In the late 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard spun several films — “La Chinoise,” “One Plus One” — out of the perception that politics had begun to fuse with pop culture. His insight was startling, even if how it translated to the real world remained a touch ethereal. It was all about images (the mass-produced iconography of Mao or Che), and it was also about ideology. When Godard famously dubbed “Masculin Féminin” his portrait of “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” part of the cheekiness was his acknowledgment that Marxism on the world stage had become a brand.
In that light, a lot of Americans in the 1980s experienced the Sandinistas, the guerrilla freedom fighters of Nicaragua, as figures in a larger-than-life storybook. That was certainly true of the Republican right, led by President Ronald Reagan; to him, they were an evil cartoon Communist enemy that needed to be eradicated, like roaches. But it’s not as if those on the left were immune to casting the Sandinistas in grand pop superhero terms. The Clash kicked off the decade by entitling their 1980 triple album “Sandinista,” and if you ever discussed the Sandinistas with the kind of middle-class white person who insisted on pronouncing Nicaragua with a Spanish accent (it tended to come out something like Nee-ha-ra-wa), you knew you were seeing Godard’s prophecy of pop politics fulfilled.
It’s partly because the Sandinistas, at that time, were so heavily mythologized that Jenny Murray’s “¡Las Sandinistas!” emerges as a documentary of ripe impact and value, even if it’s sometimes a ramshackle piece of filmmaking. It chronicles the rise of the Sandinista movement, beginning in the early ’70s, with an emphasis on the decisive role that women played in nearly every phase of it (they made up 30 percent of the Sandinista fighting force). Murray interviews key figures from the period, especially women, and though their bravery was unquestionable, we’re struck by how humanely modest and ordinary they seem. In their minds, they were just doing what had to be done.
Watching “¡Las Sandanitas!,” with its rich archival footage, and its nuts-and-bolts view of a revolution that was every bit as seismic as the one in Cuba, it’s instructive to see how the rebellion against an autocracy gets built: gun by gun, body by body, skirmish by skirmish. The Nicaraguan people who united to form the Sandinistas felt like they had nothing. They’d been worn down by the U.S.-backed Somoza government for decades, victims of systematic oppression and political homicide. They were outgunned and out-financed. Yet that meant they had nothing to lose, and “¡Las Sandinistas!” demonstrates the power that can come of that.
The film sets the stakes early on, when we hear a woman relate how the Somoza regime murdered her family, including her 18-year-old cousin, who was pregnant. (They killed her and cut out the baby with a bayonet.) We hear about street protests in which hundreds were gunned down, and following the 1972 earthquake, which destroyed 90 percent of the capital city of Managua, the distribution of disaster aid was virtually non-existent. The police were given one overriding order: If they saw a looter, shoot him.
Dora María Téllez, who was a medical student in Leon when she was recruited by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and who is the documentary’s central and emblematic figure, says, “I got radicalized then, in my vision of what the Somoza dictatorship was. We couldn’t fight it through the vote. We couldn’t fight it with civil political mobilization. So I slowly reached the conclusion that armed struggle was the only way to confront the dictator.” It’s through stories like these that “¡Las Sandinistas!” anatomizes the emotional and existential process through which revolutions are forged.
Membership in the Sandinistas was as secretive as membership in the IRA, and the uniform they adopted, with the soldiers wearing bandanas over the lower half of their faces, created a romantic Western-outlaw image. Many of the Sandinistas trained in Cuba, where they learned to handle pistols, revolvers, machine guns, and rocket launchers. Their sacrifice was enormous — they had to go underground and sever ties with their families — and part of what drove the movement is that it was really two revolutions at once: the battle to overthrow Somoza, and the war waged by women to find a greater place in Nicaraguan society. Women rose to the post of command soldier on a scale never before seen in any revolution. They were fighting for a new world.
Recalling the 1978 raid on the National Palace, Téllez talks about how difficult it was for her to shoot a guard at point-blank range. War hardens the heart, but on some level the Sandinistas remained ordinary people playing soldiers. And they won! They took control, one by one, of Nicaragua’s cities (Grenada, Leon), until they drove Somoza out. It was something of a miracle, one that transformed the country — or would have, had it been given the chance to take root. But the war against the Sandinista government, fought by the U.S.-backed contras, tore the country apart before it had the chance to start over.
“¡Las Sandinistas!” chronicles that corrupt and misguided tragedy, which amounted to Ronald Reagan trying to stage a cut-rate victorious sequel to Vietnam. But it also chronicles Nicaragua’s slide back to a culture of machismo, and it’s here that the film starts to seem slipshod, because it needed to go deeper. The Sandinista movement, under Daniel Ortega’s leadership, gets tagged as a culture of harassment and worse. But we needed to hear more about this earlier, so that it didn’t seem like a perception that’s pasted on. Starting in the ’90s, the lurches in the country’s political leadership happen, in the movie, too abruptly for us to process.
That said, the film’s portrait of the Sandinista uprising is indelible, and seen now, at a dark political time, it redefines the art of the possible. “We had this idea that we were thousands,” says one. “And then we realized we were just hundreds of kids, fighting.”