Erasure of memory is confronted by clarity of cause as director Jenny Murray weaves the stories of Sandinista women leaders while their wage their revolutions–in the ’70s, ’80s, and now. •Availability: New York City, Film Forum, opens November 21. •Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview. •This interview was conducted by guest writer Zuzu Myers.•
DT: I loved the footage. How did you find it?
JM: It was a multiyear process. The archives were what first excited me about the story, because they had such a strong feeling and they communicated so much about women’s lives in that history in that world. I’d really never seen anything like it, women leading battles and social reform. The light emanating from these women really drew me to the story.
At the beginning, I came across the photographs from Susan Meiselas’s From the Revolution in the ’70s. She was kind enough to let us use a few of those photographs in the film. There were a number of other sources as well. One was a Nicaraguan filmmaker and one was a Mexican filmmaker. A lot of the revolution footage was from something called Victoria en el Puebla en Armas, victory of the people in arms.
A lot of the material of the young Dora Maria in the red rocking chair was from a film called Women in Arms by Victoria Schultz.
A lot was from young filmmakers who were there in the late ’70s and early ’80s who were just filming in the mountains and filming with the women. In Victoria Schultz’s case, they had copies of this footage, which they had been able to salvage from the war. I connected with Frank Pineda in Nicaragua, the cinematographer of Puebla en Armas, who had a copy of the film, and Victoria Schultz, the director of Women in Arms. Johnathon Buchsbaum, a professor in Queens College in New York, had some news archives with the old note de cerreros and the literacy campaign footage. Daisy Zomora had some photographs from when she was the Minister of Culture, so those were some of the first inroads that I made. A lot from the Associated Press and the old American newscasts from the time because it was such a big story for a number of years.
We went through US archives and Nicaraguan archives that we could access and did our best to assemble everything and clear the rights. A woman named Margaret Randall also took a lot of photos of women and wrote some of the first books that really inspired me. One of those is called Sandino’s Daughters. She was an American down there in the ’70s and really became close with a lot of the women. She wrote their first testimonies from the mountains or immediately after. Those in close combination just really inspired me. When I read their testimonies I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is just incredible.’
DT: The footage captures a real sense of strength in vulnerability that the woman have with each other.
JM: One of the first things that captivated me about the story was an interview with Sofía Montengro, one of the main characters. During my research, I found an online interview in which she was speaking so lovingly about other women, with such awe about what they’d accomplished. It was really electric.
That bond between the women and that sense of protection and building each other up really moved me. The way they preserved each other’s legacies and shared them spoke to this great connection among women, even if they met each other later in the struggle. In the years since the revolution has passed, they have become strong allies in this powerful and loving way. In a really human way. That to me was so hopeful, so powerful to see that as a woman.
DT: Given this narrative of strength and personal testimony, you made an interesting decision to structure your film around a chronological timeline. Were you planning on using that structure when you went into the archives, or did it come about in another way?
JM: We structured the film in the edit. Our main goal was to make sure that no one would be confused and no one would be bored. With any film, I think that’s one of the main goals with editing, to make sure people know where they’re at.
In early versions, when it was more historical or less chronological, we found that because people don’t know about the struggle, where these places are unless they were there, that was the way the audience could anchor in the story.
It really helped people to have that ordering, because we have so many protagonists. We made a choice to do a very unconventional thing, which was follow six different women and introduce over a dozen. We have multiple people that are against women’s progress or come in throughout, and when you have so many different people across so many different decades, we found that [chronologically] was the simplest way for people to at least emotionally access parts of the story. When we did it less chronologically, we found that people were trying to figure out just where they were. Initially I didn’t intend it to be strictly chronological, but we found throughout the edits that that was the way, if you join them in the revolution you join them as young women trying to figure out what to do.
It seemed to me that it was the best way that people could really cross time with them, could be able to really see the arc of what they really achieved, and then what they need to fight for by the end of the film.
DT: And it certainly plays in different levels in the film, beginning with Dora María Téllez’s quotes about memory of erasure and memory of event, which plays through the entire time.
JM: It was part of the less strictly chronological aspect, this idea of reflecting and timelessness throughout these moments. Obviously, this idea of erasure is a huge theme for me in the film.
DT: And a huge theme in women’s history too.
JM: Exactly. That connects it to a much larger universal theme for women, this idea of invisibility throughout history, and in so many ways having been there and having been protagonists throughout history. We hear so little of it. It’s been very interesting. To me that’s been an important and universal part of the story. It’s one of my favorite parts of the film—the strange way that memory collectively works in society and within the individual and how certain things very conveniently get erased or have to get erased for survival for whatever it is: a system of power, or for an individual to persevere in extreme circumstances.
DT: Which is all the more poignant given what’s happening in Nicaragua right now with Ortega.
