I remember getting on a plane in Glasgow with a hang-over, (bent over
double with a bag of medical books for delivery to a Scottish doctor - those
thick shiny indestructible types books) changing planes in London, changing in
Leningrad, changing in Moscow, changing in Ireland (couldn't board there),
changing in Cuba, arriving in Nicaragua, waiting five hours for a bus,
scrambling on like a lunatic, stuffed in tighter than a fat sardine, arriving in
Esteli in the north of the country four hours later, and looking for an address
with non existent Spanish. Dehydrated and totally disorientated I'll never
forget this wee round woman called Esperanza dishing me out an enormous plate of
tripe soup which I couldn't refuse. As I tried to chew, chasing this big bastard
of a lump of tripe around my mouth which seemed to expand by the minute, all I
could think was, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Over the next six months (from October '84 to March '85) before returning to Scotland I crossed paths with many other travelers; ex CIA, ex Vietnam vets, transcendentalists meditating for peace, adventurers, would be heroes, you name it......even a bald bishop with an expensive wig, liberation theologians form San Paolo, human rights activists from Manila, plumbers from Germany, peace activists from the States, up to holiday makers who could live like kings for a few dollars changed on the black market. Yet the most frequent visitors to Nicaragua in the eighties were the ten of thousands of ordinary people, organised in their different types of solidarity group round the world, who for whatever reason, were somehow touched by the Nicaraguan Revolution, and were determined to support it.
My own interest in Nicaragua was crystallised after watching a documentary presented by a Jesuit priest, Padre Gorostiaga. Several things struck me. First of all, this young revolutionary society organised a massive literacy crusade and taught their people to read and write. They just did it. Sheer bloody minded determination. Literacy, they insisted, was the premise to a democratic culture. Even the UN organisation UNESCO was amazed and said the Nicaraguan experience should be used as a model for the rest of Latin America. It was a similar story in health. They wiped out polio and considerably reduced other diseases which was applauded by the World Health Organisation. Yet, the programme claimed, these very same doctors, nurses and teachers were being tortured and murdered by the Contras, organised, financed, and trained by the United States
Government. It's almost hard to believe now, but in the words of the State Department, Nicaragua (this tiny little country with a population not much more than Strathclyde region) was the second most important foreign policy priority for the US in the eighties after it's relationship with the Soviet Union. Why was it so dangerous? Why did the US government spend billions of dollars, in the words of Ronald Reagan, to make Nicaragua "cry uncle" i.e. surrender.
A year later, in February of '86, with a bit more Spanish, (this time they dumped a monster sized accordion on us for delivery to a theatre group) I returned to Nicaragua Kate Hughes, a Scottish midwife, and Richard Watson, a doctor. We were supported by a solidarity organisation called Scottish Medical Aid to Nicaragua (SMAN) ran with amazing stamina for a long time from Des Tierney's and Gillian Brear's flat in Glasgow. SMAN sent medical personnel to Nicaragua and were building a health centre, but it's main focus was work back home and trying to mobilise public opposition to Thatcher's support for Reagan in Central America.
My colleagues in Nicaragua, Margaret Craig, Fiona Crawford, Mike Bonnar, Nick Lockhart, Richard and Kate, all worked in health. I had previously worked as a lawyer in Glasgow, and to cut a long story short I ended up working for a domestic Nicaraguan human rights organisation which did it's best to monitor human rights abuse in the war zones.
What I saw and heard over the next two and half years formed the raw material for Carla's Song. What stunned me from the very beginning was the creativity, intelligence and imagination behind the violence. It was systematic, well-funded and unrelenting. There was of course the obvious military stuff. The Contra, with US intelligence support and satellite photos would carry out ambushes against civilians and the army, blow up strategic targets like the port of Corinto, bridges, pylons, and Co-operatives. But much more insidious was the "invisible muscle"; the economic embargo had a devastating effect on the economy, the diplomatic pressure against third countries not to supply oil or other key materials, the cutting off of loans via the IMF and the World Bank, and a whole host of other diplomatic offensives. All this had the effect of grinding Nicaragua down, (this is why there was always a massive battle to get on a ramshackle bus) and of critical importance, it meant that more of the countries meagre resources would be diverted away from civilian use to the war.
