Revolutionary Nicaragua is celebrated, analysed – and now remembered – in the late Marc Karlin’s remarkable documentary series.
An incongruous print. The faded sepia suggests a dusty portrait from many years ago. But the photo of a film crew sweating it out against a church wall in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is only two decades old. It is the street photographer’s equipment which is not of its time: the black cloth over his head, the handheld cardboard shutter, the camera box doubling as darkroom for development in an old tobacco tin – typical technology of a third world country further impoverished by a US blockade. This was 1984, when the five-year old Sandinista Revolution we were there to film was struggling against President Reagan’s obsession with ‘communism’ in Central America. Economic sanctions were reinforced by military aggression; the US-backed counter-revolutionaries, the contras, were wreaking havoc in the countryside, defence costs were crippling the economy and Nicaraguans feared that they would be next in line for US invasion after Grenada.
But the photo still seems to speak of a distant past, both personally and politically. I was working in Honduras and Nicaragua from 1978 to ’81, where Marc Karlin, the instigator of Vertigo and the producer-director of the Nicaragua series, visited me several times. We then returned to film again on three occasions from 1982 to 1984, and again in 1988-89. Ten years later, in 1999, Marc died suddenly from a heart attack. Politically, the 1989 electoral defeat of the Sandinista party (the FSLN) by the US-supported candidate brought to an end an extraordinary experiment in independence and social transformation. At the time, we were among many internationalistas from Europe and North America flocking to Nicaragua. The revolution rapidly became the last repository of hope for a generation witnessing the collapse of the socialist project, the (then unforeseen) imminent demise of the Soviet Union, and the scorched earth policies of Reagan and Thatcherism, whether abroad or at home.
But today Nicaragua is no longer the flavour of the month. How many people will mark the 25th anniversary of ‘the triumph’ over the dictator Somoza’s regime on July 19th 1979? Somoza’s friends and family are now back in the country from Florida; a president has recently been jailed for corruption; the illiteracy, malnutrition, polio and high infant mortality rates, once tackled by popular campaigns, have now all returned with a vengeance. But does anyone care? The title of Peter Raymont’s 2003 film (recently seen in the 2004 Human Rights Watch Film Festival), which revisits Nicaraguans interviewed in 1987, puts this question very succinctly: The World Stopped Watching.
In the face of this political and cultural amnesia, Karlin’s five films, spanning the Sandinista decade, form a unique historical record. The first, Voyages (1985), is composed from stills, by the acclaimed Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, of the popular insurrection in 1978-79 which brought the FSLN to power. These include the predominant images that represented Nicaragua to the outside world at the time – yet Meiselas had no control over their use. Through her own words, the film interrogates the responsibility of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
Armed with an understanding of Nicaragua gained from Voyages, Marc then embarked on an exploration of the Sandinista state’s development, and the successful mid-term elections. Making of a Nation (1985) pursues the complex incarnations of history and memory present in many of his distinctive essay films. During the Somoza dictatorship, no mention could be made of the legendary guerrilla leader Sandino, assassinated in 1934 for leading armed resistance to an earlier US occupation – one which continued with barely a smokescreen until 1979. Following the revolution, rediscovery of this clandestine history, led by the Nicaraguan Historical Institute, gave back to Nicaraguans a sense of their own identity.
In Their Time (1985) is a portrait of the Sandinista party newspaper, Barricada. By following its journalists and photographers, Karlin portrayed radical social change through the stories they covered and the issues raised by the vox pop ‘popular post-box’, and through observing closely the internal political and social life of the paper. The film powerfully conveys the horror and fear of the contra war, as does the fourth film Changes (1985). This also documents the effect of popular participation and the radical wing of the Catholic church on the lives of Nicaragua’s campesinos (peasant farmers). Tellingly, in his choice of a rural location, Karlin did not go for a Sandinista stronghold, but a remote village community with a history of opposition to the FSLN.
The final film, Scenes from a Revolution (1991) revisits individuals from earlier shoots, assessing the achievements of the revolution from their experiences. It witnesses the aspirations of the opposition, the electoral defeat of the FSLN, and the swaggering return of contra leaders to Managua. Thus the sequence of films, conceived as a journey into a revolution, caught both its birth and its demise.
The Sandinistas often referred to the revolution as ‘el processo’. In spite of all the written accounts, it is the moving image that can most clearly represent the process of social, political and economic change. This process was driven by astounding dedication, optimism and intelligence, all of which is reflected in the films.
But it was also uneven and messy, contending with inexperience, inefficiency and apathy. Revolutions are made by people, not just philosophies and political slogans, and it is the ordinary Nicaraguan that Marc made visible – there is hardly a comandante, an FSLN leader, in sight. It is individual portraits and stories of local events, set against the backdrop of national politics, that form the fabric of the films. Social and agricultural policies are conveyed through the experience of a campesino and by following a tireless local party militant. Popular democracy in neighbourhood committees is illustrated by squabbles over the issue of food rations to a woman’s lover with a family elsewhere. The devastation of the unexpected electoral defeat is seen through the eyes of anguished mothers who have lost their sons and daughters to the contras. And Karlin portrayed the impact of a war economy through the closure of the National Circus, the whirling of trapeze artists replaced by a derelict tent and the sadness of a redundant acrobat.
This focus on real lives leaves space for contradiction and opposition. The barrio committee resents the half-built school, campesinos complain about prices, market women blame the FSLN for shortages, and the circus performer grieves the loss of his unicycle, appropriated by the state. Karlin’s films show deep respect and admiration for the Sandinistas, but they are not triumphalist works.
The trouble with triumphalism is that, if the project fails, erstwhile enthusiasts, like jilted lovers, feel personally betrayed. Appreciating complexity makes for more solid support. But at the time, the films were not greeted with enthusiasm by the UK solidarity constituency – they wanted cooperatives and clinics, not circuses. They preferred the clutch of celebratory documentaries shot in the 1980s on revolutionary success. John Pilger’s Nicaragua: a Nation’s Right to Survive (1983) or Ken Loach’s feature Carla’s Song (1996) bring a strong, and necessary, indictment of the ravages of US imperialism to a wider public. But such testimonies to Sandinista fortitude leave little room for internal faultlines. By contrast, in Scenes for a Revolution, FSLN activists reflected on their own mistakes, which contributed in part to electoral defeat, problems already signalled in Karlin’s earlier films.
Karlin’s style allows space for ideas as well as events. In contrast to the visual and aural clutter of some contemporary documentaries mesmerised by style, the films are still and quiet. They allow time for the subjects to interpret their own reality, and for the viewer to absorb and reflect. Instead of each sequence illustrating a soundtrack that monopolises interpretation, meaning emerges from the fruitful juxtaposition of word and image.
In Voyages, the viewer must negotiate the tension between narrative and visual threads. The filming itself is of a piece with the editing. Significance is built up through the use of Nicaraguans’ own words, representation of their daily activities, and careful inspection of faces, objects and landscapes. It is the ordinary that constructs the extraordinary. Just as the camera slowly pans over the enlarged reproduction of Meiselas’ images, so the same technique allows us to contemplate the façade of a building or the symbolic significance of Sandinista memorabilia.
Marc sought magic; he saw the quirky and the idiosyncratic as well as a common purpose and collective resolve. Although coming at the revolution sideways, or from below, his Nicaragua films never intended to romanticise the FSLN. But now, fifteen years on, after the extinction of so much hope, the erasure of so much energy, they seem suffused with nostalgia, and are painful to watch. The rare, but timely screening of the complete series at London’s Other Cinema on July 18th stood as a tribute both to a singular film-maker and an extraordinary decade.