns to his native village after having been away for seventeen years. As he makes his journey, he begins to encounter people and places which make him remember the events of his life: how he was born into the Haitian community in Cuba, how he was exploited like his parents, how he was separated from them at an early age when they were repatriated, how he decided to go to the Sierra to fight. That was where he had to make a choice between earth and heaven — between his religious heritage and the promise of the future, between ritual and rationality.

The audience decides

Burton: How would you characterize the reception that your films have had in Cuba? Do you customarily make certain mental categorizations between different sectors of the film public in order to evaluate audience response?

Gómez: Because the cultural level of our people has evolved tremendously, methods of evaluating audience response have also changed. Clearly a film like TULIPA would not have the same response now as it had then. The film dealt with a cultural phenomenon which was very common in Cuba at the time: a small circus which travels from town to town. This was the only form of entertainment in remote villages where there were no movies, theater, radio, or television. The peasant audience felt a strong identification with that situation when the film was made, but in the intervening years their cultural access has been totally transformed.

THE FIRST CHARGE OF THE MACHETE was not a particularly popular film. I see now that it was incapable of establishing close lines of communication with the audience because of the over-expressionistic nature of the photography, the excessive high contrast and handheld camerawork. Though the audience readily accepted the novelty of the means with which we chose to tell the story, the style of visualization became an obstacle.

DAYS OF WATER, on the other hand, was very well received throughout the island. However, of all the films I've made, the most successful in terms of public response is clearly NOW IT'S UP TO YOU. All sectors of the Cuban public were enthusiastic about the film. This was largely due to the contemporary nature of the problems presented. The film is based on a series of events which happened in 1967, but the same kind of problems persisted until 1970 or 1971 and are in a certain sense still relevant today.

Perhaps one of the most important features of the film is that it does not have a fully resolved ending but rather opens out to the audience. The film is structured around the public trial of four counterrevolutionaries who committed sabotage against an agricultural cooperative. This open-and-shut case becomes another kind of inquiry altogether as soon as one of the characters posits a certain question: How do we account for the fact that the sabotage occurred at this particular cooperative? From this moment on, the film begins to uncover a whole series of internal problems regarding administrative procedures, work attitudes, and so on. These are the preconditions which make the sabotage possible.

The trial and the film end when one character says, "Bueno, compañeros, you have seen the facts. Now you have the floor. It's up to you to decide where the responsibility lies." Everyone walked out of the theater arguing about the issues raised in the film. This debate was even more intense at the special showings organized at schools, factories, unions, and agricultural cooperatives.

Past and present

Burton: Your three most recent films — NOW IT'S UP TO YOU, EARTH AND SKY, and A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY — are important counterexamples for those foreign critics who maintain that ICAIC's forte is the historical film because Cuban directors have not or cannot come to grips with the contemporary situation.

Gómez: First of all, it always mystifies us to hear people talk about "historical cinema" as differentiated from "contemporary cinema," because when one undertakes a historical film one is also addressing the most immediate present. I don't confront the past with anything other than a contemporary vision. Secondly, Cuban cinema has always been intimately involved with contemporary life in a very particular way — through our newsreels and documentaries. Finally, it is a great challenge to present current issues which find expression in your own life in a coherent and meaningful way, without distorting or trivializing them.

This is the problem I faced with A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY. The film has three interrelated narrative lines, which converge to present a panorama of the kinds of transformations which twenty years of revolution have wrought
in Cuba. One thread involves the career and accidental death of a female community worker. A second thread traces her male replacement's initial suspicion and resentment of her unconventional methods and his eventual acceptance of his deceased predecessor. The third narrative line follows the development of the port town, Nuevitas, where both characters decide — somewhat unwillingly — to live. This three-part focus offers an abundance of dramatic possibilities around contemporary issues of personal and social life. This virtue also posed the biggest danger: the scope of the material threatened to disorient even a Cuban audience at times.

In fact, however, the film is so carefully structured that one never gets lost. There are three temporal levels: the present — a four-week period — with Marisa's male replacement, Miguel, acting as our guide as he tries to piece together the facts about his predecessor; Marisa's story, told in flashbacks, which spans almost two decades — from the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 to her death in 1976; and the documentary sections, viewed by Miguel in a screening room, which trace the development of Nuevitas. The three narrative lines are very thoroughly integrated; what happens in one sequence is directly connected to what occurs in the next. In structural terms, I think this is the most fully realized of my films.

Film and audience collide

Burton: I understand that it is established practice at ICAIC to have evaluation sessions where everyone who has worked on a given film analyzes and criticizes the experience. How valuable has this procedure been to you as a filmmaker?

Gómez: This is one of a number of practices which have contributed a great deal to our development. We discuss and debate our films at many levels — with the production team during and after the filming, with the other directors and the ICAIC staff, and with the audience. The act of reviewing the experience with the entire production team mitigates the mythification of the director. He cannot distance himself from the technical crew or from others whose work is less prestigious but equally essential to the finished product.

The format of the encounters with the public varies constantly. In 1970, for example, a group of directors toured the province of Camaguey organizing public discussions around several of our films. Since the Working Army of Youth (Ejercito Juvenil del Trabajo) was being formed at the time, an enormous number of young people were working in the area.

It's difficult to convey how necessary this kind of close contact with our audience is for us. It is not enough to simply stand at the exit of a theater trying to catch the mood, to overhear what people are saying to one another. Nor is it enough to read twenty reviews of the film — even if they're by our best critics. I want to argue over the film, to confront people's responses, to see film and audience collide. The real results of our work lie in the responses of the people. As filmmakers, we've always sought this close contact with our public. The very structure of ICAIC and the circumstances under which it developed have made that desire for constant proximity a reality.

A perpetual quest

Burton: How do you explain that film has been the most privileged medium for cultural expression since the Revolution? Why not literature, with its long evolution; or television, given the highly developed infrastructure left behind when the North Americans departed?

Gómez: I think that one of the most important factors in explaining the centrality of film's cultural role is precisely the fact that Cuban cinema did not have any antecedents. It had no established forms to redefine, no ensconced bureaucrats to cast off, no prior structures to reorganize. In the Nuestro Tiempo (Our Times) Cultural Society, in the CineClub Visión and other groups which existed before the Revolution, there was an incredibly high degree of interest in making films, but those ambitions had no outlet. The Revolution opened the door which had been blocked by previous regimes. The ideological cohesiveness of the film aficionados (most of us were Marxists) and our theoretical preparation, combined with our practical frustration, explains why we burst forth with so much accumulated energy, once the revolutionary government provided the financial and political support for the development of a national cinema.

Burton: How do you assess the distance which Cuban cinema has traveled since that early stage two decades ago?

Gómez: We feel that we have embarked upon a kind of perpetual quest. We don't want to rest on laurels won in the past. This means that we're in constant movement. None of us want to repeat ourselves. One of the aspects of our quest has been the search for the greatest possible degree of communication with our audience. We are constantly trying to balance this goal with the development and preservation of our own creative principles.