By Gabrielle Garcia Steib*

I have been interested in cinema and memory, particularly in Nicaragua, since I was a young girl.  I began filming super 8 clips years ago for short films, when I spent long hot summers with my family in Managua and in other smaller towns. I was fascinated with how much U.S. intervention was the main source of media being recorded for a majority of the 20th century. From the earlier films by the U.S. Marines, to the media being produced during the revolution and contra war, where U.S. photojournalists were being sent down to document everything. This made me dive deeper into the history of Nicaraguans who documented their own territory, their own people, and I shifted my interest into the people who were truly documenting memory and history from their perspective, not from outsiders. In Tania Romero’s documentary, one of the first female filmmakers, and first INCINE members Maria Jose Alvarez explains after the creation of this Institute: “Finally Nicaragua would have a graphic memory.” I have been particularly interested in how INCINE formed, regardless of lack of funding, resources, and access. In Romero’s documentary, members retell testimonies of the time– such as of having to sell cows on the Honduran border to fund their films, or having to use filmstock and lab services from Cuba. I have interviewed Tania Romero and Karly Gaitan Morales with the hopes of discussing how INCINE promoted the recuperation of societal memory, and history, and put it in the hands of the people of Nicaragua, as well to point out extractivist practices and privatization of materials that intertwined with the past and current situation of Nicaragua. Accessibility to archives, especially cinema and photography, is key to understanding the past and the present of the country.

Tania Romero is a Nicaraguan documentary filmmaker who currently teaches digital media production at Villanova University. She is the director of Hasta Con las Uñas: Mujeres Cineastas de Nicaragua (2016) which traces the women who worked in INCINE, during 1979-1990. INCINE was the first Nicaraguan film institute that was developed during the Sandinista Revolution. The films and documentaries created at the institute were primarily regarding social issues, and focused on recovering a national identity. In the other side, Karly Gaitan Morales is a Nicaraguan writer, historian, journalist, film critic and film producer. She has authored the series “Colección Historia del cine en Nicaragua” and she was the producer for Romero’s film  Hasta con las uñas: Mujeres cineastas en Nicaragua. Her work can be read in Casi Literal, La Prensa (Nicaragua),  El Café Latino (France), and Carátula (Central American Culture Magazine). She is a member of the Asociación Nicaragüense de Escritoras (ANIDE) y President of the  Centro Nicaragüense de Escritores (CNE). She also wrote the only comprehensive book on cinema history of Nicaragua, A La Conquista de Un Sueño.

How can culture be preserved and imagery be preserved in the current leadership of the country? What has been made visible over the decades and what invisible? I have many more questions than I have answers too, but some are answered below.

Interview with Karly Gaitan Morales

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: I would love to know a little about you, your history in art and film, and about your books that deal with Nicaraguan cinema. When did you start this research?

Karly Gaitan Morales: I started writing as a young teenager. When I was 20 years old, I already had 3 long and dense novels finished. About research of Nicaraguan cinema and its history, I started an undergraduate monograph in Managua in 2004. Then I wrote a book and finally presented it in 2009 (with a draft of that book because the work was very intense, many said it looked like a PhD thesis and not a simple monograph of Grado, because of the quality of the book and my work). The book was finally published in 2014 after 10 years of hard work and consulting thousands of pages of old newspapers, doing hundreds of interviews, processing thousands of hours of audio interviews, watching thousands of hours of Nicaraguan cinema at the National Cinematheque of Nicaragua and at my home through the internet or CDs that I could get of Nicaraguan cinema films. Those 10 years were from 2004 to 2014.

But I did not stop and continued working on the research of cinema in Nicaragua. I created the encyclopedic series Colección Historia del Cine en Nicaragua™, which I list here: Volume I: History of cinema in Nicaragua / A la conquista de un sueño (Conquering a dream), Volume II: 400 films of Nicaraguan cinema / 120 years of film art (1897-2017) / Data sheet and comments, Volume III: 120 characters in the history of cinema in Nicaragua / Biographies and profiles (Volume 1 and Volume 2),  Volume IV: Cinemanía / Declaration of love to Nicaraguan cinema / Articles, notes and essays, Volume V: 50 years of the Managua earthquake (1972-2022) / 50 newsreels, fictions and documentaries that made history, Volume VI: 25 women in the history of Nicaraguan cinema / Portrait gallery,  Volume VII: ‘La nouvelle vague in Nicaragua’ / Cinema, video, video art and contemporary technologies, and Volume VIII: Impressions of three cinematographic legacies / Essays.

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: I’m interested in knowing the role of foreigners in Nicaraguan cinema, for example I remember reading that the Americans recorded something during the war, some of the first films of the time. Maybe you can tell me a little about the U.S. intervention and cinema. Also about other countries that supported the role of revolutionary cinema, like Cuba and Mexico.

