March 10, 2018
SXSW 2018

'¡Las Sandinistas!': How Hundreds of Source Materials Captured a Revolution

Jenny Murray's documentary celebrates the women who fought for change, and upon receiving it, changed a country.

If modern politics are any indication, a political uprising daring to challenge those in power is necessary for ensuring a better tomorrow. A nation's leaders are only of worth if they have their citizens' best interests at heart, and in the case of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza—the 73rd and 76th President of the Central American country where extreme poverty and violence ran rampant—a terrible leader can never be ousted quickly enough.

Fed up and fearing for their future, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took to ending Somoza's reign by any means necessary (their motto was "freedom or death"), and their violent force was justified: when the opportunity arose, the FSLN was not against the taking of political hostages to ensure the release of their members (accompanied by a tidy ransom). Better, democratic living conditions were vital and, as became quickly apparent, impossible to obtain if Somoza remained in power.

What made the movement that ultimately brought down the dictator so historic was that the FSLN was primarily run by Nicaraguan women, raised without an education and without any expectations to succeed outside of the home. Armed with firearms and a desire for social reform, the female Sandinistas, led by the tireless but shy Dora María Téllez, became the leading figures of an upheaval that ultimately lead to a literacy revolution, a better healthcare system, and an arts-fueled ministry of culture.

Director Jenny Murray's debut documentary, ¡Las Sandinistas!, goes deep into the challenges these brave women faced, as well as the current issue that threatens to erase them from history.

As the film premieres this week at SXSW, Murray spoke with NFS about her fascination with the country's history, the documentary's representation of a diverse group of stories, and knowing when you've had a worthwhile test screening.

Jenny Murray's '¡Las Sandinistas!'

No Film School: Your bio mentions that you had previously worked in stock trading. How did that eventually transition into a career in filmmaking?

Murray: I actually started in filmmaking by working with friends who were enrolled in film school. Although I was in a college that didn't have a film school, a lot of my friends (who went to NYU) were studying film, and I started working with them, as a teenager, on student films. When I graduated, I knew that I didn't really have a family that could support me and so I got day jobs right away. I had days jobs even when I was in college in New York, and my dream was to be a filmmaker.

In the meantime, I kept working on friends' films and student projects, and my day jobs consisted of, well, everything. I was a floor manager at Macy's in Herald Square and I worked in finance for three years on a stock trading desk. I worked in fashion, too.

The finance job was a great job. Finance is a complicated industry in the United States, and because my own parents had struggled a lot, it was something I wanted to understand better. I saw a job in finance as a way to still be able to make films at night.

The great thing about working on a stock trading desk is that you're done at five or six PM every day. You start at six in the morning, yes, but you're done at night, and so I studied method acting in the evenings and made short films, mostly narratives, beginning in 2013.

I made my first short film while working in finance and used my salary—and invested anything that I made in finance—into this current documentary because I really believed in it. I felt that to make a film, I needed something to kickstart it.

"There's so little that survived the war relative to the footage we have of the conflict today."

NFS: Did you always have an interest in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)?

Murray: I studied Latin American history in college and that's where I learned about the FSLN. At least in my college, we didn't learn a ton about revolutionary history, but it was something I was interested in. I knew they had a revolution and so I learned much more about it on my own.

I really started studying in 2013 when I was going to visit a friend who was working on the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. My dream was always to go to Nicaragua, to see it firsthand after learning about the revolution. I stumbled across stories and researched on my own about the women who had fought in it.

Jenny Murray's '¡Las Sandinistas!'

NFS: The film feels equally split between modern-day interviews with the women and men who fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship and archival footage from the 1970s that documents their fight. Did you work with an archival producer to obtain the older footage? Did you find the footage and then conduct the interviews, pairing them in the edit?

Murray: It was a balance. It's funny because we didn't really have any funding [for the film]. We raised some money on Kickstarter (which was great), but we didn't really have funding to hire a real archivist. People like Susan Meiselas and a professor named Jonathan Buchsbaum from Queens College were awesome. Jonathan really cared about the revolution and wrote the defining book on revolutionary cinema under the Sandinistas.

I went over to Jonathan's apartment and he was nice enough to bring me some of the old newsreels, and that's what we used to make our first teaser trailer. He connected us to filmmakers he knew from that time, like Frank Pineda and Maria Jose Alvarez, and they gave us some copies of their films.

