Sara Gómez only lived to be 31, but nearly five decades after her death, the work of Cuban cinema’s first female director continues to be studied by film lovers who appreciate how, in such a short life, this Afro-Cuban woman was able to make transgressive documentaries with fine quality and creative wealth.

Her First Steps in Filmmaking

From a very early age, Sara showed an aptitude for the arts. She studied piano at the “Amadeo Roldán” municipal music conservatory and made some forays into journalism, with articles published in the student newspaper Mella and the weekly magazine Hoy, Domingo. In 1961, she traveled to New York, and chose to go into filmmaking upon her return. In that same year, she began studying at the recently created Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC).

One year later, she made her debut as a documentary filmmaker, with the production of short pieces for the Popular Encyclopedia series of director Octavio Cortázar. She later worked as assistant director for French filmmaker Agnès Varda in her 1963 documentary Saludos, Cubanos and in the Cuban feature films Cumbite (1964), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and El Robo (1965), directed by Jorge Fraga.

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A Documentarian Of Her Time

Over the space of a decade —between 1964 and 1974—, Sara directed 15 documentaries. Some of the most notable are Iré a Santiago, Guanabacoa: Crónica de mi familia and the trilogy about what is now called the Isle of Youth: En la otra isla, Una isla para Miguel and Isla del Tesoro. With her very personal perspective, she attempted to capture in her work the social changes Cuba was going through after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1959 and the way these transformations influenced the lives of Cubans.

Sara, a black woman, dealt with complex issues in her documentaries, from discrimination to marginalization and the racial prejudices that prevailed in Cuba. Her selection of topics and her way of tackling them with an original approach made her a reference of her time. Filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea once admitted that he felt happy when his work seemed to age, because this meant the issues discussed in it had been overcome. The comments in Sara’s black-and-white documentaries never age, since they continue to be hugely relevant in contemporary Cuban society.

De cierta manera, Sara Gómez’s Unfinished Work

In 1974, Sara made Cuban film history when she became the first woman to direct a feature-length film. Her debut feature, De cierta manera (One Way or Another), tells the story of a teacher, played by actress Yolanda Cuéllar, who is sent to work in a new community made up by people who used to live in a poor neighborhood. The teacher seeks to transform reality through the education of children, and falls in love in the process with a laborer named Mario —played by the great late actor Mario Balmaseda— who belongs to the Abakuá secret society, a group that denied entry to women.

The sentimental relationship goes through a series of conflicts, in which male chauvinism and the marginal condition of the neighborhood clash with the female emancipation ideals held by Yolanda.

De cierta manera, scripted by playwright Tomás González, stands out not only for its story, but also for a blurring of the lines between fiction and documentary. Sara superimposed documentary images with scenes filmed with professional actors and with real denizens of that neighborhood, who actually played themselves. That original combination, in which reality is heightened by fiction and vice versa, turned the film into one of Cuban cinema’s best.

Unfortunately, Sara was unable to finish the film. On June 2, 1974, a bout of asthma caused her to go into respiratory arrest. She was yet to turn 32. The shooting of De cierta manera had already wrapped up, but the film was yet to be edited. Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa, another renowned Cuban filmmaker, took on the task of giving the finishing touches to the work. Three years after Sara’s death, in 1977, the film finally premiered to a very favorable reception by audiences.

The Legacy Of Sara Gómez

The work of Sara Gómez, the first Afro-Cuban woman to direct a feature film, has endured the passing of time. For filmmaker Jorge Luis Sánchez, she “was one of a kind and no one has managed to reproduce her style of filmmaking. She was a filmmaker, not just a documentarian, a term that tries to diminish an artist’s work and steal away its quality. She is at the very forefront”, he declared at the conference “Sara Gómez: imagen multiple”, held in 2007.

According to Gerardo Fulleda, in a biographical sketch he published in CineReverso, “Sara Gómez was, above all, a true woman, with a sharp tongue always ready to click like a flick knife at anything she believed wasn’t right; she liked a joke, as well as funny remarks and good music; she rejected labels and slogans that attempted to stand in the way of questioning. She was a transgressor by nature, with an avid hunger for more awareness and a tenderness she gave lavishly during her short life to those she loved, her friends and admirers, her children, her work and her country’s culture.”