Sometimes you could just sit there and observe the terrible symmetry of it all, meticulously clicking together, as contra troops co-ordinated attacks at the same time as the US navy completed manoeuvres off the coast, coinciding with statements from the US State Department or even Reagan personally meeting contra leaders, primed of course with wonderfully prepared sound bites and images eagerly swallowed up by the majority of the international press. He shook their hands, beamed at the camera, and called the contra leaders "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers". So many talented educated people behind this sham, dressed in suits, going back to their families, playing their part in systematically tearing a country apart. The scale and "style" of it, wrapped up in the language of freedom, still amazes me.
Meanwhile through my work I began to find out in detail what was happening in the countryside, either from traveling to communities attacked by the Contra, or via reports from people living there. The cruelty was beyond the imagination. Part of my work was to present information to the dozens of foreign delegations who arrived there on fact finding missions. It is extremely difficult to talk about carnage. In some way the mind doesn't connect; it's too disturbing. The fact that it is premeditated and systematic is even more difficult to accept, especially for so many North American delegations who realised for the first time what their tax dollars were doing.
Hundreds of memories come to mind but this one sticks. We got a report in one night of a Contra attack on a co-operative. There was the usual chaos and mayhem. A young woman got shot and injured and couldn't run. Her parents somehow got away to the safety of a trench, only to hear the Contra in the near distance torture their daughter whose voice they recognised. They found her dead the next day with her breasts cut
off. On another day I interviewed a young Contra, barely 20, captured by the Sandinistas. He had been with the Contra for several years and had an array of minor bullet scars as testimony to many encounters. He told me he had been involved in dozens of ambushes. While staring out the window he drifted off into a disturbed reverie, and with an imaginary knife in his hand he swished it back and forth describing in detail how he finished off those lying wounded after they had ambushed a vehicle.
I got a sense of the incredible human hurt behind each statistic; of the complexity and trauma behind each life that would never be the same whither they were victim or even contra perpetrator. I'll never forget a skinny ten year old kid, shaking in uncontrollable sobs, miserable to the core, howling beside his dead uncle, or a father in hushed calm tones talking about his kidnapped son. As we talked to delegations and got our reports printed here and there, I had a profound sense we were still pissing in the wind against this huge blanket of misinformation that crushed everything in it's path and could successfully dictate the agenda as if indeed it was a fight for freedom and human rights against the "totalitarian communist regime" of the Sandinistas.
So I suppose that was the reason why I wanted to try and see if we could make a film. I wanted to see if we could take just one character, and give human shape to just one of these thousands of statistics, and tell his or her story set against the real back-drop of Nicaragua.
I returned to Scotland with this idea firmly in mind, but without a clue about how to go about it. But I did receive fantastic encouragement and help from so many people.
I prepared some character profiles and a story line and then bombarded the film world, who in turn bombarded their waste paper bins with my story line. I in turn bombarded their rejection letters in my big bin when I was lucky enough to get an answer. "Quite unrealistic" appeared again and again with all the gravitas and certainty of a Papal encyclical.
I wrote to Ken Loach and he phoned me up. From the outset Ken was just incredibly curious. We just had a right good chat. Never once did he ask me if I had ever written a script. He was just full of straightforward questions.
I met up with Ken again on several occasions and Sally Hibbin who produced many of the films Ken directed. We talked and discussed different approaches. We prepared another outline and I got a commission from the Scottish Film Production Fund to write a script.
The first draft of the screenplay seemed to pop out and then the fun started. Over the next three years, in between Ken's other projects that were more advanced (Raining Stones, Ladybird Ladybird, and Land and Freedom) we met up to collaborate on the script. The process is something live and full of possibility, right to the end. We made lots of changes after each preparatory visit to Nicaragua; after we knew who the actors were and sometimes even the night before a scene was shot. Changes were also made spontaneously by the actors in performance.
Nicaragua is not an easy place to make a film and there were many exploratory visits. It was critical to get the co-operation of the new government and of course the army, quite apart from the usual challenge of finding the locations and actors. On our first trip we had a fantastic piece of luck in meeting up with Frank Pineda, a Nicaraguan cameraman who had filmed much of the war and his wife Florence Jaugey who had directed and edited her own films and documentaries. Between them they had a firm idea of what was possible and knew Nicaragua like the back of their hands. They quickly grasped how Ken and Sally had worked on previous films, and how keen we were to co-operate and work with Nicaraguan grass-root organisations. They helped us through.
