A scene from Jenny Murray's "Las Sandinistas"

Interview: Jenny Murray on Committing an Act of Rebellion in “¡Las Sandinistas!”

During the first day of shooting “¡Las Sandinistas!” in Nicaragua, Jenny Murray could feel the ground begin to move beneath her feet. It turned out to be an earthquake, though in making a film about the courageous women who took up arms to rise up against the country’s corrupt president Anastasio Somoza García, who ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist and drove the masses into poverty, Murray couldn’t have been welcomed any more ideally as she was there specifically to bear witness to the aftershocks of all these women had accomplished.

“It was a wild moment,” said Murray, finally ready to premiere “¡Las Sandinistas!” after putting in her blood, sweat and tears into it over the past four years. The adrenaline rush of that moment is carried into Murray’s spirited history of the Sandinista Army, in which women fought alongside men as equals with revolutionaries such as Dora Maria Téllez leading the occupation of the Nicaraguan National Palace in 1978 that was the first domino to fall in eventually toppling the Somoza regime. Realizing the game was rigged with voting and civic mobilization devolving into an ineffective way to reflect the will of the people, Téllez and other young women including Claudia Alonso, who lost nearly her entire family at the hands of Somoza, Sofia Montenegro, Gioconda Bellli, and Daisy Zamora became guerrillas, working their way up to high-level posts on the frontlines wielding guns or behind the scenes organizing intelligence operations in rebellion in their twenties.

However, as Murray reveals in “¡Las Sandinistas!” through insightful interviews, the women’s actions during wartime were less audacious than what they embarked on after Somoza fled Nicaragua in disgrace, aiming to realign society in more equitable terms with social programs that provided huge boosts to healthcare and education while establishing a Ministry of Culture that would foster the arts. Naturally, these women describe their time in combat with an eloquence you’ve never heard before, with many being poets and writers themselves, and while their achievements were all but erased when an economic embargo was imposed on the country in the 1980s as part of Ronald Reagan’s Contra War, Murray shows how their influence continues into the present, sadly diminished in Nicaragua where they continue to fight an oppressive government that aims to restrict women’s rights, but in grassroots social reform movements around the world.

It was Murray’s own experience watching her family struggle with affordable health care and crippling student debt that led her to seek out stories of radical social reform, ultimately finding a clip of the Nicaraguan journalist Montenegro online, and “¡Las Sandinistas!” is infused with that electrifying sense that change is possible even when the odds seem hopelessly stacked against it, if for no other reason than in giving these women the room to speak when they have been so often been denied the opportunity since the rare moment when they were in power. As excited as Murray may have been to talk to them, we were as thrilled for the opportunity to talk to the filmmaker about making “¡Las Sandinistas!”, which picked up a special jury recognition at SXSW as a Chicken & Egg Award winner for documentary, and creating a film that will resonate for generations to come.

Was it challenging finding the women and getting this off the ground?

After the Kickstarter, we went to try to find women in the countryside and other parts of the country and that was about as hard as we planned for it to be. We drove as far as we could every day and it wasn’t easy because a lot of the women don’t have contact information. In a lot of neighborhoods, they just really don’t have computers at all, so there’s no real database, so we’d drive to villages and then talk to the local Sandinista office in the village and we’d just try to talk to people in the streets and ask, “Do you know any women who fought?” We just did this in at least half a dozen different little villages throughout the country.

What was it like going to these areas, retracing the footsteps of the Sandinistas?

We tried to go to every area where we knew there had been big battles throughout the revolution, so we went to Esteli and to the south and see different villages, some areas around Managua and obviously to León. It was interesting [because] we had an all Nicaraguan crew, except for Laura [Tomaselli, our cinematographer] and Fernando [Castillo], our sound person, but everyone else was Nicaraguan, so it was good in a lot of ways, but they also have a very different style of working. Every day was like a new set of adventures and something surreal happened. We’d eat all of our dinners with camera equipment piled on the table in front of us because there’s so much theft in the country, so we were always lugging big equipment around.

I remember that you started out reading a lot about the revolution and there’s a literary quality this has at some points, invoking Daisy Zamora’s poetry, among other elements. Was that conscious in building the structure for this?

in the genesis of it, we realized that a lot of women that we wanted to interview were not only ministers of these important reforms or these social programs that were huge, but some of them were also poets – Gioconda [Belli] had been a poet as well as Daisy, and we interviewed other poets throughout the country like Ernesto Cardenal. We had them read their poetry because poetry is so important in Nicaragua. If you go to the Managua airport and wait in the security line, you see this giant painting of Ruben Dario, who’s this famous Nicaraguan poet. It gives you a sense of their national pride in poetry, so we thought we have to include that somehow in the texture. So many of the fighters were poets — Leonal Rugama, and a number of them who were known for that, and I think even Che Guevara wrote poems, so it was something that’s more common in Latin America than the U.S.

It just gives such an interesting tension to the movie because you don’t hear people speaking so eloquently typically about violence and war.

Yeah, we wanted to approach the idea of a war movie in a very different way and it wasn’t always conscious at first, but there is such a richness in the verse and in Daisy’s description [of her time in combat] that I thought, “Oh wow, if we have her first describing this really bloody battle and then we go into this haunted world of the interior life with the poems,” that became an extra layer for us where we could kind of look through that lens of memory. Then we realized how many war movies have you seen narrated from a female perspective? It’s very special to the women, that kind of poetic lens way of thinking that I thought would give the viewer a different way to approach the idea of war.

