‘De cierta manera’: Sara Gómez’s restored premonitions take MUBI

De cierta manera, the debut feature by Afro-Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez, arrives at the MUBI platform in its restored version this March. Beyond the technological life that restored films take on in themselves, this feature film, the first directed by a Cuban filmmaker on the platform, will not only reach a wider audience, but will also be the recipient of new meanings, new ways of understanding the realities of today’s Cuba.

Sara Gómez presents herself as a Cassandra, whose tragic death not only prevented her from continuing to offer her forecasts about the island’s reality in her films, but even today, almost forty years later, the white male silence cannot silence her, quite the contrary. De cierta manera multiplies messages, prophesies realities and resemanticizes the different questions that the Cuban filmmaker asked through this film.

 

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The Greek myth of Cassandra has been used in feminist studies to talk about the silence of women or how the message changes depending on who delivers it. In this case, the Cuban filmmaker not only foresaw what would be for today’s Cuba the subjects classified as “marginal,” but also left questions to think about a nation and its possible otherness.

Although Gómez, or Sarita, to those close to her, was always thought of as a rara avis within the audiovisual panorama of the first decades of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), the filmmaker only found an honest position to place herself before the reality she represented and of which she was a part. She could not get to the places as someone completely alien, detached from the distance and comfort of a camera, she was part of them, and if indeed the ICAIC, to which she belonged, had the enlightening vocation to change thoughts and behaviors, then Gómez determined that from the filmic work itself “something must have to be done.” This is the first layer of her film and attracts the attention of foreign eyes: its mixture of represented reality and the most classic fiction.

Although the editing of the filmic work could not be completely finished by the filmmaker, from the guidelines set out in the script, the incidence of reality and its representation are present as an honest pact with her filmed subjects. Respect for the other goes through the joint deconstruction of what can be understood as marginal.

But the filmmaker not only refutes this idea, but through De cierta manera other cultural debates that permeated the history of the building located on the corner of 23 Street and 12 appear.

I’m a Bit Cheerful

The concept of party or divertimento, instituted by the political process of 1959, seemed to differ from what was understood as genuinely popular or fun, or at least that was one of the excuses used in one of the first debates that came up around the documentary PM, directed by Orlando Jiménez Leal and Sabá Cabrera Infante in 1960.

The party, the personal enjoyment, versus collective relationships, is something that Sara Gomez questions again in the film. Mario Limonta’s character in the assembly/trial defines himself as a “little cheerful,” and he does this as an excuse and a piece of self-criticism, after we have seen throughout the film that Mario (Mario Balmaseda) likes this type of activities less and less. Popular relationships are exchanged for going to the movies, for trova concerts or even dinners in supposedly “more refined” places. The party, organized individually, related to religious beliefs or faith practices, or simply distant from the cultural projections of the young government, starts to become, from very early on, something that does not belong to the “new” Cuba that is being built. And this is reinforced by the discourse of the character judged in this scene.

Yolanda Cuéllar and Mario Balmaseda in a scene from ‘De cierta manera’.

De cierta manera states the cultural displacement that many people in Cuba experience today. Playful, genuinely popular processes, which are part of the national history, were either banished from the public space or were taken over by the power, which, under the subtle idea of supporting them, improving them, adjusting them to the “new” revolutionary visions, took possession of them, and marginalized those who did not fit into this new mold. But this marginalization not only implied the collective criticism of these practices, but also their representation in Cuban cinema itself, which portrayed them as “remnants” of times past.

De cierta manera illustrates the emergence of a new class: the revolutionary class. Apparently, it is not a social class, but a way of life. Still, it becomes a class when only those who rose themselves to the top of the dominant social and cultural project that began in 1959 have been able to achieve what others have not. This new class believes it has a moral superiority that constantly enters into crisis as it moves through the characters in the neighborhood. In this second decade of the second half of the twentieth century, what was Cuban, what was correct, and even what was masculine and feminine was only understandable or assimilated through the revolutionary aegis. Or so it was believed at a representative level, but De cierta manera puts this paradigm in crisis, and not only deconstructs it, but, like a cinematographic uroboros, the images of the Cuban film continue today.

The people of the Miraflores neighborhood still have financial problems, single-parent families still live together, but for the “fictitious” characters in the film, specifically for the teacher Yolanda (Yolanda Cuellar), this is due to their personal choices, not to the lack of opportunities provided by the system in power.

In this sense, the critic Dean Luis Reyes, comments in the prologue to the film’s script published by Ediciones ICAIC: “Yolanda, who allegorizes the socialist revolution, whose values she embodies, is at the same time a converted subject and an anomalous element. The anomaly in her case has to do with entering into an affective relationship with Mario, an individual very distant from her system of values, representative of that marginal sector, absolute subaltern, insofar as he is subjected to the values of something situated above him.”

