Feminist and women’s stories are undeniably heading toward a peak these days, with accounts and narratives coming left and right to finally see the light of day by eagerly waiting women. At the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, Jenny Murray debuted her first feature-length project that brought women’s stories into a new light. “Las Sandinistas!” follows the true story of the women who fought — and led — militant struggles during Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution and helped shape the government following. WSN had the opportunity to talk with Murray following the documentary’s world premiere screening.
Washington Square News: So how long did the film take to produce — how long have you been working on this?
Jenny Murray: I started researching in late 2013. And now it’s 2018. We started shooting in 2014, and we finished shooting in 2017.
WSN: What about the story drew you to produce it now (or in 2013)?
JM: I felt an urgency, because the women’s stories were disappearing in Nicaragua, and often weren’t even in history to begin with throughout the world. Yet, I felt they did these incredible things. I mean, leading huge-scale military operations as generals, leading massive social reform. It’s a time when a lot of women, at least in my generation, are searching. Where are the role models who are more cool and humane, and approachable politicized thinkers — and women — that we can look up to? Not that there aren’t any — there are plenty, but few who’ve also done these military things and had these chances and the initiative to create social reform for a whole country. Few women in the U.S. have had that opportunity. So I felt like they were stories that filled out this history that’s already too meager and too thin.
WSN: And especially in the U.S., it feels like these stories aren’t really being told at all, not even the Nicaraguan revolution or the U.S.’s role [in it].
JM: Exactly. Because it’s also a controversial history for the U.S., and the U.S.’s role in it is very controversial. Ideally, the film will show that all of it’s pretty complex, and no one is all good or all bad. Everyone made mistakes, and everyone’s responsible for some things, and a victim in another way, and a perpetrator in another, or someone who made a mistake. I think it’s a great time for women, too. I think women are trying to find ways to organize. I’m hoping this can be both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.
WSN: Do you have any other documentaries that you look to for inspiration or guidelines to make this?
JM: Yeah, we looked at Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which is another history of a radical political movement. Obviously very different. We found — I found, at least, that it was rare to use other voices. Or you either just use voices that you don’t have to see or follow as characters, people that you see one or two or three times. We tried to meet that middle ground where you follow five women, and you watch them all have stories. And [we] have other voices, but that was a structural thing. Obviously we love [the documentary] “The Act of Killing,” it’s again a very different film. And there’s reenactments. The film has that feeling, you know, of those oppressive, anti-communist forces and a very complicated civil war in a tropical environment, a kind of proxy war. So that was one that we watched a lot. It was very similar in a lot of ways. And another movie we watched was “Carlos,” the Olivier Assayas film, which is obviously based on a true story, but it’s a [fictional] film. But the texture, the era, this idea of having raids and how to structure a raid sequence in the ’70s. That was something that we looked at too.
WSN: This is your feature-length directorial debut. In what ways did you need to push yourself to make this that you hadn’t before?
JM: I think especially documentary features, I didn’t know this — and I think it’s good that I didn’t know going in — how much work it is! I think I would have had other questions. I think it was a great thing. It was a gift that we didn’t know certain things. So we had to figure it out as we went. It was a very handmade film about a handmade revolution. So I thought okay, at least the medium will match the message. It’s not gonna be super slick. It’s never gonna be of this kind of variety of documentaries which is produced in a very expensive post-house with all these wonderful high-level technicians. We’re doing our best with very limited resources. I think that was one of the more exciting aspects for me. It was a marathon. We really had to pace ourselves. I learned meditation. That was very important, I’ve gotta say. We had a lot of feedback screenings, which are also so important. You can get your own friends in the room, and you can get film lovers — people really wanna help each other. Filmmakers, that was a really moving thing … I found editors and other filmmakers’ feedback is so helpful because they think very constructively and they empathize in a very compassionate way with the struggles and help you overcome them.
WSN: Has there been any way in which the global and American political events of the past few years had affected the direction you were going to take with the movie?
JM: I think — I actually think it’s a great time for the film to come out, because for the U.S. it’s becoming so apparent that we’re actually dealing with some of the same problems as women that the women in Nicaragua are still dealing with. With calling out abuse and assault at the highest levels of society, we see men in positions of power — only certain men, because some men are great and support women, and believe in equality, and are awesome — and then there’s some men that take advantage of a position of power, and really … It’s great, because we’re starting to hear these voices. We didn’t know the film would come out at this time. I think I always saw our arc as one of a kind of aggression into more — the revolutionaries themselves, part of them become a way. They change their policies, and became in some ways corrupt, and in some ways discarded some of the ideals of the revolution. So we end up — we start under a dictatorship and we end under this kind of new, somewhat authoritarian system. And also [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega’s done some great reforms for the poor. He’s helped in a lot of communities. So we also don’t want it to be one-sided. In the present day, we really tried to get supporters of Ortega to speak, too. There are a lot of supporters of Ortega still, within the revolution, the revolutionary community, too. We didn’t know … and I mean, Time’s Up and #MeToo and this kind of surge of women’s marches, International Women’s Day becoming a big and talked-about event bringing women together. Women are feeling, I think, a sense of their own power, at least to call out abuse, to start bringing certain issues to the forefront. I hope the film will add to that in any way that it can and remind women also that it can be a lot of fun to fight for ideals, and young women can do it to. We’re seeing Emma Gonzalez and all of these young people taking this really amazing stand. I think all the women in our film were young. They were teenagers, most of them, when they were really politically active. Young teenagers, some of them. Marching in the streets, demanding changes, fighting for health workers and teachers, pensions — other people’s situations really moved them enough that they would stand up and fight.
Read more from Washington Square News’ Intersectionality feature. Email Hailey Nuthals at [email protected].