They were also vital in helping us find Carla. First of all it was really important for us that she should be Nicaraguan which sounds manifestly obvious, but is not at all obvious in the film world. For the story she had to be able to speak some English, and to be able to really play the part she had to understand what the revolution was about.
There are very few actors in Nicaragua, but many musicians and dancers. We had several castings sessions in Nicaragua, (including one hectic day of open casting advertised on radio and TV so that anyone could come along; three men phoned up offering to come in drag) one in Los Angeles and one in Miami. The vast majority of those who spoke English had little idea of what had happened in the revolution. Those who had lived through it one way or another, for example working in the countryside with the literacy brigades, never ever had the opportunity to learn English.
We found several strong candidates including Oyanka Cabezas who was a dancer. She was terrific in the acting improvisations Ken set for her. The only problem was she did not speak a word of English.
We invited her to come over to England and she got stuck into an English crash-course.
Ken had worked with Bobby Carlyle before in Riff-Raff, and in improvisations between them it was not difficult to imagine the characters George and Carla.
The time, talent and tidy minds to get actors to turn up on a certain day at a certain time and then film it all never ceases to amaze me. I saw it all but I'm still not sure how they did it. The fact that half of it was shot in Glasgow in December (the day we left the Clyde completely froze over) and the other half was in Nicaragua at the end of the rainy season, just made it all the more difficult. The fact that Ken shoots each scene in order makes it more complicated for logistics and finance but much better for the actors. So the flash-back scenes were shot first in Nicaragua to allow Oyanka to carry those experiences in her head. We then flew back to Scotland to shoot the first half of the film and then back again to Nicaragua to do the second half.
RETURNING TO NICARAGUA
I arrived in Nicaragua for the first time in October of 1984 just before Nicaragua's first free elections in which the Sandinistas won 67% of the vote. I emphasise this because these are the great invisible elections, monitored by international observers at the time, that seem to have been wiped from the collective memory of commentators, journalists and producers.
The fact that the Sandinistas won a popular mandate made no difference to the United States funding of the Contra war. The fact that the US were regularly condemned by the General Assembly of the United Nations made no difference. And in a spectacular snub to the civilised world on the same day that the World Court at the Hague found the US guilty of nine different violations of International law the US Congress awarded another 100 million dollars to the Contra.
In 1990, according to the media, Nicaragua had it's first "really really" free elections. George Bush had now replaced Ronald Reagan, and to help the Nicaraguans exercise their free vote for whichever candidate should took their fancy he did make it clear that if they, in all their wisdom, voted again for the Sandinistas, the US would continue to fund the war, and continue with the economic embargo. If on the other hand, they should vote for Violetta Chamorro, a figurehead for 14 opposition parties moulded together by the US, the Nicaraguans would find the US in favour of peace, and promised a mini Marshall plan.
Diligently the world's media descended on Nicaragua for election day, diligently they monitored the polling booths, diligently they checked voter lists, diligently they witnessed lines of Nicaraguans queue to vote, and diligently they reported the result of Nicaragua's "really really" first free elections. Violetta Chamorro replaced Daniel Ortega as the new President of Nicaragua.
In the few months following the elections up to the change of government senior Sandinista figures managed to destroy what 10 years of war and continuous propaganda had not been able to do; they lost their moral capital in they eyes of many Nicaraguans who had been their supporters because a certain sector were seen to gain personally whither in terms of property or money in a pre government hand-over "hand-out", called the "pinata".
We started the Nicaraguan part of Carla's Song in January of 1996 after six years of "peace". One very visible war, of troops, guns, and uniforms (and compulsory military service which deeply damaged Sandinista popularity), had disappeared.
But a more insidious war permeated life itself. At every set of traffic lights in Managua young children, some taking care of babies, were begging at traffic lights. Young glue sniffers wandered around by the abandoned buildings. Outside bars children as young as 12 were selling their bodies. Today, Nicaragua, as a percentage of it's GNP has the highest repayments in history on its foreign debt. This means that every man and woman, every child at those traffic lights, per capita, owes 2,600 dollars in international debt; all this in a country whose average annual earnings amounts to 250 dollars. It doesn't take a bookie to figure out this debt, and its ever cumulative interest, is unpayable. Unrelenting misery confronts them, destroying any possibility of ever starting from scratch. It is nothing other than macro-economic torture. Banking memorandums and the jargon of "extended structural adjustment facilities" of the IMF disguise the gutter morality of the back street money lender. At least the latter have no pretension.
