Sara Gomez: A black filmmaker able to achieve the mystery and silence of the true classics

Sara Gómez is a crucial figure in the history of both Cuban cinema and women’s filmmaking, if one who has been marginalised, thanks mainly to her early asthma-related death at the age of only 31. She had just completed her first feature, De cierta manera (One Way or Another) in 1974, a radical rethinking of the consequences of the Cuban Revolution, mixing drama and documentary, through the prisms of race and gender. The film would be released and completed four years later by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, to international acclaim.

Gómez had worked as an assistant director to Alea and Agnès Varda before embarking on a series of documentary shorts, many of which would explore Afro-Cuban connections on the island. Havana Glasgow Film Festival has commissioned new restorations of three of these groundbreaking films. Y…temenos saber (We’ve… Got Taste) traces the African roots of Cuban music via rumba master Alberto Zayas’s exploration of Cuban musical instrumentation.

Una isla para Miguel (An Island for Miguel) is the first part of the ‘Isle of Youth’ trilogy, following the progress of young people labelled as counterrevolutionaries and their re-education on Pinos Island, known as the Isle of Youth. The second film, En la otra isla (On the Other Island), has also been restored; unfortunately, the negative for the final film in the trilogy, Isla de Tesoro (Treasure Island) proved to be too damaged to restore.

Nevertheless, Havana Glasgow Film Festival are thrilled to be presenting the world premieres of these restorations in Glasgow in November.

Ahead of the event, we asked Roberto Zurbano, the preeminent scholar on racial issues in Cuba (whose appearance was one of the highlights of last year’s HGFF), and who actually knew Sara, to discuss her work.

Sara Gómez Yera (Havana, 1943-1974) was an exceptional filmmaker in the context of the new Cuban and Latin American cinema that emerged in the mid-sixties and eclipsed at the end of the last century. Her body of work – critical texts, documentaries and fiction films – occupies a unique space in the Cuban cinema of the Revolution. A young black artist who demystifies and challenges any attempt to reduce it to just one of its many facets: antiracist, feminist or anthropological. Gómez’ cinema is all that and much more, with the critical foundation of Fanonian roots that enriched the boundaries of race, Cuban identity and the revolutionary, with an aesthetic grace and conceptual rigour rarely seen on the national screen.

It is common to present her as the first female filmmaker in Cuba, to emphasize her strong racial consciousness and to focus on her middle class identity, but it is also essential to mark her commitment to popular culture and her critical and self-critical passion through which she expressed the complexity of a world under construction: contributing a cinema of conscience, pointing out the virtues and defects of a social process that tried to change the world from an island in the Caribbean. Gómez dared to present and combine her ethical and aesthetic anxieties with the uncertainties of the revolutionary process that took place in 1960s Cuba and had global repercussions.

The cinema of Sara Gómez identifies the masks of colonialism, particularly worn by previously marginalized communities (black people, women, poor, religious and young people) who, unaware of the possibility of a better future, were about to turn a revolutionary utopia into a reality, but only if they could become, first of all themselves, subjects of social change. Gómez shows the difficulty of this change, exposing the roots of the world that had to be left behind and demanding the arrival of the future: her mission was to allow these communities to understand the process of what was happening in their lives, their needs and possible departures. |Her films continue to challenge us about the critical conscience of the subaltern subject.

Her documentary work has grown with time and her only fiction film continues to unsettle viewers and critics through its triple consciousness (racial, feminine and political) – presenting a world whose cultural history she understood like few intellectuals of the time. Her biographical, anthropological and political films have an aesthetic quality proportional to her inquisitive abilities and the transparency of her ethical discourse. Her work still resonates with contemporary issues in 21st century Cuban society (sexism, racism, religion, marginalisation), and perhaps that is why silence, mystery and light still surround her films in the way that only the true classics can achieve.

Roberto Zurbano Torres. Essayist and cultural critic, Havana.