Nuestra Cuba: How Two Remarkable Women Shaped the Face of Cuban Cinema

Words by Nandini Gosine-Mayrhoo 

Amberly Ellis is on a mission. A young Caribbean-heritage American with filmmaking in her blood, she is intent on telling the stories of two women, Sara Gómez and Gloria Rolando, with whom she feels a close kinship. Both Gómez and Rolando are Afro-Caribbean women who made an indelible mark on the face of filmmaking in their native Cuba. Nuestra Cuba is Amberly’s planned docufilm telling the forgotten stories of these two remarkable women.  Amberly’s connection with these women, stems from her own hopes to distinguish herself as a storyteller and documentarian that fosters social change.

Amberly Ellis, the driving force behind Nuestra Cuba.

Amberly Ellis, the driving force behind Nuestra Cuba.

Her earliest memories are of seeing her father, himself a photographer and documentary/filmmaker, with a camera in his hand. Continuing in her father’s footsteps, Amberly started her film and documentary work in 2009 in the Dominican Republic, capturing the stories of the undocumented Haitian migrants and native Dominican population in a rural community called La Piedra. That assignment revolved around capturing photos of the diversity of skin color and the issues of naturalization in the Dominican Republic. That project steered her towards exploring other issues of race in Latin America and with a grant from the Tinker Foundation in 2014, Amberly began researching cultural policy in Cuba and its influence on race and representation in Cuban cinema.

Her research led her to the stories of two women – women who despite their ground breaking impact on Cuban cinema (they were the first women and first Afro-Cuban film directors), remain largely unknown in their native land. Ironically, Amberly would discover that much of the cultural issues that she was researching, were the very issues that these women explored in their documentaries and films. Facing her own struggles as a woman filmmaker of color, Amberly feels an affinity towards the hardships faced by these women in having their voices heard and their work recognized.

Sara Gómez (left) and Gloria Rolando

Sara Gómez (left) and Gloria Rolando.

Amberly, together with three other team members, is seeking to raise US$10,000 in funding for Nuestra Cuba. A crowdfunding campaign which ended in November, will be relaunched in February 2016. In Amberly’s words, “Nuestra Cuba invites dialogue amongst filmmakers, cultural producers, and scholars on the future of Cuban cinema, and the place it holds for the drastic minority of women in the Cuban filmmaking industry. The film confronts the long silence surrounding the impact of Gómez and Rolando not only in Cuba, but also in movements of counter cinema around the world.”

The Castro government supported Lenin’s notion of film as the “most important art”. In 1959, less than three months after the Castro government came into power, it set up the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), or as it is referred to in English, the Cuban Film Institute.

Sara Gómez joined the ICAIC during the early years of its existence. She was one of only two black filmmakers and the only female director there for some considerable time. Gómez made several documentaries covering a variety of topics, prior to directing her first and only feature film De cierta mañera (One Way or Another), a love story based on one of her own relationships. Her work explored female roles in the Cuban Revolution and the ways that the Revolution impacted the lives of marginalized groups, namely blacks and mulattos. Her exploration of racial inequalities in revolutionary Cuba during the 1960s and 1970s, came against a social backdrop in which official attitudes frowned upon the acknowledgement of racial discrimination.

Castro’s “Proclamation of Discrimination” in 1959 declared racial discrimination and racial prejudice to be “anti-nation”. The resulting structural societal changes benefited the poor and working class (i.e. blacks and mulattos) with regard to education and literacy, and in important demographic indicators such as fertility and mortality. What has persisted though is a continued prevalence of cultural racism, reflected in the low proportion of blacks and mulattos in government and party leadership positions.* Indeed, writer Carlos Moore has accused the Castro government of “negrophobia”, citing its particularly repressive attitude towards Afro-Cuban religious and cultural practices. It is these religious traditions that are explored in depth in De cierta mañera. While the film explicitly addresses class and gender conflicts, the issue of race remains a subtext, no doubt due to the attitudes coming out of the “Proclamation of Discrimination”. Sadly, Gómez passed away in 1974 at the age of thirty-one due to an asthma attack. De cierta mañera was released in 1977 and won worldwide acclaim for its courage in examining the limits and contradictions of the Cuban Revolution.

Sara Gómez at work.

Sara Gómez at work.

Gloria Rolando was recruited to the ICAIC as a researcher in 1976, when she was 23 years of age. Her first documentary Oggun: An Eternal Presence (1991), explored the ancestral legacy of Afro-Cubans, paying homage to those who have preserved the African Yoruba religion in Cuba. The film won the Premio de la Popularidad at the Festival de Video Mujer e Imagen in Ecuador in 1994. Rolando has since produced twelve documentaries and has won many awards for her work. Her 2001 documentary, Raíces de mi Corazon / Roots of my heart, tells of the 1912 massacre of thousands of people of color by the Cuban government. Her most recent work, Reembarque/ Reshipment (2014), tells of the forced repatriation of Haitians from Cuba after the collapse of the sugar industry in the 1990s. Her films have focused on the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the ways in which we can learn from history to create better societies. Working in what is referred to as the “Special Period” in Cuba, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Rolando faces a scarcity of local resources to fund her filmmaking. She heads an independent film-making group, Imágenes del Caribe, based in Havana, and is actively seeking funding from outside of Cuba to continue her work.

Amberly’s research into Sara Gómez and Gloria Rolando highlighted to her the issue of race in Cuba – an issue she has discovered remains largely undiscussed within Cuba itself. Amberly shares her experiences in various blogs, two of which can be read here and here. Her experiences have led her to form her own production company, Film for the People, with which she plans projects and initiatives covering human rights concerns and injustices. Amberly is particularly keen to conduct workshops with children in Cuba and the wider Caribbean.

If you would like to donate to the production of Nuestra Cuba, donations are accepted at http://www.film4thepeople.com/projects.html

You can follow Nuestra Cuba on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

*Source: Sarita and the Revolution: Race and Cuban Cinema by Haseenah Ebrahim