‘¡Las Sandinistas!’: Film Review | SXSW 2018
Documentarian Jenny Murray helmed this clunky, if still rousing, tribute to the female members of Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista party.
Dora Maria, Sofia, Daisy, Gioconda, Claudia, Olga. These are the names of just a few of the female members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the radical political party that overthrew Nicaragua’s totalitarian Somosa dynasty in 1979 and established a more progressive government aimed at righting the many wrongs in health, education, economic disparity and infrastructure. U.S. residents probably best know the Sandinistas as the Communist-pegged bogeymen of the Iran-Contra debacle, though the realities of their actions and reforms are, of course, much more complicated than any one movie or Ronald Reagan-sourced soundbite could encapsulate. (And let’s just say The Gipper was never one for complexity or nuance.)
First-time feature documentarian Jenny Murray does a good job laying out the rise, fall and resurgence (in a much-debased form) of the revolutionary body. However, her main focus in ¡Las Sandinistas! is on the women who rose to prominence in the organization and were eventually pushed to the sidelines by their male counterparts. “There are two kinds of experience: The experience of memories, but also the experience of the erasure of memory,” says Dora María Téllez (who became a Che Guevara-like poster child for the movement) at the start of the film. The erasure in this case mostly has to do with the current government — led by one of the major Sandinista figures, Daniel Ortega — rewriting the history of female participation in the revolution. So as to emphasize the point, Murray has Téllez restate her observation verbatim near the end of the movie. How many viewers will immediately note the repetition? It’s so easy to forget.
Provocative touches like that, as well as the full-bore charisma and intelligence of the varied subjects (it’s fascinating to move between the points of view of the steely Téllez and the keenly sensitive poet Daisy Zamora, as an example), help to counterbalance the clunkiness of the filmmaking. Murray takes a then-this-happened approach that is far from radical, weaving archival footage and modern-day interviews into a straight-chronological telling of the women’s experiences. It’s a dry assemblage of facts and historical events, though some episodes, like the Sandinistas’ eventual assassination of Somosa in 1980, are strangely elided. A jaunty, bass-thrumming score by Matt Orenstein gives the proceedings some sense of propulsion, though what’s most interesting about the music is the degree to which it seems to ape and pay homage to Joe Strummer’s soundtrack for Alex Cox’s brilliant revisionist western Walker (1987), a film that itself addressed the Sandinista struggle from a much more potently anarchic perspective.
What anarchy there is here comes purely in the form of the women and their recollections, which is enough to rouse any viewer’s rebellious spirit. Murray films several of them in settings that belie their militant pasts — in outdoor gardens and cozy living rooms, the wind rustling through the trees or a glass of wine at reach. But the weariness of the struggle is in every word they speak, especially since the very people they believed in, and by whom they expected to be treated as equals, have betrayed them in ways that are sure to resonate in our current moment. Zamora details her rampant sexual harassment by one of the male Sandinista reformers, while Téllez invigoratingly bristles when discussing Ortega, who banned abortion in 2006 and stands accused, though not convicted, of raping his stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez. A sexual predator president? Inconceivable!
Production company: The Film Sales Co.
Cast: Dora María Téllez, Sofia Montenegro, Daisy Zamora, Gioconda Belli, Claudia Lopez Alonso, Monica Baltodano
Director: Jenny Murray
Executive producers: Shannon Langrand, Sally Jo Fifer, Ronald Murray
Producers: Sarah Winshall, Jenny Murray
Co-producer: Gloria Morán
Cinematographer: Laura Tomaselli
Editors: Jenny Murray, Daniel Gradilla, Elika Rezaee
Music: Matt Orenstein
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales agent: Andrew Herwitz