Where intimacy displaces violence: The Cinema of Sara Gómez

review by Leticia Berrizbeitia Añez

Susan Lord and María Caridad Cumaná, with Víctor Fowler Calzada, eds. The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021. 427 pp. $95 hardcover, $40 paperback, $39.99 e-book.

Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha’s famous motto “a camera in hand and an idea in mind” has become a trope to account for 1960s cinema’s poetics and politics, an era of social movements, militancy, hope, and international solidarity. The manifestos of Imperfect Cinema, Aesthetics of Hunger, and Third Cinema include some of the ideas that shaped cinematic revolution in Latin America.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Yet, what appears more subversive from today’s standpoint is finding an Afro-Caribbean woman as a protagonist of that history—as the one pointing the camera and thinking critically through her images. The single most well-known Cuban woman filmmaker, Sara Gómez, was an active and prolific director from the early sixties through the early seventies who conjured a powerful symbol of diversity in cinema. As a symbolic charge, her contribution is as strong today as it was then, given the ongoing exclusion of black women filmmakers. The texts collected in The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution, edited by Susan Lord and María Caridad Cumaná with Víctor Fowler Calzada carefully situate the figure and impact of Gómez’s cinema, with a focus on the intersection between gender and race within the context of the Cuban revolution. They deliver a rich portrayal of the filmmaker’s life and work through a collective retelling of her story.

A project long in the making, The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution, reunites what Cumaná has called a “concert of dissimilar voices” (vii) through twenty distinct interventions. This “concert” includes interviews with and writings by Gómez, most of them translated to English for the first time, and meticulous critical and theoretical approaches to her work written by Cuban and international researchers. The book also makes available an otherwise hard-to-find comprehensive filmography of the more than twenty titles covering Gómez’s different roles in each production. The filmography starts from the moment she arrived at the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfic0s (ICAIC, or Cuban Film Institute) in 1961 and finishes with the release of De cierta manera (One Way or Another) in 1977—edited posthumously by her colleagues.

The filmmaker, Sara Gómez, in a still shot from her 33-minute documentary Mi aporte (My Contribution, 1972). She participates as a character discussing women’s labor and revolutionary roles. ©ICAIC. A conversation between Cuban women workers about their challenges in Mi aporte (My Contribution, 1972). Upon completion, the film was censored by the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC, or Federation of Cuban Women). ©ICAIC.

But beyond this film, her only feature and best-known piece, the book gives prominence to the often neglected nineteen films that comprise Gómez’s documentary filmography. Most of the authors engage in close readings or different degrees of analysis of many documentary films, emphasizing Mi aporte (My Contribution, 1972), which was censored by the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC, or Federation of Cuban Women) upon completion. In over ten years of archival research, travel, and networking, Lord and Cumaná created the alliances that permitted locating the materials and films, honing the arguments, and making some of the existing scholarship on Gómez in Spanish accessible to English speakers. The editors’ mission in this volume goes from anthologizing the writings on Sara Gómez to re-historizing her.

Weighing Gómez’s legacy and impact attending to her complex position in the tumultuous era of early post-1959 Cuban cinema required both resignifying and expanding available sources to study her. Therefore, The Cinema of Sara Gómez spotlights several research findings. These include an undated script of De cierta manera under the title Residential Miraflores, as it was labelled in the Documentation Center of the ICAIC, and unpublished until now. The anthology also brings back Gómez’s own words, in the form of an illustrated essay—titled Rumba and written for magazine Cuba in 1964, and two translated interviews. In the first interview which is included in the book’s initial chapter, she responds to a prompt from the publication Pensamiento Crítico about “documentary filmmakers and their convictions” in 1970. The second one is a conversation between Gómez and French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras.

Finally, the volume includes interviews with some of Gómez’s close friends and colleagues: intellectual and activist Inés María Martiatu Terry, and crew members, including filmmakers Sergio Giral and Rigoberto López, cinematographer Luís García Mesa, and editor and artist Iván Arocha Montes de Oca. These transcribed interviews reconstruct an intimate portrait of the filmmaker’s experiences, beliefs, and interactions through oral history. The findings speak volumes on the value of revisiting archives, reuniting oral histories, and pursuing the inquiry beyond strictly cinematic sources to make film histories more inclusive. The role of translation in the project is noteworthy considering that twelve out of the twenty texts reunited were originally written in Spanish.