The duality of this female character: allegory versus person, is very well represented in the scene that the MUBI platform chose to promote the screening of the film. In it, Yolanda explains her family history and that she “had resources,” to which Mario replies: “money,” and she answers: “No, but my mom and dad worked.” Then, the male character replies: “but that’s not why, because my old folks worked all their lives like beasts, but they had neither money nor resources, as you say.” Mario states that work is not enough to have prosperity and economic solvency, but throughout the film it will be demonstrated that neither is being a revolutionary.

 

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The self-defining insistence of the Cuban socialist process involves a rigidity that seems unsustainable, but that has been able to lead the subjects of the Cuban nation to doubt their actions or the way they think. Although in that sense doubt is not a symbol of progress or rational advance, but rather it is associated to religious guilt, where if doubt exists, it is because the person is doing something wrong, and in consequence does not question that other external system of beliefs to which they try to belong.

Returning to Reyes’ idea, Yolanda’s dislocation, specifically when she is reprimanded for her way of scolding her students and their mothers at school, can be taken as a genuine questioning of the revolutionary process. On the basis of the question: what are we doing wrong, for Yolanda/Revolution the answer is clear: nothing. The teacher is very sure that her way is the right way, so then the responsibility, and the blame, falls on the individual. The responsibility for the fact that the young generations are not integrated into the social project is placed on the family individuality, but the opinion of the director of the film returns through the voices of the other teachers: this reasoning is reductionist, the reality is more complex and varied according to each family.

This group of women represents the two predominant trends of thought at the time: in one, the system gives everything, the individual must only adjust to it; in the other, broader in comparison, the system must adapt to each reality according to the general rules. The latter tendency implicitly carries criticism as a method of change, something that both Yolanda and the Cuban power are not very good at assimilating.

I’m Scared Shitless

According to Eastern philosophies and practices such as Buddhism or yoga, fear, like all emotions, represents both limiting beliefs or alerts to act. For the East fear is also the result of ignorance. In De cierta manera ignorance can be eradicated, but the director and her characters question whether it should be done in just one way.

For the patriarchal system, fear has become an engine of hatred, the main motive for maintaining power. Heteronormative masculinity has been built on the basis of virility, which implies the word fear has been banished, but not as the absence of it in physical reflexes, but as its permanence as a feeling. Cis men have not been allowed to feel for a long time, and have based their entire culture on the hatred of this action, precisely by feeling it. This is why Sara Gómez’s film goes deeper, like no other since the beginning of the revolutionary process, into the significance of the masculine in the public and the private space.

Through this cinematographic deconstruction, a hegemonic deconstruction was proposed. The “fear” felt by the character Mario is not only of not living up to a social process that demands specific attitudes from him, but also that this could lead him to the dismantling of his own masculinity. For the Revolution in this film comes to face the feminine role of bringing order, the one that calls for good living and within this many men, in order to join an ideal in which they believed, are placed at moral and behavioral crossroads.

To ensure this change, like any social process, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 also made sure to create institutional structures for the formation of a new masculinity. Thus, the mandatory Active Military Service was created, and the film refers us to its creation. Also, to regulate the relationship of men with the public space, Law 1231 of March 1971, better known as the Law against Vagrancy, was approved. Both events are important in the lives of the characters in the film. At this time, both Yolanda and Mario shared the same set of ideas. For the character played by Balmaseda, the military service changed his life, and although his external dialogue indicates that this change was for the better, his gestures and the way he talks about it make evident the simile that many mothers in today’s Cuban society defend: military service is very similar to a prison.

However, the idea of rehabilitation underpins both repressive systems. For Yolanda, she is not so concerned that her male students do not change during primary or secondary school, since that is what the Compulsory Military Service is for. Thus, this military structure is composed as one of the reformatory pillars within the Cuban social project initiated in 1959. Throughout Sara Gómez’s film, the conviction that “all change is for the better” is put into question. A completely logical question that makes us wonder how fair and egalitarian has been the advance of power in Cuba from the late fifties to the early seventies.

The argument in the final scene, which leaves us with the feeling that this is going to be a permanent feature of their marriage going forward, is a very clear symbol that this will be the only possible way to change and progress. While the argument may be perceived as an incompatibility of characters in the fictional plot, for the social fabric the film tries to understand, it is through “the argument”, and then reconciliation, the only possible way to move forward, at least “in a certain way.”

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MAYTÉ MADRUGA
MAYTÉ MADRUGA
Mayté Madruga Hernández (Matanzas, 1987). Graduated in Journalism. She has collaborated with various Cuban media as an art critic. She works at the Havana Film Festival.

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