Dialectically from opening title to final image, “One Way or Another” – the first and only feature film by Afro-Cuban director Sara Gómez – introduces itself as “a film about real people, and some fictional ones.” That’s one way to describe this deft mix of cinéma vérité, ethnographic documentary, feminist social realism, and class-conscious revolutionary romanticism.
“One Way or Another” opens Friday for a week-long run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The film has been restored from its original 16 millimeters and looks great, and despite its nostalgia for the ideals of the Cuban revolution, it feels as relevant today as it did in 1974.
Although “One Way or Another” was never officially released in the United States, it has made regular appearances in film series, including one five years ago at BAM that was devoted to black women’s cinema. (DailyExpertNews critic Manohla Dargis reviewed this series, from which “One Way or Another” took its name, it’s “a still exciting mix of documentary and narrative fiction.”)
“One Way or Another” can be described as a love story with two photogenic young people – a macho worker, Mario (Mario Balmaseda, who was a professional actor) and a schoolteacher, Yolande (Yolanda Cuéllar, who was not). But it has more on his mind.
Mario, a mulatto worker, grew up on the vile streets of Havana’s Miraflores neighborhood; Yolanda, who is white, highly educated, and middle-class, is assigned to teach at a Miraflores elementary school. Both have problems in the workplace. Mario is involved in a friend’s misbehavior; Yolanda is repeatedly advised to be more diplomatic with her students’ impoverished parents.
Given their background, the lovers often misunderstand each other. Context is everything. Their most intimate conversation is in the ‘neutral’ territory of a small posada, or hotel; their story is interspersed with interludes about the history and legacy of slavery – including the African religion of Santería and the all-male secret society Abakuá.
Shots of slums and slum clearance are a metaphor for the emergence of a new society and a new consciousness. That the principles converge and drift apart amid a constant interplay of destruction and construction suggests that their relationship — like the Cuban Revolution — is a continuous work in progress. As didactic as it is, “One Way or Other” could be taken for socialist realism, but if so, it is a highly original and even critical variant. (The “positive hero,” an axiom of mode, is an Afro-Cuban musician and former boxer, Guillermo Diaz, who delivers a song that deters traditional gender roles.)
Trained as a musician, Gómez made a score of short documentaries. (She also served as an assistant director on Agnès Varda’s 1963 documentary “Salut les Cubains” and can be seen dancing the cha-cha at the end of the film.) “One Way or Another” is so brimming with life and ideas that it’s devastating to learn that Gómez died, aged just 31, while editing it – she succumbed to a severe asthma attack amid complications giving birth to her third child.
Post-production was completed by her colleagues and the film was not shown until 1977. Since then, it has been recognized as a landmark of feminist, neorealist, communist, Cuban, Latinx, third world and mainstream cinema.
In one way or another
July 8-14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn; bam.org.