It's all over now: Robert Carlyle (left), plays a Glaswegian bus-driver who has found himself unexpectedly involved in the life of Nicaraguan people such as Carla (inset, right), provides a viewpoint for British people to share
GILBERT MARKUS O.P. previews a film which breaks the mould — a film that takes a serious look at the situation of real people whose struggle for justice engaged the sympathy of many in the Christian Churches
THE RECENT BAFTA preview in Glasgow of Ken Loach's new film, Carla's Song, was not its first showing. It had already been screened in a Nicaragua village to poor workers, campesinos, ex-soldiers and mothers of lads shot during the Contra war. This was their film. It was largely shot in their country, and it was their story it told. Ken Loach is one of those directors whose gift it is to give a voice in film to those who normally have no voice.
How many films have we seen in which the poor population of a whole country is reduced to the level of a scenic backdrop, so that in the foreground the principal (white, male, professional) character can have an existential crisis in an exotic location? Think of Cry Freedom, Under Fire, Salvador — worthy films all. But this Hollywood format is not Ken Loach's style. There is nothing patronising, nothing condescending about Carla's Song. The love affair between a Glasgow bus-driver and a Nicaraguan exile is woven into the political tale of Nicaragua's revolution — health care, land reform and US-backed terrorism — to make a whole in which two small countries recognise each other as equals. It is this recognition that makes Carla's Song unusual for the film industry.
Also unusual was the Glasgow preview at the end of January. Where one might have expected the usual furcoated thespians, film-industry investors, screengoddesses and their friends, I found doctors, teachers, mining engineers, nurses. Some of these people I had hardly seen since 1986 or '87, when they were training midwives in Esteli in Nicaragua's northern conflictzone, or building a health centre in Rivas, or teaching literacy in Managua. Many worked for Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua.
For these, Carla's Song is something of an act of remembrance. It expresses that hunger and thirst for justice which drove many of them to commit years of their young lives to a cause. It rekindles the vision of international solidarity which they shared, what former Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge called "tenderness between peoples".
The film itself was written by Paul Laverty, a Glaswegian human rights lawyer who worked for years in Nicaragua during the Sandinista period. Laverty's script leads the viewer gradually into a deeper understanding of Nicaragua's history, beginning with a personal relationship and ending with the political reality: the revolution, the tyranny which it overthrew and the hope it gave to Nicaragua's poor. Though the film's events are fictional, they are all based on real events, and even partly on real individuals.
Many people were puzzled by the sudden interest of Christians in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. What is it all about? Why is it so important? Why all the fuss? In Carla's Song, Laverty begins to answer these questions. While not dealing explicitly in religious matters, he reveals the true underlying causes of the conflict with almost Biblical clarity and in terms so passionately moral as to lend his script a prophetic passion: the dawning of liberation for an oppressed people and the Regan Administration's drive to crush that movement at the very start.
There is no sign in the film of the ultimate fate of Nicaragua's revolution, since it is set in 1987, but viewers ten years later know that the process was finally crushed by years of war. In the 1990 elections, the US effectively said to the people of Nicaragua, "Either you vote for our candidate, or we continue to make war, we continue to kill your children and to sabotage your economy." And the exhausted Nicaraguans voted for UNO, a bizarre collection of communists, conservatives and former Contras who would systematically dismantle the advances of the 1980s.
Carla's Song is therefore not only an act of remembrance, but also an accusation. Laverty is a lawyer, he believes in and understands the rule of law and its power to defend the weak against the strong. Human rights laws, the US's own Constitution, the international laws of war were all violated by the Reagan and Bush administration during their campaign to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. They and their colleagues are too powerful (or too much in the shadows) to be touched by law, but they are nevertheless responsible, and they are on trial here.As Laverty said when his film won the Venice Film Festival Prize for the film that best promoted the values of "civil progress and solidarity": "If we lived in a truly civilised world, the two exPresidents of the United States would be tried as war criininals...there's a bigger chance that Scotland might win the World Cup, but we live in hope."
Meanwhile the film stands as a witness for the prosecution. It is a witness on behalf of love and justice in the case against power, corruption and deceit. It is an acknowledgement that the truth is worth speaking, even when it 'has no power but its own truthfulness. These are things we need reminding of, over and over again.
Carla's Song opens in British cinemas this month.