Reimagining the Revolution: Sara Goméz's "One Way or Another"

The Cuban documentarian's 1974 film—and only feature-length work—provides a radical new perspective on her country after the revolution.
Alonso Aguilar

One Way or Another

To this day, the iconography of the Cuban Revolution is usually thought of in regards to the polarizing grandeur of its historic political figures and the effervescent popular gatherings around La Habana in the 1960s. Be it in social studies textbooks, historiographical documentaries, or newspaper front covers all around the world, what seemed to be a canonical portrayal of the revolution was cemented early on. This was a carefully constructed version of Cuba built around the values and ideals of the newly established socialist project. But beyond this intellectualized conception of what the island ought to portray, laid a human core: an erratic collection of subjectivities in which the triumphs and limitations of Castro’s Cuba were experienced differently each day. That “other Cuba,” the one rarely broadcasted and always seen from a distance, was precisely the setting around which legendary filmmaker Sara Gomez built her sagacious body of work.

To her, the iconic images eternally linked with the revolution only told one part of the story. Be it the monochromatic depiction of Fidel Castro and his fellow rebels entering La Habana on an armed vehicle, or Alberto Korda’s forever immortalized “Guerrillero Heroíco” portrait, official narratives were presented as beacons of hope amidst cultural change. After all, along with the revolution came the prospect of a fresh beginning that would wash away every lasting remnant of the subordination and inequity inherent to Fulgencio Batista’s U.S.-backed military dictatorship during the better part of the 1950s. Nevertheless, even if these stylized vignettes positioned the advent of a new mentality, they now came from a place of power.

Alongside them arrived the promise of reconstruction, tearing down the corrupted structures of Old Cuba and replacing them with novel ones that would bring forward all-around socio-cultural advancement. But historically, there never was a single, homogenous Cuba that could be seamlessly extrapolated. Outside of the bearded national heroes tirelessly reproduced in every corner of the world, both as warning and celebration, existed a less glamorous dimension to the revolution, one grounded in marginalization and historical neglect. From her early documentary work as a member of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), Goméz seeked to traverse these spaces as a way to expand the notions of what constituted Cuban identity in the post-Batista years. 

By way of an affectionate homage to the city of Santiago as a location of historical resistance in I’ll Go to Santiago (1964), an intimate portrait of her own family's roots and the political implications of womanhood in Guanabacoa: Chronicles of My Family (1966), or a lyrical celebration of the legacy of Afrocuban music in We’ve Got Rhythm (1967), Goméz’s short films presented vivid snapshots of Cuba’s racialized history. Their exploratory use of diverse formal techniques like still photography, swooping editing rhythms, and affective voice-over narration presented an heterogeneous approach that directly dialogued with what was professed by the buoyant ideas of the so-called New Latin American Cinema movement. Faced with a fragmented reality, simplified and linear positions were now to give way to a more transparent relationship with reality that would lead towards the decolonization of images. Through this lens Gómez shined a light on a multitude of expressions and experiences inherent to Blackness in Cuba, but as the initial revolutionary excitement gave way to a more critical relationship with the new system, as seen in works like Tomás Gutierrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), her interest in racial and gender relationships on the island turned towards more complex discussions.

In a 1970 issue of the Habana film magazine Pensamiento Crítico, Gómez wrote an article titled “Documentarists and Their Conceptions.” In it, she ruminates on the importance of a didactic documentary form as an extension of the revolutionary process, and soon her words articulate as what seems like a personal manifesto:

“Cuban filmmakers will always express themselves in terms of revolution; cinema, for us, will inevitably be partial, it will be determined by our awareness, it will be the result of a definite attitude towards the problems that arise. (…)  And it is that in a society that sets as its goal the need to transform everything, even itself, artists express themselves, as long as they reflect that desperate need. Expressing that anguish will be culturally valid.”1

One Way or Another

The manifestation of these concerns came by way of her uncompromising first and only feature length film, One Way or Another (1974). If she was deemed by Agnés Varda a “young person that directs educational films” in her short appearance on Salut les Cubains (1961) (where Gómez was also assistant director), this lone feature meant her final turn towards a more dialectic approach. Instead of a single discursive throughline, her final film project shows often contradictory perspectives superimposed on each other in an incisive examination of conflicting intersectionalities within the wider scope of the revolutionary process.

Once Castro’s caravan arrived in La Habana in January of 1959, communities that had grown accustomed to structural neglect were now thought of as an integral component of an ideological switch they were never really a part of. Idiosyncratic ethnic traditions that held their own against institutionalized marginalization now clashed against the central premises of the revolutionary plan. Soon enough, it became clear that the egalitarian banner upheld in central quarters in La Habana couldn’t simply be extended elsewhere and expected to be assimilated with the same enthusiasm. The galvanizing photographs of insurgent triumph and popular gaiety were only one of the many faces of a diverse and fragmented social ecosystem that had to deal with the uncomfortable realization that Otherness wasn’t simply brushed aside by a change in power.

