Sara Gomez: An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker Review

AKA: Donde Esta Sara Gomez?, Who Is Sara Gomez?
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2005
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Switzerland/Cuba
Running Time: 76 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Salut les Cubains, Women Make Film, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, Calling the Shots, The Lost Garden, Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba
Notes:
-This film was part of the 2 disc Afro-Cuba: Yesterday & Today set from ArtMattan.
Fun Facts:
-Sara Gomez was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba which is a suburb of Havana. Today, there are over 112,000 people living there. It’s the birthplace of reporter Rick Sanchez, singer Lucrecia Saez Perez, and baseball player Evelio Hernandez to name a few.

-Sara Gomez is the first Cuban woman director of any race to make a feature-length film which was One Way or Another (De Cierta Manera), but it would also be her final film as she died of a severe asthma attack. During her tenure as a student at the ICAIC, she was only one of two Black film students at the entire school.

-Many of Gomez’s works got censored by the government, but two years after this documentary existed, they were finally released to the public in Cuba.

-This documentary was directed by Swiss filmmaker Alessandra Mueller. She graduated from the University of Geneva and has worked closely with the Swiss Broadcasting Service with various documentaries. Some of Mueller’s other works consist of Barbara Adesso, Losanna, and Jamaica Street.

-The producer of this film is the late Tiziana Soudani. Other parts of her portfolio include Nocaut, Lionel, and Waalo Fendo. The last movie was something I reviewed and should stand out because she was married to Mohammed Soudani who directed that film.

-Hilarious in Hindsight/Anime Fan Bonus: One of the places mentioned in this documentary is called HoroHoro. Could this have been an inspiration for a certain Shaman King character’s name?

Documentaries of so many subjects have been reviewed here on Iridium Eye. Of all the films I’ve covered in that genre, one subject that was surprisingly missing was a film about a filmmaker. One can certainly make an inarguable case about This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi, but that was an autobiographical docudrama. What I meant was a documentary that was about another filmmaker. This would be a learning experience for me because I wasn’t familiar with Cuba’s cinema scene. I would certainly be surprised that they had a director of sorts who had many firsts to her name and the fact that the country’s first female director was a Black woman certainly made me very intrigued. Regardless if one went to film school, took media-related classes, or is a cinema buff, there’s an uncomfortable truth that needs to be discussed…Black directors don’t get talked about or promoted as much. People might mention Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, or Ryan Coogler (mainly because of Black Panther, don’t lie) as far as recent examples, but it’s a subject that even the academic types in cinema don’t know anything about whether they discuss domestic or international cinema. Then again, the Latin American cinema scene isn’t discussed either as I don’t remember anyone talking about directors from that part of the world except for maybe mentions of Mexican filmmakers Guillermo del Toro or Alfonso Cuaron for example, but those two went Hollywood though.

Leave it to Alessandra Mueller to fly all the way from her native Switzerland to Cuba to find out more about this pioneer filmmaker.

Sara Gomez: An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker is a documentary covering the life of the first Cuban female director. Sara “Sarita” Gomez Yera was a very enthusiastic filmmaker ever since her childhood as she would film everything from people in the park to baptism ceremonies with her basic camera. She would specialize in making documentaries and educational films. Many of her works revolved around realism, women’s rights, race relations in Cuba, or stories around the time of the country’s revolution during Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Sadly, she died at age thirty-one due to a severe asthmatic attack as well as suffering under a complicated birth. This documentary uses some archived footage from her films as well as interviews for her surviving family members, other Cuban filmmakers, and actors who worked with Gomez in the past. They tell all kinds of stories about her and how she was very innovative in her craft.