Karly Gaitan Morales : Yes, the first images filmed by a foreigner were in 1897 with a Lumiére operator who visited Central America. Then a filmmaker from Guatemala filmed  the beginning of the century (1900-1903) in different cities in Nicaragua. The Marines or United States Marine Corps (USMC) had a presence in Nicaragua from 1912 for what has been called the “American Intervention” and during that time filmed their newsreels and other documentaries. Filmed from 1912 to 1933, they even documented their departure from the country. These documents, a part of the films are available at the Library of Congress (Washington DC).

During almost the entire period of the Somoza regime (1937-1979), films were produced by foreigners since there was no production company in Nicaragua. Among these filmmakers are: the Argentinean Leo Aníbal Rubens, who filmed for the first Somoza’s government for 16 years, the Mexican Felipe Hernández who had his production company from 1976 to 1979, but he was already filming independent documentaries since 1963. A Honduran production company of which there is little information in the 1960s, Nicoly Films, the Chilean filmmakers Enrique Castro and Margarita Alvarez, who lived for 13 and 17 years in Nicaragua and filmed for all government institutions and companies of all kinds.

In the 1980s with the Sandinist Popular Revolution (RPS), Cuba’s support was essential at the beginning to form the Nicaraguan Film Institute. But around that time there were fiction documentaries made by filmmakers from United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba, Netherlands, Argentina, Spain, from all over the world. The RPS was attractive for cinema in addition to productions of great importance for the country’s cinematography.

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: What do you think of the idea of “recovering” memory through film and photography?

Karly Gaitan Morales: My work has been to try to gather, more than recover, a history of cinema in Nicaragua that finally, with my work, and modesty aside, has a logical unity, a continuity, a thesis and I try to rescue as much as possible, which had never been historicized. I have created with this, first, a memory and then a legacy. That is what my work has become as a cultural proposal for the nation’s heritage. It is urgent that there be more work like mine, trying to recover the memory in photography, theater, etc. Most of the arts that are more documented and studied are poetry and literature, perhaps because Nicaragua is a country “of writers”.

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: What are your favorite Nicaraguan films?

Karly Gaitan Morales: From the RPS era, a docufiction short  by Rafael Vargas Ruiz: Mas es mía el alba de oro. I really like the short fiction Betún y sangre by Frank Pineda. Also some documentaries had an impact on me.

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: What do you think about the future of cinema in Nicaragua?

Karly Gaitan Morales: In Nicaragua there is a National Cinematheque that is very well connected with CAACI (Conferencia de Autoridades Audiovisuales y Cinematográficas de Iberoamérica), with film authorities worldwide, with governments and film schools, festivals and I think that’s good. They do good work. If we want to talk about the future it will be necessary to have a film school or at least a professional career with a degree in film production and direction, to train new talents with an updated knowledge and with another vision of what is cinema, what is produced in contemporary times, without following old schools, old styles, old schemes.

Interview with Tania Romero

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: Could you introduce yourself, your history in film, and why you chose the subject of women filmmakers who mobilized in Nicaragua’s INCINE  for your documentary?

Tania Romero: I am a filmmaker and media production professor at Villanova University.  From the beginning of my career, I intentionally designed my path as a filmmaker so that I could independently write, direct, produce, edit and work as a cinematographer for my own productions. My overall moral imperative as a storyteller is to amplify marginalized voices, explore the complexity of border cultures, and register the role of women’s work in society.

I was proudly born and raised in Nicaragua and moved to the United States when I was nine.  Growing up, I would travel back during the summer months to visit my relatives in Managua, so I never lost touch with my Central American identity, cultural roots, and history.  In fact, these aspects were ever-present in my life living abroad. As a cinephile, the absence of Latinos/Central American characters in movies was explicit in the majority of coveted Eurocentric ‘masterpieces’ in my film education.

My earliest memory of watching a film produced in Nicaragua was during my freshman year of college (albeit not by a Nicaraguan filmmaker), when I rented Ken Loach’s film, Carla’s Song, starring the incomparable Oyanka Cabezas in the leading role.  It is a film about a Nicaraguan woman exiled in Scotland after the Contra war in the 80’s.  Watching the film was a transformative moment for me because for the first time, I heard actors speak in a Nicaraguan accent, I saw visuals of mi tierra on screen, and the storyline of the film incorporated the complex and traumatic political history that I grew up with.  As a film viewer, I knew how important it was to see one’s cultural identity represented on the silver screen. But until that moment, while processing my own intergenerational trauma from decades of war as a viewer, I never knew how deep that catharsis would solidify my purpose as an aspiring filmmaker.

Carla’s Song compelled me into action.  I wanted to watch more films produced in Nicaragua, and by Nicaraguan filmmakers that told our stories. But as I began to dig, I was surprised by the many women producers in the country.  It was a phenomenon that interested me because it indicated that given the lack of film industry infrastructure, diverse working conditions, informal training, and a lack of resources, the independent filmmaker spirit still thrived in the country. This fueled my interest to produce the 2016 documentary short Even With Their Nails: Women Filmmakers in Nicaragua, to emphasize the determination, endurance, and ‘by the bootstrap’ attitude that compelled women producers into action.

