Shooting the Cuban Revolution

Two women sit in a living rome setting an talk
A new look at the films of Sara Gómez

By Yasmina Price

Sarita had a sharp tongue, knew her Frantz Fanon front to back, smoked regularly despite her asthma, carried on a few choice love affairs, and was Cuba’s only Black woman filmmaker during her lifetime. Sara Gómez Yera (1943-74), according to anecdotes collected in The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution (2021), was an effervescent artist and intellectual with no tolerance for mediocrity who trained her lens with a sensitivity for what might appear unremarkable. The filmmaking tradition from which she emerged was embedded in the global tide of struggles for liberation from colonial domination in the 1960s. During this time, Cuban cinema developed in concert with the Third Cinema movement of cultural warfare across Latin America, shaping the camera into a weapon against colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.

Mere months after the success of the revolution, Fidel Castro established the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, demonstrating the importance of culture to the total transformation of everything — a belief shared by Gómez and many of her fellow revolutionary filmmakers. The ICAIC was the heart of film production in Cuba, which she entered in 1961, bringing an energy that few saw coming. Raised in a middle-class Black family, Gómez came to film having studied ethnology and worked as a journalist; she also had musical training and a serious devotion to Afro-Cuban music and jazz. While she was firmly a filmmaker, there was always a wayward quality to her method, which drew widely from various disciplines and was motivated by an unbridled curiosity. 

Attention to Gómez has suffered from the exasperating twinned effacements of Black women filmmakers and oppositional cinematic traditions. To the extent her work is known, it is likely limited to De cierta manera (One Way or Another, 1974/1977), her sole feature. A hybrid fiction/documentary, the film interweaves a love story between Mario, a factory worker, and Yolanda, a teacher, with a clear-eyed examination of the education system, labor, poverty, racism, sexism, and popular religion. While this is unquestionably a singular and monumental work, it was only one of 20 films Gómez made. After working as an assistant director on other projects such as Cumbite (The Communal Gathering, 1964) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Agnès Varda’s Salut les Cubains (1963), Gómez was truly prolific as a director — especially considering her filmography was cut short by her tragic death at the age of 31. 

Among her 19 documentaries, four previously unseen shorts were resurfaced this year: Iré a Santiago (I’m Going to Santiago, 1964), Guanabacoa: Crónicas de mi familia (Guanabacoa: Chronicles of My Family, 1966), Una isla para Miguel (An Island for Miguel, 1968), and Mi aporte (My Contribution, 1972). All shot on 35mm, they were restored by the Vulnerable Media Lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. These films are a tapestry of interviews, testimonies, reminiscences, and polemics documenting the distinct cultural and social characters of different regions in Cuba, Gómez’s own family history, and the integration of women into the workforce.

The four films reveal how Gómez’s position as an Afro-Cubana informed her unique place in Cuban cinema and in the militant cinema of the era more broadly — and also got her into trouble. She was sometimes at minor odds with ICAIC and other organizations the government formed to reshape Cuban society in the wake of revolution. Judging by some official rhetoric, one might think that anti-Black racism had disappeared overnight — Gómez knew better. In Mi aporte, she also directly addressed inequalities around gendered labor, clashing with lingering patriarchal norms. Although she was fervently committed to the revolutionary national project, Gómez was unwilling to skip over the messy parts and instead offered a glimpse into the revolution’s triumphs and difficulties in equal measure, foregrounding the inevitability of ongoing struggle, debates, failures, triumphs, organizing, and reorganizing. A cinematic counterpart to the likes of Caribbean-American journalist/organizer Claudia Jones and the Combahee River Collective, she always approached race, gender, and class as interlocked. 

The present state of cultural warfare — the landscape of centralized production, the financial monopoly of not only Hollywood but other structures of profit-driven filmmaking, the erosion of public funding and collective filmmaking — is arguably pitiful compared to the explosion of artistic activity in Gómez’s time. Even though she faced some issues in the ICAIC, Gómez unquestionably benefitted from a context in which oppositional filmmaking was supported by established infrastructures and collaboration was more robust. In the absence of proliferating guerrilla collectives today, that larger terrain of revolutionary filmmaking can be seen as a blueprint for how alternative formations of cultural production might function, which is instructive even if not exactly replicable. What can be drawn from Gómez are the particularities of her approach. A distinguishing facet of her filmmaking was her willingness to confront what remained unresolved in the immediate aftermath of revolution and her ability to create a cinematic space that honored continual exchange and generative conflict. Her practice was experimental, politically dynamic, and inhabited revolution as an ongoing process. Gómez was never preoccupied with offering answers, but she made her cinema a source of emancipatory knowledge, advancing more useful questions.  

Iré a Santiago
(I’m Going to Santiago, 1964)


Poetic graffiti opens the film. The four lines plucked from “Son de negros en Cuba” by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca were a way for Gómez to present her own devotion to Black music via his fascination with son, an Afro-Cuban musical form. This is one of her most lighthearted films, in which she credited herself only with her nickname “Sarita,” written on a staircase in the same white paint as the poem. She infused this film with playfulness, intimacy, and familiarity. 

A crowded street with people dressed in white and walk around a large car

This spirit carries over into her narration, which occasionally slips into a comical imitation of a tourist guide as the camera tracks a visit to the city of Santiago de Cuba. One event documented is the funeral of the president of a French Society, a lively procession that she uses to bring up the history of ties between Cuba, Haiti, and France as a colonial power. With a bit of pedagogical strategizing, she turns what was presumably the coincidence of running across this funeral into an occasion for a breezy history lesson. 

