Cinematic structures and relation to audience
The second way that One Way or Another explicitly clarifies the relation between ideas and historical and social reality is in its cinematic art. [open endnotes in new window] The cinematic structures and filmic tactics are components of the signifier that clarify the forms or structures of the signified, i.e., real social structures existent in Cuba today. As I will demonstrate, the film's form elucidates the real, urgent political implications in Cuban life of certain modes of discourse, certain ways of thinking, and certain ways of approaching social and personal problems, Gomez offers the film as an imaginary, intellectual, and emotional "construct" to the audience which is potentially a model for understanding contemporary Cuban society from the vantage point or perspective of the individual self.
As Bertell Ollman has pointed out, Marx's Capital, Volume One, demonstrates two of the most important features of the dialectical method. First, each structure Marx posits and labels with a noun, such as value or labor or productive forces, is really a term that also means a verb, i.e., a whole social, historical, and economic process, and by implication refers to and includes within it all the relations inherent in that process. It also includes its negation as its own "other." (To define "capital" is also to define "labor" and the historical and necessary relation of the two.) Similarly, One Way or Another asks us to consider both "individualism" and the "individual" as phenomena and to understand them dialectically from the perspective of history, class, and collectivity as well as from the dramatic perspective of the life of unique characters. The personal changes the characters encounter are presented as being as much a part of "slum clearance" as is any public planning or housing construction.
The second feature of Capital described by Ollman is Marx's ability to "chunk" information in many different ways, to see factors worth considering as coming from all walks of life, to incorporate analyses from every possible level of human thought and experience, to view things and their relations not as fixed but as changing, to alter his classificational boundaries and manipulate the "size" of the factors under consideration to suit his changing purpose or point of emphasis, and not to deal in mutually exclusive categories.
In the cinematic structure of One Way or Another, Sara Gomez does the same thing. She switches modes of cinematic discourse and, among the characters in their dialogue, modes of social discourse. This tactic leads the audience to think about the political effectiveness or implications of each of these ways of imparting information. She groups the characters in widely varying ways. She shows us very different social perspectives on urban space. In each instance her purpose is similar to Bertolt Brecht's in his plays. Each sequence in the film emphasizes the social context of the characters' emotions, decisions, and lives, and the drama illustrates in return the dynamics of real social change.
|Different ways of portraying Yolanda|
|She faces the camera in interview style and discusses how she feels about work and the students.||Her wedding pictures with her former husband, as she tells Mario that that man's frequent absences taught her to be independent, which she appreciates.|
|Yolanda, at a departmental meeting in the school. She said, in interview facing the camera, that girls especially suffer because they finish 6th grade and just get married and have children. The teacher to her left denies this and says girl students have lots of opportunities. Although Yolanda is severely criticized by her colleagues, she also has constructive, and here, unrecognized ideas to contribute. She calls herself very "outspoken."||In a comic way, Yolanda criticizes Mario's concept of manlieness. She walks around the bedroom in a swagger, saying that's how he is with his buddies. With her he is another kind of man. Their intimacy then opens him up to an ever greater depth of understanding between the two of them.|
As a film, as a work of art, the relation between signifier and signified in One Way or Another offers a fine example of dialectical exposition; furthermore, the relation between film and audience provides a concrete example of the function of dialectical art. In its structure, the film alternates between different kinds of sequences. These include the following: relatively short fictional sequences following Mario and Yolanda in and out of their social roles and in various situations and locales; documentary sequences explaining slum life, slum clearance, and the new neighborhoods where previous slum dwellers now live and where remnants of their old culture and habits which are "marginal" to the revolution still persist; historical sequences of the growth of the "voodoo" or Abacuá society and a contemporary Abacuá ritual; and both fictional and documentary footage relating the story of real-life boxer and singer, Guillermo Diaz.
Over the documentary sections, a commentary states the official view of marginal culture and describes the problems marginality has created for the revolution. The speaker has a flat, unemotional voice and the text uses a kind of formal sociological language. Most of the time this voice-over commentary offers an accurate summary of what we see in the film of people's lives, but it is also pompous and grating. Such an irritating tone serves as an ironic commentary on the political limitations of this kind of discourse in effecting real change in ordinary people's daily lives.
Much of the film shows people talking. And this lively talk is the counterpoint to the pedantic but realistic voice-over commentary. The film wants us to think of conversation as a process and to note the relation between what people say, where it comes from, and where it leads to. In the filmed workers' council meeting, at the men's domino game, and at the bar, everyone has something to say. There are also intense, intimate conversations and gentle, laughing ones with father, mother, lover, and same-sex friends. The quality of the talk, the things talked about the occasions that provoke such conversations or formal explanations—all these are clearly delineated in the film as part of specific social situations and coming from people who have specific histories, especially definite class backgrounds.
