Sara Gómez: Cuba’s first female film director

Cuban filmmaker Sara Gomez, ICAIC

Sara Gómez, was the first Cuban female film director of the Cuban cinema Institute (ICAIC) after 1959. Female and black, she was committed to the revolution and committed to changing her society by creating a new language in cinema addressing race, class and gender, and also using the Cuban concept of ‘imperfect cinema’.

Born in Guanabacoa, near Havana (November 8, 1942 – June 2, 1974) Gomez died at just 32 years old, but her work endures. She trained as a musician and ethnographer, studying at the Havana Conservatory. She turned to journalism to express her political views and after the revolution went to ICAIC to work on newsreels, where she assisted film directors such as Jorge Fraga, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and French director Agnès Varda.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sara started making her own documentaries and then fiction, with her feature film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another) begun in 1974 (and finally completed and premiered in 1977).

Her documentary work from the sixties includes titles such as Sobre Horas Extras y Trabajo Voluntario (About extra time and voluntary work), La Otra Isla (The other Island), Una Isla para Miguel (An Island for Miguel) and Mi Aporte (My contribution), which approach, from her point of view, the social changes after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, and their influence on people’s lives.

In black and white, she addresses racial prejudice, discrimination, marginalization and the consequences for families, machismo, breaking with the past and social programs aimed at improving life and dignifying Cuban men and women.

The themes and problems that she chose, the treatment that she gave them and the originality of her approach placed her at the forefront and many of her messages are contemporary.

For Jorge Fernández, vice-rector of the ISA in Havana [at a Havana conference on Gomez’s legacy in 2007], she was one of those artists who look ahead, who transcend their time. ” Not only did she stay in the language of cinema; her language was quite avant-garde and transgressive for her time…her work continues to dialogue with what is being done in young cinema, in Cuban documentaries and in fiction,” said Fernandez.

For Sandra del Valle Casals, a researcher at the Juan Marinello Centre,[in 2007] said looking at Sara’s work made it possible to appreciate Cuban cinema from a gender perspective, “because it is important to broaden the analytical spectrum and reveal the gender constructs that are manifested in Cuban film,” commented del Valle.

“Sara Gómez’s work is very relevant, due to the issues she addressed as a woman, being black and revolutionary. In it there is a concern for the social project of the Cuban revolution from many perspectives and it is a legacy as an analysis of that reality,” she explains.

In Del Valle’s opinion, in Gomez’s work there is an anthropological and sociological search and perspective to examine the reality of her time. There are aspects that are a product of her moment, but there are others that we can recognise now [decades later].

“Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea used to say that he felt happy when his work aged, because it meant that the problems it posed were overcome. In the themes of Sara’s films, there are stories that are not overcome and that is why, among other aspects, they are still relevant,” added Del Valle.

For the Canadian scholar Susan Lord, Gomez was “a very brave woman, very advanced for her time on the subject of the possibilities of changing relations between different social groups…Even today there are few works with that imagination, with that way of filming to make a more democratic world,” she adds. “She is avant-garde. Her work can offer today’s world, full of globalization, ways to invent relationships and build a bridge, a dialogue between ethical, aesthetic and political aspects”.

Inés María Martiatu, a writer and friend of Sara, had the privilege of knowing her since childhood. “She was always very aware of what she was doing; deliberately, her cinema was inquisitive, so it’s very special, very hers,” she says.

“When the premiere of De Cierta Manera was finally screened, it was like a detonator. People who had never been to the cinema, went to see something that reflected their reality”, recalls Mario Balmaseda, the film’s male protagonist. “Sara transferred her own context to the cinema. She placed herself in the middle of the problems, without distancing herself. She did not set up a story, she used the testimony of people, the drama of their world, away from the official discourse of how they should behave; she played life with herself, she took risks artistically and emotionally,” he adds.

Film still One Way or Another, Dir Sara Gomez, Cuba 1974/7


In Sara’s feature debut, One Way or Another, a female teacher is sent to work in a place where a slum has been demolished and houses with better conditions have been built, in order to transform reality and mentality. The teacher begins a romantic relationship with a man who lives there. There are problems with some students, conflicts, misunderstandings and doubts between the couple.

According to Fernández, the film has very interesting elements, “fiction, documentary, between gender and between texts, are mixing, all those phenomena that are currently analyzed through the theory of art and cultural studies. All that – Sara was considering at that time.”

“But also that way of bringing kitsch, that anthropological gaze, of uniting the processes of marginality, taking them to high culture and talking about them from within, from their experiences. It was the idea of ​​living art as an experience,” he explains.

“It was a drama that died at just 32 years old, that left the film unfinished (it was finished by other filmmakers), but knowing her work is part of our identity, of the nation and of the spirit of this island,” he adds.

“The narrative has a tone of chaos, it does not follow a linear structure and it has constant digressions throughout the narrative thread. There is a deconstruction of the story itself. And all of that was Sara. There is the theme of women, of raciality, which are phenomena that are being discussed today and are more present than ever”.

For the Cuban filmmaker Rigoberto López, in that film Sara integrated testimony, documentary, fiction, docudrama and distancing in an avant-garde way to achieve a work of originality and freshness, which even today makes it one of the most current films and contemporaries of Cuban cinema.

This text is based on the full article in Spanish By Raquel Sierra, 2007, SEMlac, Cuba, published by Mujeres en la Red here