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Layla Muchnik-Benali, Film/Video Curatorial Assistant
Sep 06, 2022
A Professor in the Department of Film and Media at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Susan Lord is also a founder and the director of the college's Vulnerable Media Lab. And she's been an instrumental force behind the in-progress restoration of films by Cuba's Sara Gómez, the subject of a retrospective at the Wex September 6–13, presented partly in collaboration with the student-led screening program Cinéseries.
Below, Film/Video Curatorial Assistant Layla Muchnik-Benali, who organized the Gómez program at the Wex, talks with Lord about the Media Lab, her history with the late filmmaker's work, and why it deserves your attention now.
As Lord notes, "Because the films lived in obscurity for so long and there's so much contested discourse around that period of Cuban film history, and around race, revolution, and racism, I always feel it's important to be in the room or to find a way to frame the films... Sara’s position as a very strong, determined, Black woman and revolutionary is super complicated, and to recognize the complexity of her voice and her point of view is part of, I think, the restoration process."
One Way or Another (De cierta manera), image courtesy of Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), distributed by Janus Films
How and when did you first encounter Sara Gómez's films and what sparked your initial interest in her work and life?
When I was a graduate student in the 1980s, I had seen her film De cierta manera, as it was a big part of late '70s and 1980s women's film culture, world film culture, and what we then called Third Cinema. So I had known it, and I taught it when I was grad student. Then I was working with an organization called the Euclid Theater. The Euclid was a community-based cinema where film festivals, alternative festivals, queer festivals, festivals around race were all emerging. Remember: the '80s was a time of emergence for alternative festival culture, so we were hosting a lot of those and organizing them.
Ricardo Acosta, a film editor from Cuba, came with his partner, David McIntosh, who was a programmer at TIFF at the time, to present a program called “Crónica De Mi Familia,” which focused on new Cuban film and video. It was mainly all shorts, some experimental, some documentary, of that emerging generation of filmmakers, all of them dealing with issues around identity and marginalization—inheriting a lot of what Sara was working on in her films. David and Ricardo recognized that inheritance and decided to show, along with this new generation [of filmmakers], the films of what would be considered their madrina (“godmother”), and included almost all of Sara Gómez’s documentaries and De cierta manera.
I saw her documentaries there in roughly 1990, and I was blown away by how extraordinarily unusual her work was for the cinema of the time. There's some aesthetic commonalities, of course. She really was part of her generation. But she insisted on framing contemporary life for Black people in Cuba, and treating the Black subject as a contemporary social actor, as an agent, not someone of the past. A lot of Cuban film from that earlier period was dealing with the Black subject as a historical subject, as the Afro-Cuban, the slave, the oppressed of the past—the revolution had supposedly fixed it all, so we didn't really need to talk about them anymore. This includes women also, in thinking about cultures of machismo.
I thought, Well, one day somebody's going to write about these. I was doing my dissertation on something completely different. When I finished my dissertation, I turned around, and nobody had written about them. So I thought, Well, I'm going to do that. And I went to Cuba for the first time at the end of the '90s and was like, "I'm going to write a book about Sara Gómez."
That was really stupid, because of course I couldn't just walk into a country I'd never been to before and think I was going to write a book about this treasured and very complex figure in Cuban film history and memory. So, María Caridad Cumaná and I ended up joining forces to work on The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution. That’s how I started to work on Sara's films—by thinking about her films for the anthology, but also starting to think about how we could make her films accessible, because even some of the people who contributed to the anthology didn't have access to a lot of them, and certainly not in a restored state.
Caridad and I went to the then-President of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), Pablo Pacheco, and asked him if I could bring the films with me to Canada. I didn't have a lab at the time or anything, but Ryerson University had a film preservation program. That wasn't permitted because the films were considered patrimony. I was like, "Well, that's too bad, the films will continue to rot in the basement." Then eventually I built the Vulnerable Media Lab here at Queen’s University. Luciano Castillo and Lola Calviño became friends, and I think saw me as a reliable person. One day in January, Lola arrived with all of these cartons of films of Sara's in the Toronto airport. We brought her and the films here, and there we go: we started working on them.
One of my questions is about the Vulnerable Media Lab. Would you talk a little bit about the work you do there and maybe specifically the restoration of these films?