I was doing a video diary for the BBC and I spoke to these kids at the traffic lights. They all had malnourished pinched little faces streaked with sweat and car fumes, but all jumped around mad in front of the camera as you would expect. One little girl I remember very distinctly because she had a burned hand. I asked her what she wanted to say to people outside Nicaragua. She stopped jumping about and stood deadly serious. "I would like enough money to eat and go to school so I don't have to be here every day begging at traffic lights."
I remembered my first visit to Esteli in the North of the country in 1984. A local Government official spoke to a foreign delegation and he asked them not to give money to beggars. "We take a pride in looking after our own people." Changed times.
But there were other days in the shoot that would really give you heart. This is an entry from a rough diary of the 11th January 1996.
"Day 28 of shoot - Pan-American highway, by La Trinidad, Nicaragua.
This huge voice boomed from a tiny kid; his father accompanied him on a guitar and then some started dancing. The rest formed a circle and clapped and celebrated around the dancers. The delight and excitement was infectious. I burst out laughing and started dancing too; still not even 6am.
I had met these campesinos (farm workers) earlier in the week at their co-operative just north of Esteli. 40 families now had what once belonged to one Somocista landlord who had fled at the time of the revolution in 1979. Young and old, men and women, were bringing in sugar cane on oxen carts, boiling the cane above a huge cauldron and making tablet. "We're not rich, but we won't starve".
Lucinda Broadbent with whom I worked in Nicaragua was co-ordinating the casting with Ken. She told me they had even composed a song "to welcome the film". After the dancing finished I asked one of the older men how he felt. "Ready, willing, and happy to tell you a little about our lives". And that's what they did in scene 48, "the bottle of whisky scene".
It's very short, simple and takes place on a bus. Five campesinos on top (the rest inside) joke with Carla and George the two main characters. But as the scene develops what they reveal of their lives, in reality, so touched Oyanka, the Nicaraguan actress playing Carla, which in turn so touched Bobby Carlyle, in reality, playing George, that all this touched the crew, in reality, as they filmed. When they came home that night everyone was strangely quiet.
The rushes came through on video a week later. I tried to figure out what got to me, though I have no idea whither it will touch an audience the same way. Their simple elegance, the honesty of Oyanka's emotional response, and clumsy translation for Bobby, was way beyond anything I could ever have written. It was caught, first of all, by having campesinos who had suffered under the Somoza dictatorship and whose lives had been changed by the revolution involved, Ken's instinct in casting Oyanka who cared and understood what the lives of campesinos were all about, Bobby's openness to Oyanka, and the skill of a really sensitive team who captured the unexpected; the beauty of collaboration. And how they loved that bottle of Glenmorangie."
Some of the older campesinos explained how they had been treated like slaves before. In gentle tones, but with a fierce determination, they emphasised that the land would never be handed back to the Somocista landlord. One added, "The revolution taught me to read. You can't rub that out." This particular co-operative had been functioning successfully since 1979, but other co-operatives have folded because they were unable to get credit to buy seed and other implements.
Throughout the shoot we just kept bumping into more and more people with incredible stories. Ken always talks about the abundance of stories you find, more than can ever be used, but you just hope the ones you do use will some how do justice to the bigger picture.
One day we were shooting in Managua when some of the men just hanging around in the street introduced me to "Commandante Hueso" (Commander Bone), his nick name, because he was so lanky and skinny. Hueso had a nervous twitch over one eye caused by the remnant of a bullet in his head which was too dangerous to remove. He had gained some notoriety as a teenager by organising ambushes against Somoza's National Guard before the revolution. He had fought against the Guard in the final insurrection, and after that he had gone into the mountains to fight for years against the Contra. Here he was now, standing on a street corner with dozens of other men, desperate for work, desperate to do something useful. There was this terrible bewilderment on his face; he wanted action, he wanted to fight the enemy, but somehow the enemy had disappeared in front of his eyes. He wandered around like one lost soul in a sea of 70% unemployment. He reminded me of Tom Joad in the Grapes of Wrath, desperately trying to understand who or what was making the decisions that set the parameters for his totally frustrated life.