Feet moving on a stage as a young person looks up at performers

Gómez was not one to stand back at a critical distance. One of the most captivating aspects of her filmmaking is its sense of proximity. She threw herself into the action, positioning the camera in the midst of things and partially dissolving the barrier between her and her subjects. Here she lingers on the collective pleasure of people dancing, not just surveying the scene but capturing up close people’s feet at the ground level. Gómez was a poet of movement. 

Guanabacoa: Crónicas de mi familia
(Guanabacoa: Chronicles of My Family. 1966)

Gómez knew how to set the tone. This hybrid autoethnographic documentary about her family opens with an opposite aesthetic to the carefree graffiti of Iré a Santiago. Here, the stylized cursive writing, ornately bordered portraits, and rigid postures of her family members’ pictures creates a significantly more formal impression. Dedicated to her madrina (godmother), the film shows her family in such a way that highlights the diversity among Afro-Cubans, particularly in terms of class. It also gives insight into how Gómez might have diverged from the more bourgeois side of her family. Many of the available photos of the filmmaker have a radiant ease, a stark contrast to imagining her posing in a severely buttoned-up family portrait. 

Two women are seated in a living room talking, an elder woman sits on a rocking chair smoking a cigarette

These stills showing Madrina and Gómez’s cousin Berta materialize the differences within their family. With a powerful side-eye and a cigarette dangling from an elegant hand, Madrina holds court while her goddaughter listens. Berta, by contrast, is shown in constant movement, bustling around her kitchen getting beers and snacks and chatting with Gómez, who is out of sight behind the camera. There is a degree of warmth to the scenes inside Berta’s more humble home, supporting the filmmaker’s affection for the cousin she called her favorite. Yet with both Madrina and Berta, Gómez approaches them with patience and care.

Una isla para Miguel
(An Island for Miguel, 1968)

Una isla para Miguel was one of three documentaries Gómez made on the Isla de Pinos, this one focused on the system of escuelas en el campo (countryside schools). As part of the revolution’s education overhaul, they combined academic study and agricultural labor to foster revolutionary young people. The film begins with an epigraph from The Wretched of the Earth: “These classless idlers will by militant and decisive action discover the path that leads to nationhood.” As with others in the larger constellation of Third Cinema revolutionary filmmakers, Gómez was heavily influenced by Fanon. The epigraph also has the quality of a hot take — was Gómez framing the unruly youths sent to these schools as “classless idlers” or using the quote to reflect how the state saw them?

A group of boys gather by some thatched cabanas, three boys stands on their shoulders and play

As indicated by its title, the film is focused on one troublemaker in particular: Miguel, who was caught throwing stones at birds. Although she gives him the most screen time, Gómez still skirts around the norms of an individualized story line. There are numerous scenes of all the boys on the island working and playing, and even where Miguel is concerned, she interviews his brother-in-law and takes her camera into their family home to meet his mother and his sister, who speaks to the camera while holding a baby (blissfully disinterested). Gómez understood the private and public, just as with the individual and the group, as always being in relation. The exchanges with Miguel’s sister, as with many of the interviews in Gómez’sfilmography, show the director’s unusual ability to make subjects comfortable enough to share confidences. 

Mi aporte
(My Contribution, 1972)

An old cork board of fliers or ads

Gómez had a cheeky answer to the Zafra de los Diez Millones (Ten-Million Ton Harvest), a large-scale 1970 campaign to mobilize the population towards an increased production of sugar, in which everyone was expected to contribute. Mi aporte opens with a billboard featuring posters about women entering the workforce, a quotation from Che, and another example of Gómez’s dissatisfaction with basic film credits: here, they are handwritten on a piece of paper pinned next to the other posters. Starting with a focus on several women workers in a sugar refinery, Mi aporte offers a rich insight into how revolutionary policies around gender and labor were experienced by ordinary women. The production and reception of this documentary also showed Gómez’s fearlessness. Although the women’s organization Federación de Mujeres Cubanas had commissioned the film, it ended up censoring the finished result because Gómez included conversations with women workers that revealed that, while Cuba was in the process of leveling gendered inequality, it had not been fully achieved. As pictured here, the film does, however, include a clip of the sort of interview the FMC would have preferred: almost uniformly positive responses. 

A a group of women sit in auditorium style seating, one woman addresses the stage

Mi aporte ends metacinematically, documenting a conversation among Cuban women who have just watched footage of earlier parts of the film. Gómez cleverly smuggled one of the key aspects of Third Cinema that normally took place offscreen into the film itself. This filmmaking tradition worked against the norms of passive, escapist spectatorship to instead encourage active participation on the part of the audience. A good spectator was not policed by the norms of today’s arthouse theater — silence, stillness, a prohibition on breathing — but encouraged to react, to speak, to argue. To that end, the women included in Mi aporte’s post-screening discussion represent a variety of positions and perspectives. A previous scene includes Gómez herself speaking with three other women expressing quite different opinions on motherhood and labor. Here is where Gómez manifests her method of filmmaking as more interested in provoking questions and conversations than in forcing resolutions. The ending is also beautifully illustrative of how her films embodied her commitment to the collective. Even what Gómez titles as “my contribution” was turned into an occasion to place herself alongside others. 

Yasmina Price is a writer and programmer completing a PhD at Yale University. Her work focuses on Black Cinema, militant visual culture and the experimental practices of women artists.

Iré a Santiago, Guanabacoa: Crónica de mi familia, and Mi aporte were scanned in 4K and digitally restored from 35mm prints by the Vulnerable Media Lab at Queen’s University (Canada; Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabek territory). Una isla para Miguel was scanned in 4K and digitally restored from a 35mm print by L’Immagine Ritrovata (Bologna).