The edited volume’s collaborative nature is acutely political, and the ordering of the writings responds to this ethos before any chronological or argumentative structure. Lord defines the collection in her introduction as a “living archive” (2) and a “community conversation” (19), woven by threads other than logical progression. The conversation begins with Odette Casamayor-Cisneros’s survey of Gómez’s films. It contextualizes them within and against dominant ideas of the decade she filmed in while tracing the filmmaker’s perspectives on the revolutionary process’ blindspots on “social marginality.” Fowler Calzada furthers these reflections on the Cuban revolution’s challenge to “incorporate the dispossessed into full citizenship” (89). In his essay, he contextualizes the 1960’s governmental efforts against urban poverty in more extensive histories of labor and slavery in Cuba. This way, he inscribes De cierta manera in an intellectual current of Cuban abolitionist thought. Moreover, Fowler Calzada offers a comparison between the feature film as we know it today, finalized by Gómez’s collaborators after her death in 1977, and the printed script that this volume makes available for the first time.

The writings of Devyn Spence Benson and Lourdes Martínez Echazábal address the “dispossessed” in more concrete racialized and gendered terms. They demonstrate that black Cuban women are at the heart of Gómez’s cinema. Spence Benson studies Gómez’s work as part of the Afro-Cuban political activism of the period that responded to “the government’s 1960 declaration that racial discrimination had been eliminated” (226). He finds in her documentary films Iré a Santiago (I’m going to Santiago, 1964), Guanabacoa: Crónicas de mi familia (Guanabacoa: Chronicles of my Family, 1966), and En la otra isla (On the Other Island, 1968) a continuation of scarcely historicized public debates about racial discrimination of the first decade of the revolution. Gómez’s films produced a creative space of resistance in a context of “repeated state attempts to silence public conversations about lingering racism in favor of national unity” (225).

Also paying attention to the traditions and locations of the African diaspora in the Caribbean, Martínez Echazábal dedicates her essay exclusively to a close reading of the film Iré a Santiago (I’m going to Santiago, 1964), in dialogue with Federico García Lorca’s homonym poem that the visual essay homages and demystifies through a filmic parody. In a different register, but also paying attention to the histories of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, Alan West-Durán assesses Gómez’s unsubordinated use of music in her films. He reflects on the Cuban use of “sabor” (literally, flavor) alluding to Gómez’s documentary Y tenemos… sabor (And we’ve got… Flavor, 1967) to compare the term with Barthes definition of photographic punctum as “a moment in time, but it has a ripple effect that never ceases” (338). In his view, Gómez knew how to create this effect in her films, which positions her love and knowledge of Cuban rhythms as a key to understanding her work.

The critical approaches of Ana Serra and Sandra Abd’Allah-Álvarez Ramírez pay particular attention to the gendering of the subjects in Gómez’s films. Serra contrasts the image and patriarchal underpinnings of the “New Man,” developed by Ernesto Guevara in his influential text Socialism and Man in Cuba, to Gómez’s documentary interviewees. She emphasizes Gómez’s talent to explore the ambivalence and contradictions between revolutionary ideals and real people. For Serra, Gómez’s documentaries prove that Cubans remained critical of the gap between official discourses of identity and their daily challenges. By attesting the distance between her characters and the “New Man,” Serra makes clear to what extent this ideal appears as race and gender blind, apart from inhuman. Serra asserts:

“As the enthusiasm of the 1960s waned and Guevara became the hallmark of a nostalgic ethical ideal, he became the only New Man ever seen” (302).

Abd’Allah-Álvarez Ramírez looks closely at Mi aporte as a film that shows to what extent the revolution had not been able to find solutions to women’s marginalization. She describes how the film focuses on care work and motherhood as the main obstacles for women participating in volunteer work and paid labor, challenges to which employers and legal frameworks were blind. This analysis spotlights Gómez’s feminist cinema contribution through this inconvenient picture of the revolution that was the reason behind the FMC censoring.

The more theoretical approaches by Joshua Malitsky, Cumaná, and Lord situate the study of the cinema of Gómez against the histories of documentary and ethnographic cinema, Cuban cinema, and feminist film theory and practices respectively. Malitsky delves into the earliest works of Gómez when she had just entered ICAIC at 18 years old and was working on the Enciclopedia Popular (Popular Encyclopedia) series. He argues that she already displayed an inclination for “special” topics and experimental forms. The author contextualizes these documentaries in the Cuban educational initiatives and literacy campaigns that pursued the openly ideological project of creating active and aware media consumers. Cumaná brings about a timely auteurist comparison between the cinemas of Gómez and Nicolás Guillén Landrián, the two black filmmakers in those years at ICAIC, to discuss how their films were the ones centering black identities, practices and customs as well as the most radical visual experiments within the group, although in very different ways. For Cumaná, what distinguishes Gómez’s cinema is her participatory techniques, which rely heavily on ethnographic style and methods that provoked her interviewees to relay some of “Cuban’s cinema most impactful testimonies of racial discrimination” (257). In contrast, Guillén Landrián remained more a subtle observant behind the camera.

Lord is responsible for framing the book’s discussions and conversations through an introduction and concluding essay. In her introduction, she provides a genealogy of the scant public attention to Gómez documentaries that, in high contrast to the considerable attention on De cierta manera, has few exceptions inside and outside Cuba. She describes this phenomenon of visibility/invisibility of Gómez filmography through the metaphor of a tide that flows and ebbs, a helpful trope as it also illuminates the fate of other women filmmakers. Gómez’s legacy ebbs from the legendary status of a symbolically saturated image to the generations of contemporary filmmakers that have not been able to experience her documentaries. How can we explain that a renowned filmmaker has a mostly unknown filmography? What are the reasons behind that apparent paradox? Is it due to the formats of her films, archival accessibility, censorship, the blockade of an island and consequent isolation of its institutions? Or is it because of Gómez’s race, gender, age? Following Lord, no factor alone can explain the ebbing of her legacy, but instead their complex intersection: a black revolutionary woman who refused to conform to the dominant patriarchal, national, and racist traditions that conflicted with her awareness and commitments. In the words of Lord:

“From her biography through to the structures of her documentary films, we find in Gómez a filmmaker who continuously reevaluated the promises of modernity and the Cuban Revolution, and the values inherited through popular memories of families, streets, and altars. She did not settle on a positive, unequivocally affirmative image (10).”

In the concluding essay, Lord relies on a line of feminist documentary theory inquiry where the interventions of Linda Williams, Julia Lesage, and Julianne Burton-Carvajal stand out. In a candid gesture that also participates in the feminist tradition of revealing the writer’s standpoint, she discusses the challenges of doing this work across distances of geography and socio-economic realities that separate her from the worlds where Gómez’s works circulate (373). Lord situates her analysis on Gómez’s documentaries En la otra isla and Mi aporte. The author asserts that in her ethnographic and autoethnographic experiments, Gómez produces an intimate involvement with the others she represents. Instead of detached, an involved dynamic relationship “authorizes her to speak of and to the Other” (383). Instead of a “camera weapon,” another trope of the period, Gómez’s camera becomes a “mirror of affection” for Lord (12), one where intimacy displaces violence.

Essays and interviews coincide in the image of Gómez as someone who did not settle and overtly expressed her critical perspective, while the anecdotes spread through the volume conjures her appearance in the pages. The book then becomes a “biographical palimpsest of Gómez herself” (10) made out of her remaining words as much as the perspectives of the mentioned academics, journalists, and filmmakers. Even the stories that reappear and the arguments that overlap gain a layered emphasis. For example, the testimonies of Gómez’s burial, a tale retold in several interviews and essays, coincide in describing the feeling of a mystical presence in the form of sudden rain. Between these testimonies, the inclusion of Gómez’s writings in the book’s beginning, middle, and ending, and her voice that sparks through film’s descriptions and loved one’s memories, this collection of texts gets at moments the flavor of a séance. Gómez is being recalled, if not by the mystical beliefs of her family, friends, and colleagues, by the deep impression her short and intensely-lived life and prolific filmography left on the book’s contributors. According to Lord, this recalling aims to push Gómez’s significance forward in time.

It is fortunate that the longstanding critical and scholarly attention to Gómez in the Anglo-speaking field of film studies finally found its way into a book. It is one that is also collaborative and aware of its role in leveraging the resources to make the Spanish-speaking knowledge production accessible. In line with Lord’s promise by the end of the conclusion, that she finishes with the phrase “no es el fin” (it is not the end, 389), I would love to see a second volume detailing the archival research practices that made the publication possible, or even a translated edition of the book in order to make available the interviews and scripts in their original language. But more importantly, The Cinema of Sara Gómez’s reflections and documentation open new avenues for continuing the inquiry. Therefore, it is a must-read for those researching and teaching feminist documentaries, decolonial ethnography, and the histories of Latin American Cinema.

Gómez interviews Rafael, an aspiring opera singer in En la otra isla (On the other Island, 1968). Instead of a camera weapon, another trope of the 1960s cinema, Lord understands Sara Gómez’s camera as a “mirror of affection” (12), an image where intimacy displaces violence. ©ICAIC.


1. Images are taken from The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution edited by Susan Lord and María Caridad Cumaná, with Víctor Fowler Calzada. Courtesy of Indiana University Press and copyright Instituto Cubano De Arte E Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). [return to text]