While working on an earlier book about progressive filmmaking in France during the 1930s, I interviewed as many survivors of that period as I could locate. They recalled those days as the most exciting ones of their careers, and I could sense that enthusiasm in the films, so often filled with the images and sounds of workers, artists, and intellectuals linking arms in their struggle against Fascism.
I had also studied other progressive filmmaking experiments in various countries, including the great "heroic" era of Soviet filmmaking of the 1920s; almost 50 years after that, following the success of the Cuban revolution in 1959, another creative explosion in filmmaking occurred in Latin America in, among other places, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia. Those latter experiments were snuffed out by repressive military regimes.
In 1979 the people of Nicaragua--workers, artists, and intellectuals--were struggling to transform their country after 50 years of dictatorship under the Somoza dynasty. With my interest in revolutionary filmmaking, I was eager to see what they had done in film. I went to live, work, and study in Nicaragua during a year-long sabbatical from Queens College, part of the City University of New York.
In 1989, when I first traveled to Nicaragua, the revolutionary Sandinista government was still in power. The only person I knew in Nicaragua, a man I had met one day for lunch in Washington, D.C., met me at the airport in his battered BMW. He invited me to eat at Los Ranchos, a fancy restaurant in Managua. The day, August 1, happened to be a holiday, and throughout the meal old Somocista friends of his passed by the table greeting Roberto, himself a member of the old bourgeoisie. Clad in expensive riding gear, the friends urged him to join them in the private room where they were celebrating, but he refused, explaining to me with evident disgust that they had come back to Managua from Miami, to which they had fled after the triumph of the revolution in 1979. Roberto had worked for the Sandinista government in the early days of the revolution but eventually resigned. Only later did I learn that Roberto, though infinitely generous in extending his hospitality to me--an obvious Sandinista sympathizer--hated the Sandinistas.
By that time, the contra war had ended, and the second elections of the revolutionary period were scheduled for February 1990. Everyone I got to know assumed that the Sandinistas would win the elections, as they had in 1984. Once installed in a house in Colonia Centroamerica, and having begun teaching at the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana, I had the good fortune to meet several filmmakers who had worked throughout the 1980s at the Nicaraguan Institute of Cinema (INCINE), the government filmmaking institute.
I knew very little of the work of INCINE, so I was eager to speak with the filmmakers and hear firsthand the excitement of revolutionary filmmaking. I found myself in the midst of a loose faction of former INCINE filmmakers; as I spent long hours with this group, I began to learn of the history of INCINE not in terms of some master narrative soldered by the fervor of revolutionary political commitment, but through a thick sediment of anecdotes, gossip, jokes, backbiting, rivalries, and bitter resentments. I was not exposed to a forum on revolutionary aesthetics, but rather to a primer on the institutional stresses and tensions of a revolutionary governmental institution.
Once my Spanish improved, I began to haunt the premises of INCINE to conduct more serious research. The principals had either left or been dismissed by this time, and the few people remaining evidenced little interest in the history of INCINE. Nonetheless, they helped me intermittently with screenings of films, but they were understandably more concerned with the difficult task of preserving the institution, now that it had fallen on hard times.
Actual archival research at first was virtually impossible for a number of reasons. I had heard many stories about incompetence and even malfeasance at INCINE, and the personnel were not eager to share internal materials. I believe most of the workers did not quite understand what I was looking for, and I do not believe they knew where the relevant material might be. Over time, as the institution became increasingly moribund, I was given greater access, to the point that I was poring through dust-covered file cabinets and crumbling boxes in forgotten corners, turning up assorted documentation in a largely random fashion. For example, I had heard a great deal about the innovation of the talleres in the mid-1980s, but I had seen no documentation. One day I happened to notice some pages from an official document on the floor in INCINE's men's room. Later that day I discovered that, at least at INCINE, the need for toilet paper took precedence over historical preservation.
My research, then, began with fragments of the written record and a mass of contradictory and often incredible accounts from disaffected filmmakers. Though all were apparently pro-Sandinista while working at INCINE, they hardly sounded like Sandinista militants by 1989. I recall one evening in one filmmaker's backyard watching reel after reel of INCINE shorts made by the two filmmakers watching with me; they roared with rum-enhanced laughter at their own Sandinista follies, what they identified as pure Sandinista propaganda. The projector light blazed through the mosquitoes to the screen tucked among the mango trees as I peered unsuccessfully to find the humor.