The film began as a passion project, completely independently funded, and because I always brought my camera and sound equipment with me whenever I traveled to see my family, I was ready to press record to document the testimonies of many women filmmakers who maintained the production of films in the country beyond INCINE. I chose the subject of women filmmakers who mobilized in Nicaragua simply because at the time, some of the first films I had access to abroad were unfortunately pirated on Youtube, such Florence Jaugey’s La Yuma.  From there, I made a list of names of filmmakers to email, including the late Fernando Somarriba who forwarded my inquiry to writer-historian Karly Gaitan Morales, who had just published the first and only comprehensive book on the history of Nicaraguan cinema, A La Conquista de Un Sueño: Historia Del Cine en Nicaragua. She eventually became my producer for Even With Their Nails, and continues to be a fountain of knowledge about the subject.

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: Could you talk about the importance of collective memory and the importance of recovering memory especially in post-dictatorship Nicaragua?

Tania Romero: While doing some research on Youtube for videos on Nicaraguan filmmakers, I found filmmaker Florence Jaugey’s TED talk Managua, where she explicitly made a point of the importance of national cinema for the collective memory of the country production by stating that “un pais sin cine, es un país sin cara.” Jaugey is a French-actress turned director, who married Nicaraguan cinematographer Frank Pineda and together they have worked tirelessly to produce substantial documentaries about social issues in Nicaragua. This resonated with me because while living abroad, cultural invisibility became the norm. Cinema, as a cultural artifact, is not just a way to remember ourselves, it is also a present-future mirror that validates our existence on this earth.  In other words, without visions of our cultural identities represented in cinema, erasure is almost certain.

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: Could you explain the field of cinema before the existence of INCINE?

Tania: Film production was always a part of Nicaragua’s history.  So production was going on in the country.  However, before INCINE the majority of film production was funded by external resources and foreign crews. INCINE however, facilitated the training of local talent and crew, and provided film equipment (celluloid film which was flown to Cuba to be developed) with an emphasis to document the social reforms that were occurring in Nicaragua after the dictatorship.  So many of the filmmakers who came out of that era (e.g. Maria Jose Alvares, Martha Clarissa Hernandez, Kathy Sevilla, Rossana Lacayo, Frank Pineda, Fernando Somarriba) used this training, or ‘informal film school’ as an opportunity to attain experience and empower themselves as storytellers.  This group of local filmmakers in the 80’s was certainly not the ‘first wave’ of artists to make movies in Nicaragua, but they certainly captured an important collective memory of a country that radically defined its political history.

Filmmaker Brenda Martínez with Emilio Rodríguez and José Palacios, Matagalpa, Nicaragua (1979) (Archive Brenda Martínez / INCINE).

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: Could you list your favorite Nicaraguan films?

Tania:I must say that most of the films about Nicaragua often feature stories about foreign correspondents or American journalists “trying to escape” during the Contra war. Unfortunately, a list of films produced in Nicaragua would mostly feature stories about foreign correspondents or American journalist “trying to escape” during the Contra war. Always a look from the exterior that perpetuates a kind of misunderstood imagery of Nicaraguan identity around the world. So I will provide films that resonated with me and had profound impact: Carla’s Song (Ken Loach), Alsino y El Condor (Miguel Littin), Estos sí pasarán (Rossana Lacayo), Lady Marshall (Maria Jose Alvares, Martha Clarissa Hernandez), La Yuma (Florence Jaugey), De Niña a Madre (Florence Jaugey), Las Sandinistas (Jenny Murray), Patrol (Brad Allgood y Camilo de Castro), y Daughter of Rage (Laura Baumeister de Montis).

Gabrielle Garcia Steib: What do you think of the future of Nicaragua cinema?

Tania Romero:I will begin by clarifying that production in Nicaragua is not impossible these days despite what the media says. Like many other Latin American countries, there are some logistical considerations and workarounds to be able to tell a story in a compelling way.  But these types of production challenges are what makes filmmaking worth every minute anyway, so they are not unique challenges to Nicaragua.  And believe me when I say, Nicaraguans have many compelling stories to tell, so there is a plethora of material for aspiring artists.

Last year, there was widespread caution about bringing video equipment into the country or filming in the open after the events of 2018.  However, most of what is published about Nicaragua in the foreign media is magnified by foreign interests, and that interest does not always highlight the positive. Yes, there is a certain ‘pause of major studio productions’ in the country at the moment because there are other pressing needs to be addressed, but rest assured that Nicaraguan filmmakers are still writing, developing, editing, and moving forward in true guerrillera/o spirit. Independent filmmaking, experimental shorts, and Youtube videos, and television production still thrive.  As for me, I hope to one day produce a feature film in Nicaragua.  I dream of it constantly, and I just hope to find the right time and funding to make it happen. One day, making a film in my country is a dream I want to conquer.


* Gabrielle Garcia Steib is a filmmaker and artist of Nicaraguan descent, based in New Orleans, who created the online archive: Imágenes de Nicaragua. She is currently working on her Master’s thesis on archives, memory, and cinema in post-revolution Nicaragua.