This was certainly an educational piece for me as I got a chance to learn about a filmmaker I never heard of before. It was a fascinating look into this mostly-unknown director despite having a cult following in her native Cuba. The choice of interviewees was very diverse with different races as well as connections to Sara Gomez. They interviewed multiple family members like her adult children, her widower, cousins, and aunts which was a great touch. You had that insider information about her which adds a strong dynamic. Her husband Germinal Hernandez had lots of interview time and it was revealed that he’s done sound engineering for her works and continues in that field of film production even to this day. It was also fascinating hearing from her children since Alfredo didn’t remember much about her, so he has these stories to go on and her daughter Iddia was inspired by her, yet was shocked that she outlived her own mom. Ibis struggles with hearing issues and could relate to her mother’s medical issues in an abstract way while also admiring her determination of her “running” instead of everyone just walking when it comes to achieving all of their goals. The Sara Gomez documentary could’ve been a hagiography, but that was avoided when even her friends and family critiqued her in different ways. She wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with and some of her actors had to do some awkward things in some of her works like Mario Balmaseda being asked to work in the nude during a scene in a bathroom which he reluctantly did and it wasn’t just because of the original shot censoring himself with the framing. There was a healthy usage of archived footage, so one can see her filmmaking style. It’s black and white and based on realism which reflected her views to make stories to be unadulterated. There were shots of her fictional films as well as her documentaries covering some mundane tasks or interviews. I did have to do a double take with the footage of the choir singing because I swear one of the guys looked like James Earl Jones which was a bit of a funny moment. Even her narrative works leaned on documentary style filmmaking to play up the realism and plausibility of the story. I also respect the fact that she wanted to bring light to serious issues that no one else talked about in the Cuban cinema world. There was even an argument near the end that people don’t stay dead (metaphorically speaking) when they’re actually remembered which was a nice sentimental aspect. While Gomez went to the afterlife in 1974, her family, friends, and filmmakers who liked her work made sure she would live on through her films.

The Sara Gomez documentary could use some re-cuts here and there. While I learned a lot about Gomez as a director and a bit as a person, I thought some parts felt missing. Doing my own research, I found out that she had another husband prior to marrying Germinal Hernandez and her eldest child Iddia was from that marriage. They never go into details why that relationship started and ended with another Cuban filmmaker Hector Veitia. I get Germinal was the main focus given how he’s her widower, but that omission felt strange. Also, that second marriage was a reaction to being part of an affair which is only mentioned in passing and makes her look less noble in hindsight (god forbid if a man did that to his wife). That was downplayed so much. Gomez was also trained as a musician and ethnographer which I thought would’ve been good to know. They only emphasized her filmmaking prowess and seeing her as a multi-disciplined artist could’ve made this narrative stronger, so she unintentionally looked like a one trick pony. Even in regards to her filmmaking prowess, there should’ve been more emphasis that she was the first Cuban woman to direct a full-length film as well as the only woman in that country to do so for decades now. My biggest issue would be parts of the production. The cinema verite and basic filmmaking was okay, but I noticed some lighting issues in different scenes as well as some coding issues. The subtitles had issues with typos and spacing multiple times which got distracting. The gritty filmmaking did make sense given Gomez’s penchant for cinematic realism, but I think some better cameras would’ve worked as long as they weren’t too gaudy or high-def.

Sara Gomez: An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker was a good documentary, but I wouldn’t call it outstanding. The material is very informative and the stories were quite fascinating to learn about. There were some powerful interviews that showed different aspects of Gomez’s personality and the insider knowledge with her immediate and extended family was a huge plus. However, I wish I would’ve learned more about her as well as the production being improved in some way. If you want to learn about obscure filmmakers especially when it comes to female directors and/or Black directors, then this would be a good watch. I’m actually interested in seeing her films, so An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker did something right there.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like documentaries about film directors.
Add 1 point if you’re a fan of the Latin American or Caribbean movie scene.
Subtract 1-2 points if perfect documentary production means everything to you.
Subtract 1 point if you’re more into modern filmography.

Pros:
-Great interviews and primary sources
-Good balance of interviews and archived footage
-Positive ethnic and gender representation

Cons:
-Subtitle errors
-Some of the information is omitted or downplayed (the affair aspect being a big one)
-Unimpressive camera and production work

Final Score: 7/10 Points

Content Warning: Sara Gomez: An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker is a decent watch for teens and up. Infidelity is mentioned in passing as it was revealed that Sara Gomez cheated on her first husband before marrying Germinal Hernandez. There is some swearing and adult themes are mentioned such as sexuality, nudity (no nudity is shown, but it is talked about), and gentrification.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Sara Gomez: An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker is property of ArtMattan. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of ArtMattan.

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