It was really through Jonathan and Susan that we were able to connect with these people and get the first archives. We would search on the internet through AP or through YouTube for the rest—honestly, a lot came from YouTube. There's so little that survived the war relative of the footage we have of the conflict today.  

"Back then, there would be these huge schisms within families that were just devastating. Any victory would also prove to be a huge loss at the same time."

NFS: Were you looking for a diversity in stories when it came to choosing which Sandinistas to interview (a “casting process” in and of itself)? 

Murray: There were a few stories we knew [going in]. The first story that introduced me to the women was Sofia Montenegro's, a feminist who runs a women's autonomous movement. I loved her interviews after finding them online and It was electrifying to hear her talk about other women and the revolution. It was through her that I learned about Dora María Téllez and Daisy Zamora and Gioconda Belli.

I read Gioconda's book, and by then knew that there were a few women we wanted to target, that is if we could speak to them. And Dora María Téllez was obviously such a huge figure historically, not just for women but in the revolution as a whole, taking the first city that fell, and so I thought, "Wow, we could really do a lot of coverage of the war if we could get Dora María and Daisy," who was a front-line combatant as well. It would be wonderful to hear of the combat stories through their eyes. 

NFS: Sofia is a fascinating character, not least in part due to her brother’s involvement in the National Guard, on the side of Somoza. He was murdered by a member on his sister’s political side (the Sandinistas), and your film shows a family fighting, quite literally, on opposite sides of the political spectrum. 

Murray: Sofia was very generous in talking about her own family with us, and we talked with her over a series of years. That helped. It's a hard story for her to retell, but her story is really emblematic of many families across class lines in Nicaragua who had a number of people on one side and a number of people on the other.

Sofia's story also symbolizes something Nicaraguans experience, and something that's very hard, I think, for us to imagine as Americans in this generation. Back then, there would be these huge schisms within families that were just devastating. Any victory would also prove to be a huge loss at the same time.

Jenny Murray's '¡Las Sandinistas!'

NFS: When crafting nonfiction that involves the recounting of major political events, how did you map out your beats? You cover the 1972 earthquake, the National Palace Raid of 1978, the arrival of Jimmy Carter as U.S. president and as an ally to Somoza, etc. How did you work to block out the most significant events while also creating a seamless transition of a multi-decade-spanning narrative?

Murray: That was the hardest and most foundational part of the film throughout the structuring process.The tricky thing you're describing was also due to the fact that we were telling the story through the lens of so many different women.

Our goal during the funding process was to find women in remote areas who'd never shared their stories. You know, Dora María Téllez is very famous within Nicaragua, and people know Gioconda and Sofia, but we really wanted to get to women from the countryside who also fought in the revolution.

"I said, 'Gosh, I hope this will be consistent enough,' because the film really has a collage-like feeling due to its being pulled from 100s of different sources of material."

We had so many voices, so many protagonists, and in structuring the film, the main goal was to make it understandable, especially for people internationally who didn't know where this country was, nor what the time frame was, nor who the Contras were. The women are all around a similar age, and so what are the distinctions between them? The women in our film come from radically different backgrounds, and that was important to us, too. 

We thought that the chapter markers would help ground the story. In early test screenings, we didn't have as many markers and [left feeling] that we needed more. We really just wanted to give the viewer, who maybe doesn't know anything about the film, the basic framework to see it in any country or even in the U.S. to say, "Okay, I understand where that is on the map, I understand what year this is," and to show the women within the larger historical context, this geopolitical narrative. 

Jenny Murray's '¡Las Sandinistas!'

NFS: Were you trying to maintain a specific visual look (while working with differing aspect ratios and faded film stock, for example) even as the documentary jumpcuts, often within seconds, between forty years in history? The shifts would really jump out to a viewer in a movie theater.

Murray: Yeah, and that was something we honestly didn't know until we viewed the film on a big screen during tests. I said, "Gosh, I hope this will be consistent enough," because the film really has a collage-like feeling due to its being pulled from 100s of different source materials.

Because so much of it had different aspect ratios, what we did was clip the archives in color correct, to try and impose a little bit more consistency with the aspect ratios of the archive material (which wasn't naturally there). We were trying to bring all the archives to a more uniform aspect ratio. In early cuts they were even more wide-ranging, jumping from widescreen archives or some very pixelated archives into these really tiny, letterbox ones.