The Vulnerable Media Lab emerged about seven years ago. When we started working on writing grants for the Lab, it was in coordination with this big Canadian project called Archive/Counter-Archive, which is led by Janine Marchessault at York University. Janine and I are old, dear friends, and we often collaborate. I went to my administrators here at Queen's and said, "Look, we need a couple of pieces of technology. This is the project. We're co-applicants on this big grant, and it would be great if we could have some bits of technology to use in this Lab.” They were very receptive, and so we applied for a big grant with the support of the university and got it.
That’s how we built this thing called the Vulnerable Media Lab, which has a 4K scanner and a whole array of different magnetic media. We bought some restoration software called Diamant. Then we all had to learn how to use it, and none of us are trained archivists. We frequently partner with the library and archives of Queen's University, and the archivists there are fantastic people and collaborators who taught us a great deal, as well the program in art conservation—there's someone there who specializes in media and particularly video and photography.
Our technical director, Ryan Randall, basically built the lab by spending time with Vtape and Frame Discreet, both places in Toronto, and consulting with people and organizing workshops. Besides Ryan and I, everyone else who's running the lab, who's doing all of the work of digitizing and restoring the films, are students. We were fortunate to have this amazing Serbian woman named Masha from the Yugoslav Film Archive remotely teach us how to use the Diamant software during COVID. She piped right into the computer and Rebecca Gordon and Michelle O'Halloran, the two people who have restored the Sara films, were taught how to use that software by Masha in this remote way.
Another graduate student, Brandon Hocura, is an audio artist and restoration specialist, and he does the audio restoration for the Lab. He's restored the audio on Sara's films as well. The first person who opened the box on the Diamant software was Jenn Norton, who's a colleague here, an amazing artist who makes a lot of digital-born and augmented reality artwork. Jenn opened the box for the Diamant software and taught herself and Michelle how to use it initially for Crónica de mi familia, so that was the first film that we restored.
I love this idea of the Archive/Counter-Archive, and I wonder if you could talk more about this idea of the counter-archive. Why is it important?
Let me put it this way: typically, national archives are aligned with nationalisms, and typically archives are about preserving the national story, and usually the national subject is a white straight male story or subject. The archive then acts as a space of power for the ongoing activity of colonialism and white supremacy.
The counter-archive, as practice, as policy, and as a mode of production, is dedicated to a kind of decolonizing methodology, thinking about questions like: what are one of the things that archivists do? Create metadata to describe objects. They're good and studious people and they try and be very accurate, but the structure—the knowledge architectures that you use to create the metadata—are built out of colonial structures of what is considered meaningful knowledge. So you have ideas like the author, but what if the work that you're dealing with is actually made by a collective, or a community, or a place, and it's not “authorial” in that traditional sense? Or it could be the question of who gets to produce the discourse about the object or about the film, for example. So the counter-archive is invested in making sure that there's knowledge sovereignty and that the descriptions of the work and the metadata are done by the people to whom that work belongs. Those are some of the underlying de-colonial soft policies that are being used in the counter-archive process.
But the counter-archive is also about other ways of seeing and hearing audiovisual legacies. One of the things that we do in the Archive/Counter-Archive project is bring artists into archives and ask them to sense other stories that activate elements, minor archival elements perhaps, or interfere with the big, national story, or with the sovereign subject, and to make work that counteracts those stories of domination and oppression. A lot of the counter-archival work is about what’s lost and found, about stuff that's been degraded.
Which connects to one of the questions that we end up having a lot of conversations about in the Lab around the restoration work of Sara's, for example: How fully back to the original clarity do we bring this film? Can we actually just let it sit there in all of its temporal display of neglect or of use? Sometimes we are working with a print that's been run through projectors a lot of times and shows wear and tear. In some cases we do have negatives, but they've got mold on them. How do you account for that history while at the same time bringing a luminosity back to the Black subject and allowing that Black subject to look at you across time and space?