JM: Yeah, I would never have imagined. We were filming protests in 2014. We knew there was unrest and pushback against certain policies in the Ortega administration, and in a major way in a big level with campesinos in the countryside when we were filming in Rivas.
What I didn’t realize of course was that when we premiered the film in March and in April we would have this massive set of protests against pension changes done by the Ortega administration. All of a sudden you have hundreds of people dead. Then the government saying it’s fake news, and it’s really police who are dead. You have this massive set of conflicting sides, conflicting information. A lot of solidarity groups in the US are calling it a coup against the Ortega administration, whereas everyone I’ve talked to on the ground in Nicaragua is saying it’s not a coup, it’s an organic set of protesters, many of whom are being killed or tortured or harassed for just protesting in a democratic way. Then the opposition says they’re violent and it’s not an organic protest.
Since we’ve been on the road with the film, I haven’t been on the ground filming the protests for the last six months. I think it’s a very complicated story. I do know that people are really suffering, you have at this point over 20,000 exiles in Costa Rica. People are terrified. For a while people weren’t going out at night, people were very, very scared because you had masked groups that would patrol the streets, who weren’t even dressed as police. The government says they had nothing to do with these people officially. People on the ground say of course it’s the government—people I’ve spoken to, at least. I think it’s very complicated, and on the record it’s very hard for me to comment. It’s unfortunate, and I hope that democracy and democratic processes and protests are able to prevail in a peaceful way for better reforms for the country.
We were supposed to show the film at a festival in Nicaragua, and then the people behind the screenings had to flee the country and stopped responding. I was told they were on a list and were being more or less tracked, so they had to run. I hope we’re able to screen it there, but I’ve been told it’s dangerous to screen now. Certain journalists have been put on planes and asked to leave the country. I hope it will screen, and we hope people will have the chance to see it. Especially the women in the countryside who participated in and have never had any of their legacies memorialized or celebrated in a very specific way.
DT: Claudia’s story in particular pulls the film’s themes together so succinctly.
JM: Claudia’s an incredible person. I felt strongly about including her granddaughter commenting, and then seeing Claudia’s response to it. For me, that was an incredibly powerful moment. There’s so much in her silence.
DT: Dora Maria Téllez made the comment that once you had experienced revolution as a woman and what women could do within the FSLN, there was no going back. At a separate moment, Daisy Zamora speaks about women outgrowing men in the relationships they were already holding. It is clear that part of participating in the revolution as a woman in FSLN meant participating in this internal, personal, very private revolution as well. Could you speak about your own evolution as a woman while you worked on the film.
JM: I can certainly say that it is a miracle that this film exists. Even today, I am so grateful. I can’t believe we’re opening in the Film Forum in New York, because as it started we weren’t able to secure any grant funding. It was unclear at the beginning of the film if we’d have any institutional support at all. We tried, tried, and tried.
When I’d say I’m going to make this film, even my close guy friends said, “Who told you you could do that?” But women never asked me that, my girlfriends never did. But male friends did. I sort of felt compelled to do it, and found these stories really moving.
I feel like it’s an important thing to put into the world. I really believed in these stories. I don’t come from a family with any means or resources, and for me it came at a very particular time in my life. I was the only girl working in finance at a stock trading desk at my company. A lot of them were really nice guys, I have to say, really understanding. There were so many things going on in my mind at the moment. I was really looking for female role models, human but strong, freethinking women. I was looking for leadership in a new way. We have plenty of women of course who do that now, but I was looking for something I’d never seen. It’s hard to put words on something like that. When I found these stories I just felt like it was something I had always needed. I felt like if I had known these stories when I was younger,it would have really affected me in a positive way, and I felt like just putting them into the world so that other women could access them could be of great value somehow.
I felt that deeply. It was worth giving whatever portion of my life that would take, and in this case, it took almost five years. At the time I thought it’ll take a year or two, but five years later, I was so clear that I would finish it no matter what. And when you commit to something like that, you find a way to make it happen.
I had this feeling too that we would have to make the film before anyone would believe in it, before we could get real funding. We crowdfunded with a trailer that got us through the very beginning, and I used my personal savings to push through to a rough cut. Once we had the rough cut, certain doors did open. We ended up connecting with certain institutions. People really did need to see one. Very clearly, I was an unknown even on certain grant rejections; they said the director was an unknown quantity and it was an ambitious story, and it was just too much of a risk. I don’t know if that has to do with gender. But I do know that I really had to prove it before we would [get funding], and then things did open when we had a rough cut, people did see that we were going to have a real film, that it was going to be cohesive on a certain level, that it was going to be less of a risk. From the number of rejections we got, it was hard to know if anyone would even watch the movie. But I really believed that it would connect with people somehow. I had this deep faith that the stories were very important. So it was worth proving.
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