We really did work on trying to establish some consistency, but we also wanted to retain some of that raw feeling. I like that some of the material is low-res. It helps the story that the media matches the message of this home-made revolution made by lots of different people in a fragmented way. I wanted to keep a little bit of that raw, honest collage feeling.

Jenny Murray's '¡Las Sandinistas!'
 NFS: The film is bookended by Dora María Téllez’s vast, oddly calming farmland and her discussion of the erasing of memories, i.e. the forced removal of heroes from a historically-significant past. What was it about that moment that felt like it fully encapsulated your story?

Murray: That was something we always really liked in her interview. Dora is a historian and, you know, we talk a lot about real-world events and she had this beautiful moment in her first interview where we asked her a question about how she remembered things. She answered it very poetically. At first, it wasn't very obvious and we played with other openings, but somehow, that one always worked.

To me, it felt like the movie had a center, where we have the memory. I felt like this was the right way to begin the film, where you know you're being transported and you're in this garden that's not really grounded in a very specific location. It allows you to wander.

The idea of memory and the double idea of the erasure of memory is what the film is trying to do on some level, to restore these erased memories. In a larger context, it's extremely important to hear women's stories. 

"It was important that we focus on the arc of women, not just of the women of history but of these specific women's role in history."

NFS: There’s mention of awful sexual abuse acted out by a country’s leader (Daniel Ortega), a de-emphasis in education and need for culture, and a sense that the political system is regressing from what it once was. Even Bernie Sanders shows up, in one of your featured archival clips to decry the abuse that has taken place. When editing the film, did you begin to notice these Nicaraguan-to-American parallels or did you want to leave that up to the viewer to interpret?

Murray: While we obviously started editing and shooting long before Time's Up and the other awesome uprising of voices against abuse and assault in the U.S. came to fruition, it was something that we became very conscious of. At the beginning of production, I didn't know how we would treat the present day material, as there's so much going on in Nicaragua.

It was important that we focus on the arc of women, not just of the women of history but of these specific women's role in history. Dora María had led the health reforms and Daisy had led the cultural reforms, and the women did this with so few resources, teaching poetry and dance workshops and basic writing to millions of people. It seems like something that's very hard for us to even do in the U.S. with so many more available resources.

It was tricky because we wanted to address the larger society of what has gone on since the revolution, how in some ways Nicaragua had regressed, and we wanted to keep all of this in regard to women. It wasn't until we were shooting and talking to experts there—and became aware of the level of gender violence in the country—that we realized how staggering and specific it was.

"The best I felt we could do was ask and present the evidence and testimonies that we could find on the ground."

There is the federal ban on abortion that the Sandinistas voted Yes on and have enforced since 2006 when they took power, and it's, yeah...I just wanted to put that out there. The women did have this giant role and why aren't all these things that they were able to achieve and accomplish [being discussed], what happened with that? "Why are we in this position?"

The best I felt we could do was ask and present the evidence and testimonies that we could find on the ground. Once we did that, we could say, "Here's what's happening, here's what we're experiencing from their perspective." And it does seem eerie now that the film is coming out and echoes so much of the stuff that we're seeing, more or less, on a daily basis in American newspapers.

Jenny Murray's '¡Las Sandinistas!'

NFS: Did you hold any feedback screenings?

Murray: Yeah, we did.

NFS: Did the film change as you began showing it to other people?

Murray: Sometimes. I have to say that we learned something good, something that helped us, from every feedback screening we had. Sometimes they're very hard [experiences] because it's hard to be in that room, especially when you can tell certain things are just not connecting and it's confusing or isn't engaging enough.

While there was a point where we had too many screenings in a row, I think they were important, and I learned to space them out a little bit. If you can, you should definitely give yourself at least two weeks (if you're working full-time on the project) between each screening.

Don't just show it to one person. That was a mistake that I made. You always want to show it to as many people you can, and ideally at least two to four people; the more the merrier. But in the early screenings—before I wanted it to be shown to more than five or six people—I had a few close friends watch it first. 

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.     

¡Las Sandinistas! is currently screening at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival in the Documentary Feature Competition section.

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