Another day we were doing a tiny little scene where two women stop at cross to say a prayer at the scene of an ambush. It'll take no more than 15 seconds on film. I spoke to the women later. Both had lost their sons. One of them, in very gentle tones, and without any tears, told me, "My son was burned alive. I never ever want to see war again. I don't want this for our children, but it is really really important that people understand what happened to us." I just felt touched that they felt so strongly about participating in the film.
The shoot ground on and I suppose this unfussy committed team who were such a laugh to be with got it done by the skin of their teeth. (Martin Johnston, Designer, has worked with Ken for over 25 years. Barry Ackroyd, Director of Photography, and Ray Beckett, sound, and many others, have worked with Ken in all his recent films.) The heat, the poor infrastructure, (you can't just dial up campesinos who live in the middle of the countryside and change plans) and a hundred and one unforeseen complications, plus the language problem, made this an incredibly difficult shoot for everyone concerned. Towards the end many of them got sick, including Bobby who missed a days filming for the first time in his life. Ken, too, got whacked on the last two days and somehow got through it by sheer will power. For the first time I had seen this man who never stops really exhausted. Now I see why all these other film companies wrote back saying it was "quite unrealistic" to shoot a film in Nicaragua. Unrealistic; but somehow possible.
BRINGING THE FILM BACK TO NICARAGUA
Eight and a half roles of celluloid is enough to give you a hernia. I nearly missed the plane in Madrid and therefore had to bring the film print on as hand luggage. Here it was, Carla's Song, ready for showing after months and months of editing, composing the music, doing the subtitles and lots of other things I still don't understand. But there it was, October 1996, in a big heavy card-board box.
Ken and Sally promised the Nicaraguans we worked with that we would bring the film back once it was finished. I think they wanted to believe us, but didn't quite do so. The little experience they had with other film companies had convinced them otherwise.
We arrived at a very tense time, just three weeks before the elections in which Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas, and Arnoldo Aleman, of the right wing Liberal Alliance, were running within a few percentage points of each other.
The Sandinistas were more concerned about the content of the film than anyone. They had just signed an accord with ex Contra leaders promising them major Government portfolios if they won. Meanwhile, Aleman, backed by Cubans and Nicaraguans with money in Miami, ran a well financed campaign, blaming the Sandinistas for the war; full length paged adverts of Ortega superimposed on images of funerals from the eighties.
It's quite surreal to see history re-written before your eyes quite so crudely. It didn't matter that William Casey, Reagan's campaign manager, and then head of the CIA, got in contact with President Galtierri of Argentina and got his thugs apprenticed in the dirty war (in which thousands went missing) up to Honduras to train the remnants of Somoza's National Guard and turn them into the Nicaraguan Contras. It didn't matter that the CIA financed them, trained them, and instructed what to do. Despite the US's creation of the Contra, and the billion dollar investment in attacking Nicaragua, the Sandinistas still somehow caused the war.
It was like some strange double twist on reality. The Sandinista leadership did their very best not to talk about the war, while the right wing were appealing to the voters to "remember the past". In the middle of all this we arrived with a film set almost 10 years ago in the middle of the war.
As we drove in with the film to one of the very few functioning cinemas in Managua we passed the same little girl with the burned hand begging at the same traffic lights. January to October. Still there.
I don't know what Machiavelli looked like, but since these screenings in Managua I'm now a firm believer in reincarnation. The man who ran the Cinemateca cinema gave us a right old royal run around. Just before the very first screening for cast and crew a part from the projector, which had worked perfectly the previous evening, mysteriously had to be repaired at some unspecified work-shop. (He promised to show the film for a two week run which of course he never did. Last report we got from Nicaragua was that he still hadn't shown the film but was showing Somocista propaganda footage to the supporters of the new President, Aleman).
Once again Frank Pineda and Florence Jaugey saved our bacon. They had somehow or another got their hands on two old Soviet projectors that were used in the eighties to bring film to countryside locations. At short notice we set them up in the cinema and ran the film.
They made as much noise as a steelworks on a quiet day, and for the whole first half subtitles shook so badly it was virtually impossible to read them. Suddenly, half way through the film Machiavelli appeared with the missing part which had mysteriously rectified itself.
