A Look Back at the Afro-Cuban Films of Sara Gomez, Cuba’s First Female Director

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It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, and while public schools across (Anglo) America are no doubt celebrating with agonizing cultural fairs or Mariachi-themed classroom decorations, we have taken on the solemn task of recognizing the diversity of Hispanic America by giving a space to the many oft-overlooked groups that comprise our coveted marketing demographic. For this week’s Throwback Thursday we’re transporting you back to post-revolutionary Cuba and the glory days of its state film studio, the Instituto de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), with a tribute to radical Afro-Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez.

Connoisseurs of Latin American cinema have surely heard of Cuban filmmakers such as “Titón” Tomás Gutiérrez Alea or even Humberto Solás, whose masterpieces of revolutionary art grace many a “Greatest Latin American Films” list. But a discerning eye will quickly notice that despite the revolution’s lip-service to equality, many of its most illustrious figures were the same European-descended males who had dominated the country since colonial times. Enter Sara Gómez.

Trained as a musician and ethnographer, Sara Gómez came from the folkloric Havana neighborhood of Guanabacoa — traditionally viewed as one of the epicenters of Afro-Cuban popular culture. After entering the ICAIC in 1961 as an apprentice, she worked as Assistant Director on several films including Agnes Varda’s Salut les cubains! and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cumbite. Though a good friend and mentor to Gómez, Titón later admitted that “Sarita” was a disaster as Assistant Director: a minor defect she made up for with her uncanny originality, passion, and strength of character.

She directed several short documentaries that brought a highly critical perspective toward Cuban revolutionary society, in particular the position of women and Afro-Cubans. With her debut film, Iré a Santiago, she became the first female film director in Cuba.

Iré a Santiago (1964)

“This black-and-white film is a loving portrait of Santiago de Cuba and its people. It provides a view of Cuba as a picturesque country, the product of an earthy mix of black and criollo cultures. The film uses historical images which portray the end of the eighteenth century when Haitian slave owners fled with their slaves to Cuba after the Haitian Revolution.” (source)

Isla del tesoro (1969)

“Traces the history of the Isle of Youth, formerly called Pinos Island or Treasure Island, from the discovery of the island by Columbus to 1969. The relationship between the old and the new world, humankind and history, and the meaning of human acts in a revolutionary era are considered in a brief story of Cuba. The aggressiveness of the film comes not only from the experimental use of sound but from an anti-Americanism born of a time in which Cuban film directors took an active part in politics.” (source)

After completing several shorts, she set about making her first feature and docufiction masterpiece, De cierta manera. Unfortunately, her tragic death due to an asthma attack in 1974 at the tender age of 31, left the film incomplete. Titón, along with filmmaker-theorist Julio García Espinosa, finished the film according to Gómez’ original vision and brought Cuba one of its unequivocal masterpieces of film art.

Luckily for us, De cierta manera is available to stream in its entirety on Youtube. Be sure to check it out and see why post-revolutionary Cuban cinema is often considered among the world’s most innovative and socially committed cinematic movements of all time.

De cierta manera (1973)