Since this blog-post is about the last film we have watched in this series, many of the discussions that have happened during the last two weeks will find resonance here. The film form is an issue that has kept coming back in the discussions about all the films we have been viewing. And keeping that in mind, it is only befitting that the last film we viewed in this series is a film that is as much a film that raises questions about form as it is a film that content-wise grapples with a lot of issues.
De Cierta Manera is a film that would be a very apt example of how extra-cinematic moments make their imprints on the cinematic form. It is a film about landmarks—a black woman filmmaker working on issues of class, race, and gender against the backdrop of a country after the Revolution. It brings together romance (associated with the feminine) and the documentary (commonly associated with the extreme end of realism). Commonsensical understanding would be that the purpose of fiction film and that of documentary films are diametrically opposed. So what happens when a film engages both? Does the use of documentary-like footage cushion one’s agenda more strongly than the more traditional forms associated with fiction-films would? In bringing these two filmic styles—fiction and documentary—how does this film make our compartmentalization of truth vs. make-believe problematic? What we forget is that documentaries are representations and like classic realist cinema, which seems to draw the most flak from ideology-criticism, are as prone to make their own hierarchy of truth. Perhaps, the term ‘approximation’ will be a better fit here than ‘representation’ which bears the implication of straightforwardness.
De Cierta Manera consciously avoids socialist realism. The image of the giant stone razing old buildings is poignant at several levels. First, it is a trope for a country trying to reorganize itself after a revolution, breaking down old social structures. Second, it is also a statement about the film which constantly breaks the rules of audience expectation by refusing to conform to either a strict documentary or a clear fictional code. The film constantly plays on the real vs. fiction divide, drawing on various filmic influences, viz. classical documentary, cinema verité, and fictional cinema. It makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction with fictional characters meeting real people, subplots of the real stories of real people, and with fictional characters filmed in documentary sequences. The documentary, narrated by the omniscient narrator, and almost sociological in nature, about the marginalized in Cuba sets the frame within which we watch the fictional characters operate. The film has a pedagogic intention and is not without a certain amount of didacticism. However, it does not resolve the questions it raises: whether it be questions about women’s independence, or the question of masculinity, or the question of allegiance vacillating between male friendship and the Revolution. It even leaves the fate of the lovers (where the class angle plays out best) unanswered. The film gathers its motion from several layers of dynamic oppositions (I am hesitant to use the term dialectic). Yolanda coming from a middle class background is the independent woman. However, she fails to empathize with the mother of her student who is also a working-woman in her own right, but hails from a marginalized background. Mario testifies against Humberto not because of his ethical/political commitment to the Revolution but because Humberto has accused him of being an informer—something that Mario’s code of machismo will not tolerate. At the same time, he is guilt stricken at having violated the code of male-bonding. The unruly student that Yolanda throws out of her class is given his own story—the story of a marginalized family with no father figure and a working mother, and she is chastised by her co-workers for lacking empathy. Giving all these complex layers to the characters, the film explores the different aspects of marginalization. During the discussion, Prof. Nimtz mentioned that it is much more difficult for a Cuban film to deal with class than with race or gender. What makes this film interesting is that it complicates the issues even further by linking them together in a complex network and by consciously refusing to create its own hierarchy of truth. That is probably why a film like this cannot have a clear resolution.
One could compare De Cierta Manera with Soviet cinema to look at two modes of filmic responses to revolution. While the Soviets, on the one hand, used editing, especially the montage, for channeling audience response, i.e., the filmic response to the revolution becomes enmeshed in questions of formal aesthetics, De Cierta Manera, on the other hand, explores the issues that accompany any radical social transformation, viz. class, race and gender. At the level of content and at the formal level, it does away with the distinction between documentary and fiction and, in doing so, becomes a part of the filmic practices that stand in opposition to the Hollywood classic realist cinema and its seamless world of narrative and carefully orchestrated regime of dominant specularity.
In Sara Gomez’s film De Cierta Manera, she underscores the progression in the plot with scenes from what the revolution brought to the marginalized classes of Cuba and uniquely ties these larger realities to the lives of the characters—scenes of building demolitions, urban slums, and state-run factories are scattered throughout the film. Her characters exist entirely in this world, blending the fictional romance between Yolanda and Mario into the larger landscape of the social condition in Havana.
Yolanda, a grade-school teacher, lets us follow the camera into the lives of the women and children of the Miraflores neighborhood in Havana. Many of her students are unfocused, undisciplined, and unwilling to cooperate with her, leaving Yolanda in no other position but to call in their mothers. We are able to have an intimate view into what is portrayed as a typical family living in the urban Cuba of the day. In the cases Gomez presents, the husband/father figures in these families are either entirely absent from or minimally involved with the mothers and their children, highlighting the fact that then and now, the divorce rate in Cuba is one of the highest in the world. These single mothers are often the sole providers for their children, which leaves them little time to direct much individual attention to any one of their children. The combination of poverty, a lack of encouragement, and a general lack of social and economic incentive to pursue their studies is creating another generation that will mirror the life path of its parents.
In tandem with this look into the lives of Cuban women, Gomez explores the Cuban male psyche through the eyes of Mario, Yolanda’s pursuer. He plays the seducer, showing us perhaps the beginning stages of how the mothers who spoke with Yolanda were put in the situations they are now in. To set up a deeper understanding of the forces at play, Gomez gives us insight into some of the cultural practices held by predominantly Afro-Cuban men that blatantly defame and leave out women as a community function. The rather cultish gatherings stem from an indigenous African religion that was practiced by slaves brought to Cuba to farm its sugar cane plantations. The essence of its creation myth teaches that women are unworthy and not to be trusted. The Latino men bring the tradition of machismo to Cuban culture, and a system of patriarchy is created. The revolution in Cuba has not shaken these deep set attitudes from the minds of men and women alike, and even Mario, seemingly a protagonist in the film, shows that he is unchanging in the end in his enraged treatment of Yolanda at the movie theater.
Gomez, while giving us much food for thought, does not provide the viewer with any resolution concerning Yolanda and Mario, nor of any of the other characters we met along the way. It is perhaps fitting, because there really has been no resolution for the Cuban people; in our post-film discussion, August Nimtz elaborated on how many of the social conditions touched upon by the film still exist today. Just as there is no end to the dialogue between the quarrelling lovers, there has been no end to the dialogue on the social conditions of modern day Cuba; marginalism for many is still a fact of life.