Cinema at the margins

I’m puzzled about what to say about Sara Gómez’s De Cierta Manera (a.k.a. One Way or Another), which I watched for the first time a week or so ago, in part because the film is itself a tangled knot of styles, forms, and voices.  It is both a documentary and a narrative film, a mixture of scripted scenes and cinema verite footage of Cuban life.  Scenes of a fraught romantic relationship between a progressive schoolteacher (Yolanda Cuellar, pictured above) and her traditionally-minded boyfriend (Mario Balmaseda) are intercut with live performances by a writer of political folk songs and shots of urban housing, accompanied by voice-over narration.  The film is also marked by a complex production history.  It was left unfinished by Gómez, who died suddenly at the age of thirty-one, and was completed by fellow Cuban filmmakers Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García-Espinosa. Begun in 1974, it was not released until 1977.  Today, it is unavailable on DVD and is practically impossible to track down; I screened a dismal VHS copy—which looked like a bootleg—from my university library.

The unavailability of De Cierta Manera speaks to its plight as an orphaned or marginalized film.  Since the film is itself about marginalization on the levels of both nation and gender, this is fitting but nevertheless regrettable, because it risks being lost to time.  It is a fascinating example of the kinds of risks that get taken—and the kinds of cinema that become possible—when radical filmmakers like Gómez throw out all of the rules of cinematic convention and start making up new ones.  De Cierta Manera looks and moves like almost no other film, and for that it is disarming, wondrous, frustrating, and valuable.  But its unconventionality has sadly doomed it to obscurity.  I only first heard about it after browsing a list of “mostly obscure, mostly overlooked, and/or mostly unloved films” over at the invaluable They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? site.

This list of 250 titles (grouped under the suggestive heading “Ain’t Nobody’s Blues But My Own”) is fascinating.  It’s designed to be a counter to the site’s more prominently featured list of the 1,000 greatest films ever made, as aggregated from a variety of critics’ polls and other best-of lists.  The list “Ain’t Nobody’s Blues” list is, by its very nature, eclectic, strange.  Because it runs the gamut from “obscure” to “unloved,” underseen gems like Winsor McCay’s silent animated short How A Mosquito Operates and minor classics such as D. W. Griffith’s The Girl and Her Trust sit side-by-side with bombs like Myra Breckinridge and underground classics like El Paso Trucking Corp.  The list constitutes a kind of alternative canon, or even an anti-canon, of films that will never make the cut of “the best” or “the greatest,” many of which are authored by women, queers, people of color, political filmmakers, outsiders in a variety of ways to mainstream cinema.  It’s on this list that Sara Gómez’s film belongs.  Which is not to say that it’s third- or even second-rate.  It’s rather that it’s the kind of film that lives on the edges of film history: unapologetically political, formally and structurally radical, at peace with its own contradictions. 

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