With the Cuban Women
by Pat Aufderheide
Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 13-14
Revolutionary Cuban Cinema, Second Part
Octavio Cortazar's documentary, WITH THE CUBAN WOMEN (1975), reminds us in less than an hour that genuine equality between the sexes comes with great difficulty. The film opens with a group of complacent men celebrating female inferiority. It goes on to introduce Cuban women who contradict that comfortable stereotype. The film thus documents victories and suggests the labors to come.
The style is straightforward, plainly proud. Octavio Cortazar, who also directed FOR THE FIRST TIME (1967), other shorts, and a recent feature, THE TEACHER (1977), only dabbles in the kind of dazzling graphics and montage for which Cuban documentary is celebrated. He uses interviews to feed us information at a comfortable, conversational pace. It's also a genuinely introductory style: the interviewers introduce us to the women. Interviews and discussions are then interwoven with statistics to demonstrate the change in women's roles in modern Cuba.
This documentary has a limited task. It largely records successes of women working outside the home in contemporary Cuba. The film spends little time on a real problem, which since 1974 has been a subject of island-wide debate and action: "women's second shift," the homemaking a woman does on her return from work. WITH THE CUBAN WOMEN also spends little time on conflicts ensuing in the workplace. One engineer, for instance, explains that the men at first didn't accept her; but her story is brief and formal, the record of a problem solved. Neither does the film bring up conflict between generations or among those women who resist the transformation of women's roles. Rather, the fact of women's entry into the work force is documented, with the recurring message that women are as good workers as men are.
Women can be responsible military officers, the movie asserts. One Escambray scout is asked disingenuously, "Aren't you afraid?" by the moviemakers. As she stands at her lookout, in uniform, her patient response — one of pride and patriotism — contains elements both of humor and disdain for the silly quality of the question. Women can be good doctors, the film goes on. A black woman testifies that the Revolution gave her the opportunity to study and provided a hospital in the mountains which she now administers. Women can work in factories. We see long shots of factories, which impress us with the machinery as well as with the women's work. Women can cut as much cane as strong and experienced men, as the Work Heroines proudly demonstrate. Women can run cranes, and women can help the people of Vietnam.
Women are potentially the equals of men, and, given opportunities under socialism (like the day care we see examples of and incentives to work outside the home, they prove it. The women interviewed are almost always the extraordinary-ordinary case (the best cane cutter, the administrator of a super-productive unit), rather than "stars" or members of the political elite. When we see young schoolgirls confidently asserting they'll work for a living and that their men will "have to" accept it, we're reassured that the message is getting through to the next generation.
One can't help, as the film gives us example after example, but be amazed at the progress made. WITH THE CUBAN WOMEN tells us, however, little of the cost or the arguments engendered by such fundamental change. Nor does the film illuminate the transformation of values that it implies.
Take the "second shift" question. Buried in that daily fact are a mass of prejudices which are not, we know, abolished with the entry of women into the workforce. The strong debate over the Cuban Family Code (1975) and further debate about its implementation testify to the way sex biases have permeated daily life. (The Family Code rules, among other provisions, that housework and childcare must be shared equally by working parents) Since Cortazar was apparently working on this film while the debate went on, he might have included in the film the sense of struggle that appears so vital a part of this "revolution within a revolution."
After all, it's the process, the way people-and particularly the women — fight for change that determines the nature and quality of the results. If you show only the results, you make the information seem dull, abstract, and finished. And you also run the risk of explaining the results not in terms of the people who worked for them, but with an abstraction like "socialism." For example, as the camera moves from the women's faces to the machinery or the cane field, the people seem to be making testimonials for the objects. "Look at our new machinery," the filmmakers imply with shots like these. "Look at the size of our sugar harvest."
The style of this documentary minimizes the sense of struggle. Partly this is because the interviews are tightly controlled by the interviewers. Even when they attempt "trick questions, they are clearly ones with a right and a wrong answer: "Who's in charge here? You, a woman, in charge here?" The film also minimizes struggle by putting stress on women in public work situations rather than on the process of change between men and women in the family. Public and paid work for women did not require, in itself, a change in sex roles; women could, and often were expected to, simply take on a "double shift."
Finally, the movie does not intend to record process, movement, or change, but results. It is a simple statement of achievement. And as in THE NEW SCHOOL (1973) and THE MONCADA PROGRAM (1973), two other recent documentaries from CUBA, a didactic air of demonstration sometimes wins out over the enthusiasms and frustrations of people in the process of changing social relations.
The vital and forthright characters of these women nevertheless engage us throughout the film. The no-nonsense dairy farm administrator runs a business and a large family with the same nonchalance with which she deflects the interviewer's barbed questions. The militia women calmly explain the political reason for their outpost's existence. The doctor is proud of her hospital and of her work. They are women who are competent, who can exercise their competence, and who don't have to apologize for it: it's an invigorating example and a warm promise.
In fact, these women's sturdy enthusiasm raises more questions. It makes you wonder how this is all possible. What were the motivations, the conflicts, the assumptions to be argued in the open, for such a dramatic transformation? The recital of economic success comes to sound more like women's contribution to Cuban production than it does Cuban socialist progress toward sexual equality. The first job can be indicated by numbers and be honored with medals. The second must be demonstrated by the quality of life, by the nature of relationships, with all their problems as well. The first is a victory, and the second is a way of life. The Cuban women we meet do give us glimpses of a new way of life, of a new future. This first hour with the Cuban women does a good job of making us curious to see a second and a third. Perhaps in future films, if as much progress has been made as this movie holds out hope for, women will be making the film and asking the questions.