When I lived in Nicaragua teaching at the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua from 1989 to 1990, and during subsequent extended visits of one to three months, I spoke repeatedly with, and recorded over a hundred hours of interviews with, former directors and other INCINE personnel. In addition to conducting formal interviews, I also spent countless hours socializing with the filmmakers, and I have drawn on those informal discussions. I tried to balance conflicting accounts and perspectives with the written and filmed archival evidence.
Most important, I have based my research on the films themselves. INCINE made some 70 films, for the most part shorts, during the Popular Sandinista Revolution from July 1979 to 1990. I have seen all of the films produced by Nicaraguans at INCINE and managed to copy most of them. As INCINE understood its function as mainly political, many films addressed political issues, and I have approached them on such terms. I have intentionally not discussed the many films made in Nicaragua by foreigners. While these films would undoubtedly illuminate the complementary perspectives of foreign observers, they would at the same time divert attention from INCINE's stated goal of constructing the first Nicaraguan national cinema project in its history. The extended published debate on the coproduction of Alsino and the Condor, however, will reveal the reservations expressed by Nicaraguans about one such film.
In July 1979 the Sandinistas suddenly faced the task of governing a poor country devastated by war. The Sandinistas quickly established a new army, the Sandinista Army, and a new police force, the Sandinista Police, in addition to other government institutions. However, the names of these two institutions indicate a collapse between the "national" and the "political/military organization" of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional). This confusion between country and party was a constant source of tension in the ensuing years.
In fact, that tension runs as a thread throughout this book. The newly formed Ministry of Culture did not bear the Sandinista name, but like most institutions, it was run by Sandinistas, whether formal militants (full members) or not. On the other hand, neither the Sandinistas nor the Ministry of Culture ever promulgated an official state or party cultural policy. Internal divisions that eventually cracked the Ministry of Culture did not follow clearly ideological fault lines imposed by the Sandinistas. But the Ministry personnel certainly tried to develop revolutionary policies.
INCINE was established two months after the victory. As in most small, poor, third-world countries, Nicaragua had no previous filmmaking history. In 1979 that history began with the victory of the revolution. As part of a state institution, the debutant filmmakers wanted to contribute to the revolution. But what forms should their films take? What was their function? Who was the audience? They wanted to make Nicaraguan films, but would they also be Sandinista films? These questions have guided my work.
In fact, INCINE's distance from the central priorities of the Sandinista Front makes its films interesting: they provide a unique vision of the Popular Sandinista Revolution. The images and sounds they chose to represent the revolution reveal a Nicaraguan portrait of the revolution drawn not from official directives, but from the filmmakers' own interpretations of the Revolution as they were living it.
INCINE quite specifically identified one of its goals as "the recovery of national identity." In recent years, national identity has become a terrain of scholarly debate. Rather than an intervention, per se, in that debate, this book offers some observations on how INCINE's work might be construed as a project of constructing or recovering national identity. In many popular revolutions, particularly in small countries emerging from years of colonialism or neocolonialism, recovering national identity has been a central theme. On the one hand, this idea refers to achieving some degree of economic independence. But cultural production assumes a central role, too, for identity is often projected through a country's cultural production, paradigmatically through literature, but more popularly, through widely distributed forms such as cinema. Hence, INCINE's films reveal something about how Nicaraguans themselves perceived the new project of retrieving national identity in Sandinistan Nicaragua. While INCINE was officially part of the governmental apparatus, it was located in a cultural institution with artists, not political directors.
On another level, INCINE's output belongs in the context of Latin American filmmaking. Historic changes in the media landscape over the past several decades, specifically since the establishment of the Cuban Cinema Institute (ICAIC) in 1959, have threatened the viability of national cinema projects. Though Cuba serves as one reference point, I have tried to think through a sustained and new interpretation of the meaning of "third cinema," another subject of renewed attention in recent years.
The INCINE films tried to make sense of a complex reality and contribute in their own ways to consolidating the revolution. Viewed retrospectively, the films perhaps did not penetrate deeply into that reality, with analyses of class factions, price inequalities, negative interest rates, population transfers, and so on. Naturally, the polemics of those years often clouded and skewed clearer perspectives. I have used those analyses to examine evolving discrepancies among the visions of the revolution promoted by the Sandinista Front, the revolution presented by the films, and the revolution on the ground.
In the end, while the Popular Sandinista Revolution was heralded and theorized about as a new form of revolution, its filmmaking experiment ultimately wrote the epitaph to a long tradition of militant, revolutionary filmmaking. This book seeks to rescue that national experiment in film--once the popular art par excellence--from historical oblivion as accelerating globalization and technological change threaten to engulf such efforts of national cultural expression.