I Feel, Therefore I Can Be Free

Creator's Statement

The title of this video essay, “I Feel, Therefore I Can Be Free,” is taken from Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.”1 Lorde’s notion of the erotic and Sylvia Wynter’s deciphering practice guide my analysis of Sara Gomez’s groundbreaking feature film De Cierta Manera (1974).2 I create a conversation between black diasporic, Caribbean feminists to understand the first feature film directed by an Afro-Cuban woman. A central question is: how might Gomez’s profoundly feminist film, one that is also anchored in blackness, converse with two black Caribbean thinkers, both concerned with liberation from western “modernities”? Putting these three women in conversation elucidates an understanding of De Cierta Manera that is less concerned with a male-centered machismo than with the tenderness that emerges from encounters with and through difference.

I encourage the viewer to “feel their way” through the video.3 The relative silences and the visual and audio pauses give space to decipher the relationships between Yolanda and Mario (the film’s protagonists) and Audre Lorde’s words. Slowing down and repeating key moments in the film offer the time to reflect on the glances and the gestures of the characters. I explore an intimacy that differs from the ways that the film has been typically understood. More than focusing on the revolutionary rhetorics associated with Fidelismo, the video examines revolutionary possibilities of the romantic relationship between Yolanda and Mario. Instead of concentrating on the film’s own critique of Mario’s machismo and Yolanda’s bourgeois background, I underscore the possibilities that arise as the two protagonists “identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference.”4

- Nzingha Kendall

1. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 38.

2. Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider, 53-59; Wynter, Sylvia. “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice,” in Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, edited by Mbye Cham (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992), 237-79.

3. Sara Ahmed, “Feel Your Way,” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-19.

4. Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider, 123.

Nzingha Kendall’s video essay I feel, therefore I can be free fills the critical lacuna left by scholarship on a key film of Cuban revolutionary filmmaking, and the first feature film by a black, female director, Sara Gómez’ De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Or, perhaps more specifically, it opens up a space of discussion around and within the film on its previously unaddressed engagement with issues of feeling, emotion, and the erotic, and their significance to discourses of freedom, in a personal sense but also freedom in a more political sense, i.e., the key idea of colonial liberation that resonates throughout the film and also the Cuban revolution.  The video essay asks us to feel our way through it to a new understanding of Gómez’ film.

Addressing the fact that Gómez’ sudden death before post-production on the film meant that two men -- seminal directors of Cuban revolutionary cinema Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa -- took over the editing process, Kendall speculates on how Gomez’ original film text might have been changed by their intervention and still may be recovered in the exercise of scrutiny that her video essay employs. Commenting obliquely and importantly in her own voice on how the resulting film is very much focused on the male protagonist, Mario, Kendall asks, “What happens if we pull the focus away from Mario? What happens if we focus on Yolanda? How does she appear? […] What does she do?”

There follows a video essay centered on Yolanda, beginning by citing moments of the film where the female protagonist speaks, shown in a four-way split screen and then afterwards continuing with a poetic exploration of Yolanda’s own subjectivity alongside an exploration of the erotic and feeling based moments of the film. From poet Audre Lorde, Kendall takes the idea that “our feelings and the exploration of them [can become] spawning grounds for the most radical of ideas” and uses it to look closely at moments of erotic feeling and emotion in the film (Yolanda and Mario’s longing gazes at each before a first/early date, the exchange of looks and her clasping his hand over a meal at a restaurant, her post-coital attempt at eliciting a spoken expression of love from him). These moments are repeated, overlapping editing emphasizing looks, touches, and kisses that are invested with Yolanda’s (and to a certain extent Mario’s) emotion, desire, and the erotic. 

Often, the study of imperfect aesthetics in filmmaking, exemplified in Gómez’ film, deride, downplay, or completely ignore the role of emotion in political texts. To a certain extent, this is a repetition of Adornian cultural binaries which oppose emotion to reason, feeling to thinking, and class emotions and feelings as cultural opiates. Kendall’s essay, however, seeks to recover the emotion in De Cierta Manera to emphasize its operation through Yolanda and its significance in the overall project of the film. 

Nzingha Kendall’s video essay, I feel, therefore I can be free invites the viewer to reconsider Sara Gomez’s Cuban film De cierta manera (1974). Gomez and her film hold a unique place in film history, as she was the first woman to produce a feature film in Cuba until the new century. Despite having made 18 films that included mostly documentaries, Gomez’s work and influence receded to the background until a younger generation in post-soviet Cuba revalued her work and influence. Since then, Gomez’s work has been featured in retrospectives and newly studied in Cuba and beyond. The tragic twist of her story is that she passed away when she was to begin post-production of the film, so the editing was carried out by two Cuban filmmakers, one of whom was Tomás G. Alea. And it is with this fact that Kendall sets up her inquiry into the film. Set in the early years of the revolution amid the literal and ideological reconstruction of a new Cuba, the original film features school teacher Yolanda, who works at a school in Havana, when she meets factory worker Mario and they begin a romance. The film has always been lauded for its fresh formal approach in the midst of a highly ideological process of cultural revolution where the state increasingly figured in the everyday lives of people. The film denounces a legacy of sexism that must be reformed in order for the revolutionary process to be successful. But Gomez’s film also delves into Yolanda’s affective transformation as she declares her own independence. For Kendall, Gomez’s death, which physically removes her from the completion of the film, leads her to explore the film for new meanings in the spirit of Sylvia Wynter’s deciphering practice.

Yolanda and the missing director’s final signature become the central focus of Kendall’s essay. She guides the viewer to ask what Yolanda does and to find the answer through a process of re-reading -- first Yolanda’s individual image separated from the semantic context of the film, and simultaneously juxtaposed in split screen followed by the repetition of short segments featuring Yolanda and Mario slow motion. Silence also contributes to isolate the image, enabling the viewer to re-read it closely, to watch for gestures, tenderness, vulnerability and intimacy. The individual segments too focus on Yolanda’s expression, affect, her questioning (through subtitles), and the romantic gaze she and Mario share. Interspersed throughout are quotes from Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power” that highlight Kendall’s intention: “It is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” The voice returns in the final two segments when we are most focused on the interaction between the two lovers and as potential for truth. As was Gomez, Kendall is interested in the affective realm as the locus of power and this essay is a provocative companion of a film that has proven to withstand the test of time and even death.