¡Las Sandinistas!, a documentary from filmmaker Jenny Murray, premiered at SXSW, Austin’s film, music and convergence festivals on March 12. It is rare when a documentary is so well done, it transcends the prejudices of both the filmmaker and the audience. ¡Las Sandinistas! does exactly that.
The film details the contributions made by women during the Nicaraguan Revolution which lasted from the 1960s to 1990. Nicaragua, first populated by indigenous peoples, then conquered by Spain, has had a tumultuous history. After achieving independence from Spain, it was at times part of Mexico, part of various Central American unions, and an independent state. It has been democratic for brief periods, been ruled by dictators, and for 24 years was occupied by the United States Marines.
The film begins in the 1960s when resistance began to the Somoza family dictatorship which had been in control of the country since 1927. The resistance crystalized into a Communist movement. It was named after a historical Nicaraguan figure Sandino and called the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), or Sandinistas.
Women in Focus
Filmmaker Jenny Murray, in a statement provided by the production company, credits the struggles of her upbringing in a poor Irish-American family in Chicago as the inspiration to look for female role models.
“I never heard tales of women commanding troops,” she said, “and leading massive grassroots social reform before I came across the stories of female Sandinistas. These women were humane, cool, and articulate. They found creative ways to rise up out of the inequality around them, to invent a more just world for themselves and for their country. In them, I found the role models I’d been searching for, and their stories changed my life.”
In the film, one of the women profiled, Daisy Zamora, comments: “During the Nicaraguan struggle we were not nurses. We were not support. We were combatants. There was no way we were going back.”
Not only were they combatants, they were leaders, even generals.
The film follows the stories of five Nicaraguan women, from their early involvement with the guerrilla movement, through it’s victory, it’s brief period of financial and cultural growth, then the slow decline back into poverty and suppression of human rights, especially those of women.
The filmmaker conducted extensive interviews with the women involved and was able to find footage created during the struggle. As the women tell their stories, the film switches to the historical footage. The editing is excellent. One moment I particularly liked was when one of the women told a joke in the present, and we see her laughing 35 years earlier.
By the end of the film, you feel like you know the women as old friends.
The Irony and Tragedy
After their successful revolution, a series of events began which unraveled many of their victories. As I watched, I was reminded of a song by The Who, titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” In it, after a successful revolution, the singer laments, “Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss.” This is what happened in Nicaragua.
Women’s rights in Nicaragua have returned to a point as bad as they have ever been. Not only are the women whose stories are told in this film persecuted by the current government, it is erasing – 1984 style – historical records of their participation in the revolution.
What the filmmaker, whose politics appear to me to border on SJW territory, has done is create a film that demonstrates that the decision to go to war or support a revolution is complex and involves many social, moral, economic and political factors. Although at least one of the women received training from the Communists in Cuba, to say they were all Communists is to oversimplify. (Although we do get to see footage of young Bernie Sanders praising the accomplishments of the Communists.)
One moment of visual irony, which may have been unintentional, occurs in the film when behind one of the women being interviewed, we see two pictures on her wall. One is the now iconic Che Guevara photo. Next to the picture of the man who put priests in front of firing squads, was an actual gold encrusted icon of the Virgin Mary.
Life is complex and full of contradictions. ¡Las Sandinistas! does a first-class job of exploring the risks and rewards of putting your life on the line for what you believe is right. To find out how you can see the film, check its website.
Photos courtesy of MCRM Productions