As such, One Way or Another presents itself as an audiovisual deliberation happening in real time. A freeform testament to the multiple layers of internal cultural tension within sixties Cuba, in which form and discourse mutate as different perspectives dialogue on screen, coexisting in the same sequences, and occasionally colliding.  In direct contrast to many previous (and later) attempts at hybrid cinema, here the documentary and fictional aspects aren’t simply juxtaposed. Whenever ethnographic observations and real life occurrences take the screen, they go beyond merely grounding the fictional narrative in a palpable setting. Here the relationships between formal approaches are intrinsically linked in a complementary fashion. Each one of them positions a different perspective on the overarching central conceit; commenting, expanding and contradicting each other as they intertwine.

That conceptual anchor is the historically Black town of Las Yaguas and its transitional period before it fully transformed into a residential project called Miraflores. As it couldn’t be otherwise for a career known for its enveloping esteem for the daily expressions of Cuban life, One Way or Another labels itself as “A film about people: some real, some fictitious” in the opening credits that appear over freeze-framed images of slums and engrossing salsa music. The fictitious are the ones that tend to be given the spotlight when the film’s visual memory is considered, as the ups and downs of the improbable relationship between local laborer Mario (Mario Balmaseda) and out-of-town, upper-class teacher Yolanda (Yolanda Cuellar) mark one of the film’s most distinguishing elements: a romantic comedy seen through the eyes of the revolution. But it’s actually the representation of the former that makes the film such an outlier in the context of ICAIC’s 60s output and Cuban cinema in general.

Before Gómez’s film, notable works like Nicolás Guillén Landrían ’s lyrical portrait of a fishing eastern community in Ociel del Toa (1965) and José Massip’s expository short about a ballet influenced by Afro Cuban folklore in Suite Yoruba (1962) had dealt with Blackness and visions from underrepresented groups within the revolutionary project. The problem came when filmmakers dared to explore the more sordid elements of the so-called lumpenproletariat (the Marxist term for socially marginalized groups). Orlando Jimenez Leal and Alberto Cabrera Infante’s P.M. (1961) and Guillén Landrián’s own The Dance (1965) were both censored by local authorities as they showcased “an unwanted” version of Havana, taking their cameras to dwell with Black Cubans embracing hedonism in some of the island’s seedier establishments. In One Way or Another, such cultural disconnect is addressed bluntly.

One Way or Another

Before the film introduces Mario and Yolanda it presents the set-up of a typical essay documentary. Male and female voice-overs drily present the revolution’s answer to social integration over vérité vignettes of daily life flowing rapidly on the screen. Soon enough it becomes apparent that the duo of narrators represent the official perspective. They ramble on about the eradication of the marginalized, and then signal how the habits of these former slum inhabitants, who cling to what the powers that be label as antisocial and regressive traditions, are nuisances to the socialist project. The machismo and mysticism supposedly inherent to Afro-Cuban culture is then signaled as the reason why they remain on the margins of the revolution, yet Gómez decided to score these didactic sequences with incessant popular music deeply rooted on Black tradition. Her playful back-and-forth with the analytical fragments continues as she knits them between the fictional and the observational, contrasting the anonymous absolutes spewed by the official voices to expressions of dance, music and laughter by the real people of Miraflores.

The fictional narrative then acts as the central case study that holds the film’s thesis. Continuing the trend of her short films, Goméz’s frames historical processes through personal stories, through individuality and affectation. Mario and Yolanda’s relationship is basically a proxy for the tension between Old and New Cuba. He, a Black freewheeling workman barely interested in the bigger picture, enjoying off time with his buddies, and not beyond the occasional macho posturing. She, a mixed-race, upper-class teacher from La Havana, stiff and intellectual, seeing her values put to question by her man and a context she thought “no longer existed.” Naturally, socioeconomic, gender and racial tension become the core of their screen time together, Gómez knowingly recontextualizing the traditional romantic three arc structure as an opportunity to bring to life the changing environment around them.

In his seminal 1969 essay “For an Imperfect Cinema”2 filmmaker Julio García Espinosa positioned truly subversive works as the ones that not only rebelled against the institutional ways of representing cinema, but also against the representation of their subjects. In many ways, Sara Goméz’s One Way or Another is a fundamental embodiment of such a thesis. In the director’s filmic universe, the directness of Cuban militant documentary tradition coexists alongside the stylized jump cuts of French New Wave. Melodramatic outbursts of emotion are followed by an erratic camera flowing freely inside crumbling edifices. Sociological musings fade in favor 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.

1. Los documentalistas y sus concepciones, Pensamiento crítico, no. 42, La Habana, julio, 1970, p. 94.

2. Por un cine imperfecto, Hablemos de cine Nro. 55/56. Lima, setiembre-diciembre de 1970. pp. 37-42.

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