In the evening we had a press screening. With a half hour to go there was such a fierce storm a main electricity plant blew up knocking out power for the central part of the city. The press conference continued afterwards in total darkness, and without the journalists knowing how the film ended. We read next day that 6 people had drowned in Managua.
The following day we brought the film up to the main university in Managua and showed it with just a few hours notice. 300 students squeezed into this small hall as the old projectors rattled out the images on a scabby old wall. It didn't matter. I didn't quite realise what a unique experience it was for them, to see and hear Nicaraguans, just like them, appear on screen. There was a fantastic debate afterwards about what the war meant, what were the reasons for it, whither it was an East West conflict, or North V South, what the revolution tried to achieve, but most of all, what it was like for students of a previous generation, to live the war. Several of the older students who had lived it were very emotional and ended up in tears.
We brought the film up to the North of the country to the little town of Ducuale where we had actually filmed. There was no such thing as a cinema and I doubt all but a handful had ever been to a cinema in their lives. The plan was to show it out in the main square. Our hearts fell as we approached the mountains and could see an almighty storm pour down in the distance. It was still raining when we arrived, but it was just magic to meet up with old friends again in the village who had acted in the film and built the houses that were eventually blown up in the film.
We couldn't believe our luck as the skies cleared and we caught sight of the stars. Everyone sprung into action. Technicians connected up wires to the cables over head, a massive painted screen was unrolled up front, and suddenly bodies with chairs and benches started appearing from everywhere as the houses emptied. Dozens and dozens of kids ducked down at the front. Cows walked past, pigs rustled, dogs barked and chickens picked between the bodies as the old projectors sprung into life.
Many of the villagers were not able to read, or at least read fast enough for the subtitles in the Glasgow part of the film. So Salvador, one of the actors in the film, performed heroics as he clung to an old microphone from which he got periodic shocks as he gave a running commentary for the villagers with all the timing and humour a stand up comic would admire.
In among all this I can still see the grisly bearded silhouette of an old campesino, sitting crouched down among the children, in total and absolute concentration at the dancing images just 12 feet from him as if it were all some kind of magic. Just before George and Carla, in the film, drove into the very square in which they were all seated, the rain started. Nobody moved bar a mother with a child at her breast. George and Carla's jeep sped into the little town of Ducuale. The children squealed in recognition. I caught sight of Ken away back in the distance with just a hint of a smile.
The following day we showed the film in Esteli, one of the main Northern towns which had risen up three times against Somoza (and paid a bloody price) before he finally fled. It was at the fore-front of the war during the eighties.
Esteli has a huge barn of a cinema for 800 people which had been lying empty for years. Over a thousand people squeezed in before the organisers managed to get the gates shut before it became any more dangerous. A crowd built up outside and totally ignored and insulted a few desperate policeman who tried to maintain order, and shouted for the gates to be opened again. Inside all the corridors were chock a block. A dog ran among legs along with lots of young boys up to mischief in the madness. As the trusty projectors sprung into action again I could see the silhouette of bicycles, babies and assorted food stalls on screen as people tried to make their way down the packed corridors.
I sat down to watch the audience watching the film sitting beside Esperanza who had made that wonderful tripe soup that had nearly choked me 12 years ago.
There is just no comparison between a European audience and a Nicaraguan audience. There is more drama in the seats than ever appears on the screen. They watched the Glasgow part patiently enough and then when they saw the first sight of Nicaragua the place went crazy. They started whistling and bawling. They caught sight of a fragment of Nicaraguan folkloric dancing; another crescendo of noise. They saw something as mundane as the main bus station in Managua and people crushed on a bus; more screams and whistles. And so it went on; the simple delight of seeing themselves, listening to themselves, in their own accent. The intensity of their response, sometimes at such simple scenes which didn't raise a murmur in Europe, made me think of the power of the image and who decides what goes up there. Thank goodness Ken and Sally had refused point blank to show a dubbed version prepared in Spain.
Afterwards I caught snippets of all sorts of discussions. I caught sight of a friend Carmen who seemed to upset to talk so I just waved. I listened to an ex soldiers talk to a documentary team outside the cinema about the war. Frank, filming a documentary, told me of an argument between two women he got on tape. One said the film would do nothing for reconciliation and she wanted peace. The other replied she only said that because she hadn't lost someone like she had. The latter said wanted peace and reconciliation too but didn't want to forget. He also filmed a father explaining to his son what he went through. And so it went on.
I spoke to my friend Carmen the next day. She had been a volunteer with the army at the age of 19. She was now in her early thirties with a beautiful child. It was impossible to imagine her out fighting in the countryside. She told me she talked all night with her friends about the film and how it reminded them of what they had gone through. Her eyes filled up and she said "The truth is there were hundreds of Carlas".
AS MAKE THE ANGELS WEEP
On my last day in Nicaragua I caught Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista Presidential candidate, and his wife Rosario, on the election stump at a run down market amidst all the chaos and excitement of hundreds and hundreds scratching out a living. He worked the crowd beautifully. He was dressed in an almost priestly white shirt without a collar. As he joked with the crowd Rosario threw red petals up in the air that glistened in the sun, and then threw more and more handfuls over Daniel's hair. In between his jokes and promises Beethoven's Ode to Joy was skilfully faded in and out from enormous speakers. More flowers arrived, more jokes, more promises, the music built to an emotional crescendo and Daniel was whisked off in a cavalcade, waving to the crowd, in a huge white jeep reminiscent of the Pope mobile.
Sure it was the rough and tumble of party politics in the build up to what was perceived as a close electoral contest.Sure it was wonderful theatre. But it was still bull-shit.
In the shadow of the US and institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, and all their efforts to placate them, I found it very difficult to decipher what the Sandinista platform was, and what it could deliver. Reminding the electorate on where real power lay Nicolas Burns, a US State Department spokesperson, in the week before the elections, warned "I would not use the word "democrat" to describe Daniel Ortega.....He's a Nicaraguan with a past and we're all familiar with that past. Considering his actions against the US in the past, I think we need to remember that......" "
Considering his actions AGAINST the US in the past....". It is beyond parody. I can hear the bard mumble in his grave;
"Dressed in a little brief authority
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
His glassy essence like an angry ape
plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
as make the Angels weep."
Perhaps with slightly less finesse, but no less accuracy, a Managuan taxi driver summed up Nicaraguan history over the last century. "Look! If you upset the gringos they screw you." Yes he thought Aleman was a politician like all the rest, but at least he wouldn't upset the Gringos and had good contacts in Miami which might bring in jobs. Who knows how representative taxi drivers are, but this attitude, plus criticism of the Sandinista "pinata" was repeated again and again by many other drivers.
Despite the Ode to Joy and all those petals, despite signing a deal with Ex Contras (now respectfully called the Resistance), despite their Vice Presidential Candidate who was a well known cattle producer, despite sounding meeker than lambs, on October 22 1996, the Sandinistas were defeated by Aleman of the right wing Liberal Alliance by 51% against 38%.
Out by the airport I got a whiff of the new Nicaragua; in fact, of Nicaragua and beyond. 10,000 workers, mostly young women work out there in an area called the "zona franca" or tax free zone. I spoke to the manageress of one of the more successful textile plants there where all these women sew up jeans from material imported from China, according to designs drawn in the US, and then delivered next door to the airport where they are exported, tax free, to the US and sold in supermarket chains.
The manageress was totally open. A sales-man, usually from Miami, would come down to negotiate. He would have the option of making his order in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador or Nicaragua. If he didn't get the price he wanted, he was off elsewhere. Her best price for sewing up a pair of jeans was 1 dollar 30 cents, and she struggled to understand how the Chinese and Taiwanese factories in adjoining premises could do it for 1 dollar.
At dinner break I spoke to a fifteen year old worker. She worked 55 hours a week for 9 dollars per week. Of course there were no holidays. Of course you could be fired just like that. Of course there were no unions. "You shouldn't get pregnant either, and they like young girls better. A woman at thirty stands up for herself more." Wearily she shook her head. "It's not fair" she said, before walking off slowly back to join a knot of friends, to wander back to the factory to join thousands of others.
I might be accused of being romantic, but I know what I witnessed when I first went to Nicaragua in 1984. What really got to me was an exhilarating sense of "possibility"; despite all the problems there was a feeling of ordinary men and women taking their own destiny by the scruff of the neck and saying "we're going to do something here!" It was a fantastic feeling to be working alongside these people. I saw this, and I compared it with what I saw in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala where I saw the exact opposite; people frightened and scared and for good reason.