It's very clear to me that Sara was dedicated to the Black subject and to the Black gaze and wanted the Black gaze to change something, to change the way the Cuban Revolution would be seen and talked about, the way in which the history of Black subjects would be told. So Becky and Michelle, because they're doing that labor, are trying to make sure they're not leaving a kind of mark themselves. You can quite easily leave the mark of restoration on there as opposed to just clearing up the debris that might interfere with the image. There are a lot of ethical questions as well as aesthetic ones and political ones that come to play in treating the archive, and so we try to use our counter-archival thinking to do that while creating. As much as we can try to understand her intention, we are always bringing her intention back to the way the work should look.
My mind is immediately going to the question of access. Would you share any thoughts or hopes you have for the lives of these films once they're restored? To your point about archives being tied to nationalism, they are often housed in bureaucratic spaces where you need permission to go in and watch. I wonder how that reality factors into your ideas about counter-archives and your hopes for films like Sara Gómez's, which were intended to be circulated and discussed.
My hope and dream and the Cuban Film Institute's hope and dream are not the same. I'll just say that. It's not that we're in a lot of conflict about it. Right now we have an agreement, and part of the agreement is that I can use my best judgment and discretion to let the work be seen publicly in person, not streamed. All within the terms of what I can handle, because we're not a film distributor, and we're not a commercial lab.
We went to BAMPFA, to NYU, and to the Maysles Documentary Center, and now you guys at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The films were also shown at the Brooklyn Art Museum. These kinds of venues make sense to me because they bridge educational film culture as well as some community engagement. I've been reticent to show them without some kind of introduction, context, or discussion because we are not a professional lab. I think it's really important for people to understand when they see the films that this is a work in process. When you watch Crónica de mi familia, for example, I want people to know that we're going to have another pass at restoring it, because it was the first one that was done, and it was the one that was in the worst shape.
Because the films lived in obscurity for so long and there's so much contested discourse around that period of Cuban film history, and around race, revolution, and racism, I always feel it's important to be in the room or to find a way to frame the films. This allows for the films to not just be some object that has been pulled out of a vault and are miraculously clear to everybody, because I think they're complicated. Sara’s position as a very strong, determined, Black woman and revolutionary is super complicated, and to recognize the complexity of her voice and her point of view is part of, I think, the restoration process.
After in-person screenings, I would like there to be free access to stream the films for anybody who cared to look at them. I don't think that's going to happen, and I don't have the right to do that. I've respected the agreement that I have and I don't let the work go out there. There's a discussion happening with a distributor, and hopefully there will be a DVD box set and these short films will see the light of day with De cierta manera. So hopefully all of Sara's films will become available to the public--it could take a while, but it's already taken a while, so I think we can still hang on a bit.
They definitely deserve to see the light of day! I feel like that's a lovely way to wrap up the conversation, but I also want to open it up if there's anything else you want to add or that you want to make sure people know before or after they experience Sara Gómez’s films.
Well, what's interesting to me is that there are a lot of young people who are really interested in her again now—her films are very youthful and very youth focused. She does talk to some older people, of course, but she was young, and the Revolution was young. There's this sense of youthfulness and determination and activism. I think it really rhymes with a lot of the Black struggles and gender struggles that are happening for this generation.
But I also think that she really was a Cuban, and there are some things about her that I just don't understand because I'm not a Cuban. When I talk to my Cuban friends, they understand it a lot better than I do. I kind of understand it conceptually, but I think there's a sense of belonging—a deep spiritual, political, ontological belonging. I don't have that feeling myself as a Canadian. Anyway, that’s a long digression to say that I think one of the things that these films do is allow for trans-historical, intergenerational conversations to take place and maybe it will be useful for the diaspora to see itself and to kind of re-meet itself historically.
The last thing I really want to say is that Rebecca Gordon and Michelle O'Halloran are heroes. Brandon Hocura as well. They've done beautiful work, and it takes a very long time. It's painstaking work with this restoration software, where some of it is very automated. You press dust bust, which gets rid of all the dust, but then you have to actually go back and make sure that you haven't taken off, like Becky says, the tip of a fingernail, because the software registers it as dust, when in fact it's a gesture. It's painstaking. It's an act of love and care, and they've done a beautiful job. I'm really happy to be working with them.
I love that acknowledgement of the labor that goes into this because it is labor. It's work, and that connects to Sara Gómez’s films.
Top of page: Sara Gómez, image courtesy of Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC)