REVIEW: ‘Las Sandinistas’ Documentary Gives Voice to the Forgotten Women Who Fought for Nicaragua’s Liberation Front

'Las Sandinistas' still courtesy of SXSW

Revolution is quite often, and erroneously, considered a male enterprise. From Che Guevara to Símon Bolivar, political resistance in Latin America is fundamental to the region’s identity, and yet so much of what’s preserved in textbooks and museums neglects the contributions made by women. Documentarian Jenny Murray’s latest film, ¡Las Sandinistas!, takes a refreshingly different approach in its revisionist her-story of Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and its toppling of the regime of totalitarian leader, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979.

“There are two kinds of experience,” says Dora María Téllez, former FSLN commander, and a key figure of the revolution, “the experience of memories, but also the experience of the erasure of memory.” The erasure in question refers to current president Daniel Ortega’s government, and its framing of the revolution as a primarily masculine feat. ¡Las Sandinistas¡ counters this narrative by putting prominent FSLN women front and center, with a wealth of archival footage and interviews with these women in present day.

Of the documentary’s many female subjects, Dora María’s extraordinary efforts tend to steal the spotlight, though the reasons for this are evident. Were she not a woman, she might very well be a viable opponent to former FSLN leader, Ortega. This becomes more and more obvious as the film recalls Téllez’s military triumphs, and the significance of her singular strategic vision towards the FSLN’s broader success.

For those unacquainted with the tumultuous modern history of Nicaragua, ¡Las Sandinistas¡ is not the most balanced capsule of the country’s political events, primarily because it very ambitiously tries to offer viewers a holistic timeline within its roughly slim 90 minutes. There’s certainly no scarcity of compelling images, but dense title cards clunkily move the story forward. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be scrambling to rewind and re-read what could be a crucial fact in understanding the events that follow. The last third of the doc races through almost thirty years of history up to present day, which had me wondering why Murray chose to tell the story chronologically in the first place.

Nevertheless, ¡Las Sandinistas¡ is a riveting and eye-opening experience thanks to Dora María, Daisy, Giaconda, Sofia, Claudia, and Olga, the film’s thoroughly compelling interview subjects. While their differences are obvious (Daisy, for instance, is currently a poet and professor teaching in San Francisco, while Claudia lives in rural Nicaragua with her daughter and grandchild), it’s remarkable to witness these women recount with such lucidity and passion the reasons why they chose to resist, and the sacrifices made in honor of their beliefs. Access to an exclusively female perspective allows audiences to consider other illuminating factors involved in the life of a resistance fighter. That these women voluntarily chose to go “off the grid” for their cause is assumed, but few consider the lack of everyday objects like tampons that so many simply had to do without. One woman even recalls giving birth to her son and promptly surrendering him to her parents so as to continue to her underground political work.

Yet what’s truly incredible, and equally hard to swallow, is the rampant sexism that continues to deny the role these women had in shaping Nicaragua’s history. Forces, it would seem, are always at work hustling and scheming in the shadows to push back against the people’s empowerment. Murray also makes a point to implicate the United States and its tyrannic intervention in the country, another powerful layer of treachery alienating oppressed individuals from their rightfully entitled claims to political power. The doom and gloom of the region’s deeply ingrained corruption is unsettling, yet women like Dora María tirelessly continue to resist. The evident spark in her eyes, the gravitas of her speech as she explains the history of her country’s oppression – with such stamina and power still aflame, hope endures.

Las Sandinistas is now available on DVD and iTunes.