One of my favourite moments in cinema occurs at the end of Agnes Varda’s classic short film Salut les Cubains, a film composed entirely of still photos Varda took on Cuba when she visited the island in 1963, four years after the Cuban Revolution. Her lyrical celebration of the role of revolution and Cuban culture ends on a cha cha cha with a young film student called Sarita Gómez, and even although the images are stills, the screen explodes with energy, vividly succeeding in Varda’s aim of making the film “dance with lived images.”
This ending has become so iconic that this final image has evolved a digital afterlife as a GIF, a meme, circulating in an afterlife preserving the image of Gómez. a format she could never have envisaged, because she never lived enough to see it, dying as she would at the age of only 31. The only aspect of her life more tragic is that most of the people who have circulated the image will never have seen any of Gómez’s own work, which is remarkable in its own right, and as richly deserving of its place in the history of women’s – and feminist cinema – as Varda’s itself.
Cuba in the early 60s was an object of fascination for the international left, Varda’s friend Chris Marker having been the first French filmmaker to have visited and made his polemic documentary Cuba Si! In 1961. Varda’s film is especially prescient in tracing the history of slavery on the island, stressing the significant presence of Black people on the island, and how their culture and religion would impact on Cuba’s most celebrated export, music; all subjects that Gómez would go on to explore in more depth in her own work, privileged with an insider’s perspective.
Gómez grew up in the Havana neighbourhood of Guanabacoa, an epicentre for Black Cuban culture where Santeria was more widely practiced than Catholicism, into a highly cultured environment with family members who played with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra. With such a background it comes as little surprise that she went on to study piano at the Havana Conservatory of music, as well as ethnography, two interests that would intersect to fruitful effect in her later work.
Joining ICAIC – the Cuban film institute founded in the wake of the revolution – aged only 18 , she would find herself the only female director working there, and one of only two Black directors, the other being Nicolás Guillén Landrián, whose career would be even shorter than Gómez’s, though for political and ideological reasons in his case.
ICAIC’s initial mission was largely pedagogical, to instruct a still largely illiterate population in their history and the ideals of the Revolution, which she would happily cooperate with on the Enciclopedia Popular (Popular Encyclopedia) series she was assigned to work on. However, in her first major short, Iré a Santiago (I’m going to Santiago, 1964), she problematises the notion of Cuban nationality, the ideal of everyone being equal under Che Guevara’s avatar of the ‘New Man’ – the very title of which suggests gender trouble to contemporary ears – by focussing on Black experience, tracing links between the Cuban Revolution and the first Caribbean revolution, the Haitian Revolution where self-freed slaves rose up against French colonialists, via the presence of the Haitian immigrants on the island. “Mulato is a frame of mind” a voice on the soundtrack asserts, and the film seeks to find a means to express the complexity of Cuban identity. The very title and premise of the film are homages to Federico Garcia Lorca, as Spanish as the Santiago in Europe that his poem refers to, and while I wouldn’t want to make too much of this, as gay as the Cuban Revolution was macho – as early as 1963, Varda had already picked up on the omnipresence of beards on the movement’s icons. Perhaps most crucially, Gómez pays attention to the music of Cuba, and hints at its African roots, a subject that she will explore in more depth in Y Temenos sabor (We’ve got Taste, 1967), where she explores the history of percussion instruments in Cuban music. As well as focussing on the stars of Cuban music, with priceless footage of a young Chucho Valdés, Gómez also incorporates unknown street musicians in their milieux, indicating the ethnographic turn in her work, and her genuine compassion for marginalised peoples. There may also be some ambiguity at play in the title here, or rather – to take a concept from the great Black Caribbean poet and critic, Edouard Glissant – opacity, as it’s never specified exactly who has taste here; is it all Cubans, as ICAIC would have preferred to read it, or the island’s Black population, as they may have read it?
Gómez would prove adept at managing these disjunctions in Cuban society without troubling ICAIC or the authorities, and was entrusted with making a pair of short films about a youth correction centre, on the Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines), Una isla para Miguel (An Island For Miguel) and En la otra isla (On the Other Island).
The films are remarkable in their intimate tone, with Gómez conducting the interviews on camera and striking up a remarkably non-judgmental tone, earning her subjects’ trust to speak about their hopes and fears. While the films undoubtedly have some basis in propaganda, the regime they depict does seem to avoid the purely punitive, exploring the role of culture in rehabilitation and integrating these people into society. In one very instructive scene, Gómez interviews a young Black man, Rafael, a frustrated former opera singer, who’s encountered racism from white female co-performers, and inquires whether he will ever perform in La Traviata. Other people range from a priest whose pacifist beliefs have been challenged by the revolution into a belief in the power of violence, to one young man who likes the island and sees no reason to leave, though his main concern seems to be able to have the freedom to grow his hair long, which may have been a universal problem for the youth of 1968.