Similarly, the film juxtaposes and has various filmic ways of presenting different kinds of events and locales. The film constructs and elaborates in detail units on a personally observable scale and of a personally appealing kind: a love relation, gentle moments in family life, work relations, building up a new neighborhood by volunteer labor, a workers' council meeting, a teacher's relation to students and parents, a bar, a singer playing a song at his home and at a concert. The various locales that are presented are related to this "humanized" scale, this personal space; and many larger processes are indicated but not directly, or perhaps only schematically, seen (e.g., the army, revolution, work processes and routines, and the actual slum clearance).
Personal space is understood from the context of history, and the revolution is seen from the perspective of daily life. Thus, the new neighborhoods are first shown with goats in them, indicating the continuance of marginal culture in a new environment; and then these same neighborhoods are seen with Mario and Yolanda's participating in their cleanup and beautification. Not only do we evaluate all spaces in terms of the characters we have come to know best, but the opposite is also true. Both we and the film evaluate the major characters and their conflicts in terms of the extension of their lives into the past and the future, their relation to established social structures, and their relation to a specific geographic and social space.
To show some of the interrelations between the commentary, the characters' lives, and the types of language and situations used to develop a specific problem in the film, we can look at the film's approach to spiritualism as a social force and as a religious belief. Mario, in the first long conversation we see him having with Yolanda, shows her an area that used to be a slum, the area he grew up in. He said that he thought then of becoming a nañigo, an Abacuá society priest, but that his life had been changed too much by the revolution, boarding school, and the army. "Well, you cannot become a nañigo then," Yolanda responds laughingly. "Why not?" demands Mario, thinking his range of choices is being challenged by her. "Mentality," she answers enigmatically. "What?" "You just said that you have a different outlook now," she jokes and runs up the hill. It seems the first time anyone has challenged Mario to consider directly how much he has in fact changed.
The film then presents a documentary history of the Abacuá society and notes how it perpetuates a myth of woman-as- arch-betrayer and therefore maintains a code of male supremacy. The voice-over here takes a strong political stand that none of the characters themselves can take, since Mario's mother herself, although an active participant in the revolutionary neighborhood organizations, still maintains an altar of statues and "saints" in her house. As a matter of fact, at no time in the film do any of the characters make such strong statements to each other about required change—even though their criticisms of each other are direct and emotionally intense. Emphatically, the voice over the visual depiction of Abacuá rituals states the following:
"We believe that its traditional, secret, exclusive nature sets it against progress and prevents it from assimilating the values of modern life. Therefore, in its present stage, it generates marginality, promoting a code of parallel social relations that is the antithesis of social integration."
Because of the unusual use of the word "we" in the discourse and because of the strength of the condemnation, this seems to be Gomez's own view. The exposition of this aspect of Mario's past partly explains why he clings to codes of honor and manhood. We do not doubt this "explanation" nor that the Abacuá religious society is politically regressive. Yet the character Yolanda is closer than the voice-over commentary in understanding how it is that people change and move away from such a regressive structure and mode of thought. The revolution will provide people, if they wish, with another kind of mentalidad.
The film both gives a political prescription on the Abacuá society and looks gently and nurturingly at how such things as religious participation and belief are worked out, in contradictory ways, in the characters' lives. As a cultural artifact of a revolutionary society, the film also plays a role in changing people's lives. Gently it asks people, especially men, to give up old ways, and it does that from a wise parent's or friend's understanding of why people are where they are and what steps they can reasonably be pushed to take.
Dialectical thinking not only presents us with a series of interrelated factors, but it shows differences, connections, transitions, negations, and transformations between those factors. Dialectics also makes clear the levels, interconnections, and transitions between the concepts one uses to present and explain the various aspects of social reality. In the film, Yolanda and Mario are often filmed in group situations in documentary-style long-shots, which are edited together with real portraits of Havana life. Furthermore, Mario's father is played by a real-life community activist who has worked for years to transform the slums, as has Guillermo Diaz. These two figures are seen in sequences that could be historical newsreel footage or could be fictional sequences, created in these neighborhoods just for this film. The "reality" of the fictional characters' environment comes from a real urban neighborhood, confirming that the two protagonists' emotional development could be that of many other people there today.
