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This week I will be focusing on Cuba and how the revolution has changed since its inception. Unlike the last country I did, I am intimately familiar with Cuba. I studied abroad there and have done many research papers on Cuban culture and history. Still, this week I feel I have learned a lot because of the unique perspective of each of these films.
De Cierta Manera (1974) is half a documentary and half a narrative feature. It tells the story of a light-skinned Afrolatina teacher, Yolanda, who goes to work in the newly rehabilitated slums of Havana and meets and falls in love with Mario, a macho bus driver. Their story serves to show how the old inequalities of Cuba’s past conflict with the newfound ideas of the revolution.
The First Years of the Cuban Revolution
In 1959, Cuba rocked the world when a group of guerrilla fighters overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista and embraced communism. Before the revolution, Cuba was extremely dependent on US money and there were extreme inequalities between the middle class and marginalized communities. The revolution sought to get rid of US influence, redistribute wealth, and lessen inequalities between the city and the countryside. To combat this, they mobilized 250,000 urban Cubans to fight illiteracy in rural areas in 1961. Through to the 1970s, urban students were required to go to the countryside to understand the struggle of the rural Cubans. Rural health services were also improved with the government carrying out its first vaccine campaign in 1961. The 70s brought a different outlook on the revolution. The 1970 sugar harvest was successful in showing the capacity of the entire country to work for a common goal but it failed to achieve its goal of 10 million tons as it only reached 8.5 million. The 70s saw a retreat to socialism and left behind the utopian vision of revolution. They became more dependent on Soviet aid especially in mechanizing their sugar process.
Throughout this period, many citizens were asking how this revolution was going to combat the racism and sexism that had always plagued Cuba. While the Cuban government did not market its revolution as a racial one, many African Americans viewed it as a direct offense to white supremacism. Black Panther, Bill Brent, even hijacked a plane to Cuba after being involved in a police shootout.
Unfortunately, he was not received warmly. He was viewed with suspicion and placed in jail. Later he was integrated into society, but this event showed just how wary Cuba was of black nationalism. To this day, Afro Cubans are incarcerated at higher rates and are usually less economically stable, but they were still disproportionately aided by the progress of the revolution. Cuba banned public and private forms of racial exclusion and the new access to jobs and universities proved indispensable. Women in Cuba faced a similar fate. Gender discrimination was outlawed and the Bag Plan of 1971 allowed for households where the adults worked to be able to leave a bag at the store before they go to work and pick it up filled with their groceries. These laws helped but feminism was still considered a bourgeois import and not embraced. Machismo was also still alive and well, reflected in Che Guevara’s idea of the new man and the ongoing gay discrimination.
Contradicting the Revolution
The director, Sara Gomez is an extremely unique figure in Cuban film history. She was born to a middle-class black family and raised by her grandmother and four aunts. She became the first female director accepted as a member of the ICAIC, Cuba’s film institute, and the only black member. Before making her first feature film, she directed many documentaries about the daily life of Afro Cubans when other artists like Walterio Carbonell were being accused of fomenting black power. Unfortunately, she would not live to see De Cierta Manera as a finished product since she passed away from an asthma attack while editing the film at age 31.
Though not as well remembered as other Cuban films of the time, De Cierta Manera shows just how much work is to be done so the culture reflects the law. Yolanda, the new teacher in the slum believes wholeheartedly in the revolution but often lacks sympathy for her students and their parents. She often yells at them and in one confrontation with a black mother who has many kids, a job, and no father in the picture, Yolanda continues to tell her to get her son in line because it is her job. She does not seem to truly comprehend just how difficult this woman’s situation is. Her friends also express their prejudice towards her boyfriend Mario saying that they are all for the revolution but he comes from a different class of person. Mario himself also does not question the sexism inherent in his Abakua faith and is very interested in being perceived as a macho man. According to the government, these are all issues that should have been fixed with the implementation of new laws and regulations, but Gomez proves that the culture has yet to catch up with the government.
Creating an Effective Structure
Gomez structures her film as a hybrid documentary-narrative feature. This structure allows for Gomez to back up her opinion. Mixing fiction with real-life people shows her claims about Cuban society are rooted in reality. This comes into play throughout the film but especially in the last scene. The film starts with Mario arguing with his coworker Humberto who lies that his absences at work are because he had to care for his sick mother. Mario knows that he was actually spending time with his girlfriend and finally breaks his very sacred bro-code. The rest of the film goes back in time to explain what got Mario to that point. We see that throughout the film, Mario has been at war with his private and public self. He wants to be a good boyfriend to Yolanda but he doesn’t want to be viewed as effeminate. Mario finally wins that war between private and public not when he confronts Humberto but when he bumps into Yolanda afterward. The scene is without audio so we can only imagine what he says to her. Just as their figures fade away, Gomez cuts to a shot of a wrecking ball destroying a building in the slums to make way for the new constructions of the revolution. This signals that Mario is going to be able to grow in his relationship with Yolanda and that the cultural revolution is very much in the works. De Cierta Manera challenges the people of Cuba to not be complacent and continue revolutionizing themselves and their relationships with this experimental and inspiring effort.