In both their tone and approach these films have much to say to the contemporary moment, as the debate about the carceral state and the role of rehabilitation continue to play out. Certainly, the vision evoked here is far more benign and humanist than the Dystopian panopticon structure that Castro was incarcerated in that she explores in Isla del Tesoro (Treasure Island, 1969), which could be considered as – and which we’re screening as – something of a loose Cuban carceral trilogy.
If these films, and particularly Una isla para Miguel with its focus on the delinquent gang query how men might conform to the dialectic ideal of ‘New Man’ in Cuba, women were facing their own problems in a society which, hard as it was trying not to be, was still heavily patriarchal.
Mi aporte (My Contribution, 1972) was a film Gómez was commissioned to make by the Federation of Cuban Women exploring women’s issues, essentially through the equivalent of what Western feminists would have called a ‘consciousness raising’ session. It can be difficult, however, to map Western feminism onto what was happening in Communist countries, where women were already officially equal citizens but burdened with an unequal share of childcare and work, a situation leading to such prominent female filmmakers as Věra Chytilová scornfully rejecting the label of ‘feminist’ altogether. Certainly, watching Mi aporte, the women speaking seem most concerned with how they can live as revolutionary subjects, but are agonisingly aware of the barriers the macho society they lived in presented to them, and prevented them reaching their potential – the resulting film was shelved.
Gómez’s career would climax with her sole fictional feature De cierta manera (One way or Another, 1974) – though the film complicates the notion of fiction, as it deconstructs the notions of race, gender and marginality, concentrating on a barrio being redeveloped but still suffering from the effects of underdevelopment.
While the film is concerned with proletarian and sub proletarian lives, marked by poverty and criminality, Gómez focuses on the love affair between two protagonists, a factory worker from the barrio and a middle-class schoolteacher who has come in with liberal idea of improvement, using their relationship to tease out the tensions between old and new, male and female, Black and White.
The romance is essentially used as a hook, as the film takes a vividly ethnographic approach, fusing documentary and fictional interventions, with cuts to a potted history of colonialism in Cuba, where we’re introduced to an African religion which held that women were traitors, with a sacrificial ritual where a goat is castrated to figuratively make it a nanny goat, which segues seamlessly into the dominant Latino culture of machismo. Even at the end, when a coworker is punished for lying about taking time off work to see his lover, his most serious transgression seems to have been to use the fiction of his dying mother as an excuse, such is the extent of patriarchy, and the mother/whore complex.
A constant theme is the difficulty of escaping your environment, as characters confront how much difficult it would be to adjust to life outside the barrio rather than just staying within it. Throughout runs the recurring image of the wrecking ball, tearing down the slums, but which also acquires a metaphorical weight, tearing down the generic confines and bourgeois assumptions that audiences can bring to the ‘social problem’ film.
This is a truly self-reflexive, exhilaratingly discursive piece of work, the precise antithesis of the kind of vaguely ‘social liberal’ films that the American critic Richard Brody has brilliantly skewered as products of ‘capitalist realism’, one that gains immensely from Gómez’s insider knowledge of the milieu. Gomez herself was of course not from the margins, but solidly middle class; as part of her research she hung out in the neighbourhood, she went to parties, she met people. One of the people she met was a former promising boxer who had lost his career as a boxer due to a crime, now struggling as a – not very good – singer. He made the cut, playing himself, as did a friend he introduced to Gómez. In this accretion of real-life detail, she builds up a convincing portrait of the milieu, and undercuts cliché. Too many middle class filmmakers still go into communities with fixed ideas and impose them on the long-suffering inhabitants – this film is alive to the community, open to its influence, and willing to grant its subaltern subjects a degree of agency. Far from being a period piece, as many ‘70s radical films are in danger of becoming, this is one that feels startlingly relevant today, both formally and thematically, with its intermingling of fiction and documentary presaging many developments in contemporary documentary, in the work of Joshua Oppenheimer, Andrea Luka Zimmermann and their contemporaries.
For once, the people portrayed in the film actually loved it – it was a popular hit, with Cubans responding to the most honest portrayal of their lives under the Revolution they’d seen, when finally released in 1977, a success that Gómez wouldn’t live to see. A life-long asthmatic, she died at the age of 31 before finishing the film, which would be completed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Espinosa following her script and notes.
It’s tantalising to speculate what more she might have done to the film, or what more films that she may have made, but more productive to focus on and celebrate her cinematic achievement, which constitutes a unique body of work, and consider how her legacy can be built on in contemporary work dealing with ever prevalent issues of race, gender and marginality. Perhaps it would be best to leave the last word to her, from an interview with Marguerite Duras; “We are alone facing our historical consciousness – that makes us fully responsible, and so the reason for alienation has disappeared. Our work is creative, we live to create – to create something that will exist beyond time, beyond any possible existential anguish, like art. Is that clear?”