Significantly, Lazaro and his mother are not actors. The mother tells this boy's and her own pathetic story to the world for the sake of this film. In the United States such a use of cinema verite for the sake of a fiction would strike me as exploitative, but in the context of this film, that the mother relates her story to the camera seems a positive social act. In a society which has class inequalities structurally built into it, naturalistic art which presents the plight of the poor can only offer us pathos to be consumed, since the society itself refuses a certain kind of change. In Cuba, in spite of severe poverty, there is a hope for change and an effort to promote that change. Thus this mother's telling her story is not a declaration of mere pathos but a sincere expression that both she and the filmmakers hope will lead to positive social change.
Similarly, but in another cinematic mode, the sensationalistic story of Guillermo Diaz's losing his boxing career because he killed a man hanging around his fiancee is presented in the film in stylized melodramatic form. In the old days, it was a lurid tale coloring all of the man's life. Now when the society has a sense of how people can and should change and how they can contribute to social process, Diaz is an esteemed member of his community and a touchstone of value in the film. The episode is no longer anything to be ashamed about but a factual part of the past.
In the context of its goals as socialist art, One Way or Another refuses to contribute to segmented knowledge and segmented existence. It shows that a knowledge of a key aspect of Cuban life, marginality, must not be parceled into a sociological discourse available primarily to an elite, even though that discourse contains some of the truth. The individuals in the film are shown in terms of real needs that people in any audience can identify with. The film also refers to a concrete reality in Cuba, and in treating a specific problem, it gives the audience imaginative and conceptual tools to look at extensions of these problems in their own lives—namely, love, "honor," and marginality. Because of the many modes of filmic discourse and ways of presenting information and emotion, the film shows us ways to look at thought and emotion in terms of change and movement and social context. The film's ideas are "full" because they give audiences—especially Cubans, who have given a general assent to revolutionary process—an impulse to more aware and more loving social action and courage to try something new or modify what had previously been done unthinkingly.
In intellectual terms, the film provides a political contribution about how to go about thinking dialectically. It is not just the "single-voiced" story of Mario and Yolanda's love. The narrative fragmentation is not obscure. The visual and audio disjunctures do have interconnections, understandable in political and social terms. In thinking through these interconnections for themselves, the audience members are being asked to create social meaning: about the characters, about the relation between fiction and documentary, about modes of discourse, about marginal life and culture, and about the relation of the personal and emotional to the political and public sphere. The creativity involved in receiving the film, the creativity demanded by the film's structure and content, thus involves the audience in an experience in understanding the dynamics of social change.
Historical reality is inside us as well as around us, and it is created by what goes on inside us emotionally as well as by our will. To grasp the "idea" or principle behind appearances is to be more involved in history than not to do so. When we see social and conceptual structures and their interconnection and their movement, we can fully see our own choices and areas of responsibility and can act in accordance with both reality and the potential of our own fullest being. One Way or Another sees its characters as both individual and historical and shows them as becoming more and more conscious of the choices they can and do make.
One of the principles of dialectics is that altered relations change the terms and direction of the argument, that they enable an entity to do new things in a way not done before. Feminist art has as its goal altering our understanding of, making more conscious, and actually transforming the relations between the public and the private sphere. Power relations are not directly changed by art, but when the feminist sensibility articulated in contemporary art is tied to a movement for social change, it is the capacity to make criticisms, to recognize oneself for the position one is really in, and to imagine real alternatives that women's art serves. And it is this self-awareness and imaginative capacity that is both prerequisite and essential component of revolutionary and, in dialectical terms, historically appropriate and necessary social change.
September 28, 2016
When I wrote this essay, it was after visiting Cuba and seeing this film there. Later I had the chance to visit Sandinista Nicaragua. The question that concerned me the most during both visits was this: how do people change? Within both the Sandinista and Cuban revolutions, I met with many people who embraced change and the chance to do everything anew. But I also saw opportunists and those just trying to live their lives, often in the face of hardship. And I saw the same problems for women that Yolanda saw, early pregnancy and motherhood cutting off girls' educational and professional futures.
As we face our world's ecological decline, I still forsee that socialist revolution will need to accompany a different way of living on this earth. But I do not know what kinds of collaborative social processes will emerge, nor how coercive or liberating they will be. Although One Way or Another addresses a persistent social problem in urban areas, the obdurate nature of a culture of poverty, it has an utopian aspect, as does much of Cuban cinema in this period. That is, the film assumes that in the collective endeavor lies the possibility for personal growth and change. During the 70s, I experienced a kind of exhiliration doing collective work in the women's movment, but I also experienced the kinds of contradictions and interpersonal tensions that hindered my and others' participation. In addition, in the United States, the ideology of individualism so permeates our culture, it is hard to imagine collective projects, including work, that override individualism as an ethic. Perhaps in our time, revolution remains an utopian ideal, but films like One Way or Another stand as a testimony to thinking through the complexities about how change might really occur.