In the 1970s, Nicaragua was gripped by armed conflict as a revolutionary movement rose up in opposition to the longstanding dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. The Sandinista Revolution would have repercussions far beyond the borders of the small Central American country, while its proximity to the U.S. meant that successive White House administrations vigorously opposed a guerrilla movement closely aligned with Communist ideologies. The Somoza family had maintained a stranglehold on power since the 1930s, constructing a highly repressive regime that trampled upon the impoverished population in the interests of North American enterprise and hegemony. The Sandinista movement emerged as a civilian army of peasants, workers, students, and indigenous community members determined to establish their right to self-determination. On July 19, 1979, the rebels swept into the capital of Managua to proclaim victory and form a new government under Daniel Ortega.
Of course, Washington wasn’t going to simply sit back and watch socialism take root in its backyard. So began a campaign against the revolutionary government of Nicaragua that would override the Sandinistas 1984 election victory with a campaign of terror orchestrated by the US-backed Contras, a term given to a series of paramilitary groups which operated against the Ortega government and its supporters.
The revolution resonated particularly loudly in the neighboring countries of Honduras and Costa Rica. A new film from Costa Rica portrays the social realities of the many Sandinista militants who based themselves in the country while continuing their struggle. Princesas Rojas (Red Princesses), directed by Laura Astorga, tells the story of two young girls whose parents are active participants in the revolution. Based on Astorga’s own experiences as a child, the film has emerged as Costa Rica’s contender for next year’s Oscars. We spoke to the director about her childhood and why she decided to make her story into a film.
How would you describe the film?
“As a generation, we are children of revolutionaries who have now grown into adulthood.”
It’s an autobiographical account of political disenchantment as told through the eyes of two young girls whose parents are revolutionaries in Central America during the 1980s.
The child’s perspective has been a popular tool among filmmakers for exploring political themes, in films such as Andrés Wood’s Machuca and Benjamín Ávila’s Clandestine Childhood, which address the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships respectively. Why did you choose to tell the story from the point of view of the two sisters, Antonia and Claudia?
I don’t think it’s so much that this is a popular tool, but rather that these are autobiographical films. As a generation, we are children of revolutionaries who have now grown into adulthood. Among this group are several filmmakers. You could include (Cao Hamburger’s Brazilian film) The Year My Parents Went on Vacation and a couple of others in this category.
We were three sisters, although in the film this is reduced to two. I chose to tell the story this way as it’s what I had at my fingertips, and was the most comfortable way of constructing the narrative.
The young actors are very natural and look quite similar. Was it easy to find the cast?
We had a casting with more than 1,000 girls in order to find a cast of six. The process was intense but the casting was a real priority, as much as the drama. It was necessary to devote so much time to it.
“We had a casting with more than 1,000 girls in order to find a cast of six.”
Your parents were Sandinista militants. Is the film based on your personal experiences?
Yes, very much. But their militancy was in support of all the Central American revolutions, including the Cuban one. They had to live very particular lives, based around gathering intelligence and a clandestine existence.
How were Sandinistas based in Costa Rica able to continue participating in the revolution in Nicaragua?
Costa Rica was always important to the Sandinista Revolution, even though the support Nicaragua received from there largely remained in the shadows. Without our support, the Somoza family would probably still be in power. The revolution came about through the intelligence of the leadership and its support networks, and the carefully developed relation between popular and peasant power. And there, in the middle, my family was like a micro-reflection of the wider environment.
What was it like to grow up as the daughter of political activists? Did you sense it was a dangerous time?
“[It was] a terrible dictatorship which routinely killed and held on to power for forty years.”
The truth is that it was normal, just part of our daily life, so we weren’t really conscious of the risks.
What were the main causes of the conflict between the Sandinista movement and the state?
It wasn’t even a state, but a terrible dictatorship which routinely killed and held on to power for forty years. The state terrorism it implicated spread throughout Central America, while it was only the United States that wasn’t heavily opposed to it. There were no causes based on principle, rather just forty years of terror. It was during this era that the revolution was conceived.
Did you speak to many other people affected by the Sandinista Revolution in order to make the film?
Not too much, as the cell to which my parents belonged was small and none of them wanted to talk. In fact, we initially thought about making an investigative documentary, but when I couldn’t get access to sufficient material I decided to do it based on my memories, which of course are not subject to secrecy.
What’s the reaction to Princesas Rojas been like among those who participated in the Sandinista Revolution?
They seemed to like the film although they don’t say much. I think they got quite emotional.
What can Princesas Rojas teach those who don’t know too much about the historic events depicted?
On an individual level, that politics is something personal and intimate, and that decisions which seem epic in scope are often based in daily or family elements. The other fundamental element is the discovery that there was a war in Central America and that it wasn’t an isolated war but rather a part of the Cold War even though it was in a tropical region. This helps understand the attitudes of the Reagan-Bush governments against us, for we represented a vision of their greatest fear: Russia.
Princesas Rojas is Costa Rica’s submission to the 2015 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.