Was Dora Maria Tellez always the centerpiece of this?

I didn’t really conceive of her as the center at the beginning, but we knew that her story was so emblematic because if we were going to use this idea of taking the viewer through the revolution — from when they were young girls into when their consciousness was raised and they started peaceful protests in the streets and they slowly became radicalized — Dora Maria was really one of the characters that was just there. She led the Ministry of Health. She was the main minister during the 1980s and she’s leading so many of the important moments on the streets today, doing hunger strikes and during the revolution when she led the National Palace operation. As we started building out the structure, she became more and more central and she is also a historian and has a Ph.D, which makes her very, very good about remembering details about certain battles and about events in a way that not everyone was as precise about. Her interviews tended to have so much information we could use, so as we’re in the edit, Dora Maria was able to talk about the Pastora Raid and the earthquake [in Managua in 1972 that displaced 300,000 residents] in very specific ways, which [is why\ we see a lot of her because her memory is so good, and so accurate.

You’ve got so much rich archival material here as well – did most of that come from the women or was that a dig for you?

Some of the photographs the women shared with me, which was a huge blessing. Daisy had a number of the Ministry of Culture and [from] rebuilding reform and Dora Maria had a lot of battle photos. In terms of actual footage, that all came from different people or different sources for the most part. And we spent years gathering it because anything that we could find that survived the war was a miracle, really, so we just looked and looked. The AP put a lot of their archives on YouTube, so we found a number of the AP news clips you see in the film [there] and we found a lot through different professors — Jonathan Buchsbaum at Queens College, who wrote the Revolutionary Cinema book about FSLN [“Cinema and the Sandinistas”], was wonderful and gave us some copies of the old newsreels that he had, and then we contacted the filmmakers and I’d talk to their friends, mostly Nicaraguan filmmakers, to see what they had. If they didn’t have [something], one guy would have it on Betamax and we’d try to get a hold of that. It was always a trail of breadcrumbs, trying to find the source. But the high-res footage of the girls [with] the footage of Dora Maria in a red rocking chair, is from Victoria Schultz’s film “Women in Arms,” which was great. We were able to license a few minutes of that film and obviously that footage is some of the best.

It’s crazy how much you have so much footage that actually corresponding to the women you interview today. Did you have a lot of that before the interviews?

Some of it we knew existed before the interviews, especially there’s another lower res interview with Dora that occurs [in the film] after the National Palace [raid] that we knew existed, but we hadn’t seen Victoria’s film until we finished our first shoot and then I was blown away when I saw her footage. A lot of the footage of the young girls in fatigues marching, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is incredible” because I really wanted the archival not to feel stock. Sometimes you see docs of the ‘60s and the ‘70s and it’s just this generic representative footage, and I totally understand doing that when there’s a deficit of available material, but I really worked hard to try to find every photo and every piece of film of these women that I could. I’m sure more exists, but we really wanted it to feel like you knew them and to really feel them growing up in that process, as much as we could.

Something else I really loved was that the music seems to get more punk as it goes on – how did you create the sonic arc of this?

We brought on this composer named Matt Orenstein, who’s just the greatest guy. He lived in Chicago for a long time, like I did, and we shared a favorite record store, Reckless Records, so he knows a ton about this era of music in the world [from] the late ‘60s through the very early ‘80s. We wanted to do rock and some ambient music, but we wanted to have it feel cohesive and he could do everything. He studied composition at Oberlin and he can play upright bass, so he really worked hard and fast, evening out the score and did such a great job. As the battles pick up, we wanted it to feel energized. We didn’t want it to feel slow and tragic because we wanted the score to help the ministry feel more alive. Our goal was, as you’re learning all these new things and meeting all these new people, [to have] the music to carry you and still feel of the time, so we worked hard on the texture and the rhythm.

What’s it like getting to the finish line and release it at this time of general reckoning for women?

It’s the greatest time, isn’t it? We’re just so excited. You never know what’s going to be happening when your movie is finally finished and my goal with the film was also to give women a documentary not about women as victims, but a documentary that empowered, that was exciting and gave women a sense of other options — cohesive ways to make change in a proactive way. The victimhood is part of it, but I also wanted to give a different kind of legacy – of hope. I hope people leave more with hope than with sadness.

Part of that was seeing Claudia Lopez’s kids listening in on her interview. Did they naturally make their way into the frame?

The kids were running around during the shoot and our DP Laura Tomaselli mentioned, “Why not put the chairs there [next to Claudia]?” And we talked about it, like why not? Because we didn’t want to have the kids stay in the house because it’s their yard and we didn’t want to take their day away, so we thought, “Well, let’s just let them come out naturally and do what they feel like doing.” It ended up being one of those things that we really liked in editing, and we didn’t really plan to ask Rochelle, her granddaughter, [a question about what she heard]. That wasn’t really planned, but we thought, “Oh my God, she’s hearing all these stories and this little girl probably had never heard some of these stories” and we really didn’t know what she thought about them, so we wanted to include her because it is this idea of the next generation and how are these stories are going to stay or not stay. Are they going to be remembered or erased or continue to disappear? Obviously, our goal was to pass them to the next generation and restore them to the forefront of the history where they belong, so [including the kids] started as an experiment. It just felt more natural somehow.

“¡Las Sandinistas!” opens on November 21st in New York at Film Forum and on November 30th in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. A full list of screenings is here.

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