SXSW Film Review: ¡Las Sandinistas! (USA/Nicaragua, 2018) restores some important women to Nicaragua’s history books

The original Sandinistas (AKA the Sandinista National Liberation Front) were a group with the odds stacked against them. By their own admission, they were a bunch of “Poorly armed kids.” But they successfully overthrew the Nicaraguan president in 1979. A large number of the Sandinistas were women. Society had expected these women would marry and tend to domestic duties and some received no education or schooling whatsoever, but these girls had other plans. This group achieved some remarkable things but for too long the contributions of the women involved have been erased from the history books and the focus has instead been on the contributions of a few key men. The documentary film, ¡Las Sandinistas! attempts to redress this wrong by focusing squarely on these fearless women and their fight from the front lines.

This film marks the directorial feature debut by Jenny Murray. The story is an important one because it chronicles a key part in Nicaragua’s history. It straddles the lines between providing some historical context and using new interviews and archive footage to describe the social and political forces taking place at the time. The bulk of the modern-day interviews are with some inspiring and excellent talent including many of these remarkable women and former Sandinistas: Dora María Téllez, Claudia Alonso, Sofía Montenegro, Gioconda Belli and Daisy Zamora.

The Samoza family ruled Nicaragua for varying terms beginning with Anastasio Somoza García in 1937 and the rule passed to his two sons following his death. By 1967, his second son, Anastasio Somoza DeBayle was the president and poverty and inequality were rife. Anastasio was an iron-fisted leader (like his father) who oppressed his peoples. In 1972, a devastating earthquake would strike and leave 90% of the city destroyed.

The Sandinistas had formed in 1961 to fight against imperialism. In 1979 they were successful at overthrowing the president and would assume power themselves. In doing so, the Sandinistas reformed the country, founding departments like the Ministry of Health, which helped eradicate preventable diseases and increase immunisation rates. There was also introduction of the Cultural and Arts Ministry, which saw literacy rates soar.

This documentary plays out like an overlong hagiography at times. The Sandinistas are portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive light, even in the ensuing Contra War where their opponents were supported by the U.S. The truth is perhaps a little more complex with deaths and killings perpetuated by both sides. Families that were divided were often found in the crossfire. That said, the nature of this subject and its complicated threads probably always meant that this film needed to be long and one-sided in its approach.

This film is important because it seems that for all the gains that were achieved during this revolution, there have been other times where regressions have taken place. The women involved in the force cannot be found in any of the country’s monuments or museums, even though many played a fundamental role in shaping Nicaraguan history. The incidence of violence against women in Nicaragua is now at one of the highest in Latin America. But these women continue to fight the system, whether it be rallying against the same old battles like raging machismo or raising consciousness about other causes like women’s liberation and equality. The undeniable truth is that these women are extraordinary pillars of strength and resilience. We could all learn a lot from them.

¡Las Sandinistas! will serve as an educational and informative tool for people who are unaware about Nicaraguan history and the 1979 revolution. It’s not the full story, but it is significant because there are parallels between this one and the uprisings in the Middle East and because it covers those overlooked female Sandinistas, which is more than some of the Nicaraguan history books can claim to do. This film gives these inspiring women their due credit and celebrates the gains that were achieved by this grassroots movement. If ever there was confirmation of the idea that from little things big things can grow, the evidence is here.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

¡Las Sandinistas! had its world premiere at SXSW this  week.