Oxfam stated that from its experience in 76 developing countries Nicaragua was exceptional for the strength of its commitment to participation by people in development. The World Council of Churches issued a report in 1983 which sums it up for me "What we see is a government faced with tremendous problems, some seemingly insuperable, bent on a great experiment which, though precarious and incomplete at many times, provides hope to the poor sectors of society, improves the conditions of education, literacy, and health, and for the first time offers the Nicaraguan people a modicum of social justice for all rather than a society offering privilege exclusively to the wealthy and powerful".
Why should the attempt to build a "modicum of social justice" attract such incredible violence and so many lies? Ten years of war mutilated this "great experiment". For so many that sense of possibility has been destroyed as they now scramble for survival. Nobody can blame them for being cynical, fatalistic, desperate or plain burnt out. The vote for Aleman is perfectly logical. But what is amazing, despite all that US sponsored violence, there are still so many people, so many, and we were lucky to have many of them working in the film with us, who have still not given up. Faces shoot to mind as I write. You could sense something vital and good within them, and that no matter what, they would still go on organising within their communities for that "modicum of social justice" which is deep within us. The ultimate victory for all those billions of dollars worth of torture, murder and destruction would have been to extinguish hope itself; and they haven't.
On impulse before boarding the flight to Nicaragua to shoot the film I bought the Forbes business magazine (Nov 6 '95). I came across an article written by Caspar Weinberger, a former US Secretary of State, now working for some corporate consortium, who in support of the B2 Stealth bomber (566 million dollars a piece) quoted General Jon Loh, former commander of Air Combat Command who said, "I see the B2 as the centrepiece of a.....strategy that places increasing importance ON PROJECTING IMMEDIATE RESPONSIVE POWER FROM THE US TO A REGIONAL CRISIS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD".
It's a language I now recognise. For "crisis" read "struggle for a modicum of social justice" and we are nearer the truth. Most human suffering is not caused by accident but by huge investment of resources and careful future planning. They are at it again.
Kundera wrote "The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting".
As an idle fancy I wonder how many wee kids at traffic lights could be given a future for the price of one Stealth bomber at 566 million smackers?
In the summer of 1996 the Zapatistas in the most impoverished (but richest in natural resources) Mexican state of Chiapas held a conference called the "International of Hope" and said "Over the ruins of an exhausted system let us construct the world anew with humanity itself at the centre of decision making." Little wonder the Argentinean advisors and US advisors are now there today with the Mexican army advising them on counter insurgency. Little wonder a leaked memo from a leading US bank in New York called for the destruction of the Zapatista movement. All we have to do is look at the experiences of General Smedly D Butler (in an appendix at the end of the script), to see the same continuous logic unfold from the beginning of this century, to Nicaragua of the eighties and now to Mexico of the nineties. Movements for social justice cannot be allowed to interfere with corporate profit.
For a brief moment in time the Nicaraguans tried their best to follow what they called "the logic of the majority", attempting to use their own resources for their own people. Now, more than ever, deregulation, the communications revolution and the mobility of capital, mean that many more around the world are joining ranks with a bewildered Commandante Hueso as the decisions about our lives are made further and further away from any form of democratic control. It is worth perhaps remembering an observation of Noam Chomsky, "Unless you get to the source of power, which ultimately is investment decisions, other changes are cosmetic and can only take place in a limited way. To challenge the right of investors to determine who lives and who dies, and how they live and die - that would be a significant move towards the Enlightenment ideals. That would be revolutionary."
Frederick Douglas, a black man, confronted a system in his day which arbitrarily decided who lived and who died. Slavery. That little girl in Managua is tied to those traffic lights every bit as firmly as any slave, but with the more subtle bonds of the so called new economic order, and so called free market which define her life as worthless. Frederick Douglas summarised his experience; "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."
At the International Venice film festival in Sept 1996 the jury awarded
Carla's Song the Presidential gold medal of the Italian Senate for the film
which best promoted the values of "civil progress and solidarity."
In the absence of Ken Loach, Paul Laverty and Sally Hibbin received the award.
"Thanks for this prize for "civil progress". If we lived in a truly civilised world the two ex Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, would be tried as war criminals for their crimes against humanity.....there's a bigger chance Scotland might win the World Cup.....but we live in hope. Thanks."