For Nicaraguan youth growing up in poverty, a chance to learn new skills and better their lives is a rare and welcome opportunity.
For a group of youths in Granada, that opportunity came unexpectedly in the form of a video camera and the caring tutelage of Thalia Drori, an independent U.S. filmmaker who four years ago established Granada Filmmakers (Cineastas de Granada), a small film and video production school.
“I don’t have money to give, but I have a skill,” Drori says.
And what she saw here – the darker underbelly of picturesque Granada’s tourism industry – convinced her to employ that skill to help young women at-risk.
Prostitution, Drori says, is a “tempting career for a young girl with no prospects.” Equally upsetting, she said, are the young girls who throw themselves at older foreign men in hopes of marrying into better circumstances.
“I’ve seen mothers push their 12-year-old daughters on men,” Drori says.
But it was more than that. The bigger problem is the lack of well-paying jobs, Drori says, noting that one of the few options available for young Nicaraguan women is to become a nanny or maid.
In a country that has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Central America, and where domestic abuse is a widespread problem, Drori says women “are always going to be second-class citizens.”
For that reason, Granada Filmmakers has focused on working with teenage girls. “Here are all these women with great stories to tell – and here’s a chance, a venue for them to tell those stories,” Drori says.
The program offers a safe place for the girls to learn new skills and become more self-confident – so much so, Drori jokes, that now many of them “boss people around and tell them what they want.”
In four years, the Granada Filmmakers program has graduated five young women, ages 14 to 25. Students come from Granada and surrounding communities and begin by learning the basics of script-writing, camera operating, lighting and editing. Eventually they produce short films based on their own ideas.
Set up as a two- to three-year program, students who make it to the advanced classes produce a larger film project.
One such film that continues to be shown in festivals around the world is “The Condom Squad,” a comedic adventure produced here in 2007 about a working class girl who is saved from having sex without protection by the Condom Squad, a motley crew of teenagers (NT, Feb. 2, 2007).
As the film program has gained word-of-mouth reputation in Granada, several twenty-somethings have also taken an interest in participating.
Nadieska Mena, 22, started with Granada Filmmakers two years ago and has become more “determined” with time, Drori says.
Mena has also noticed the change in herself.
“I learned a lot of things, above all how to express what I feel,” Mena says. “And to express my ideas and speak more fluidly because I am shy when it comes to talking. So it has helped me a lot to have less fear.” For Mena’s advanced-class film project, she produced what Drori calls “slices of life” of her hometown, Diriomo, outside of Granada.
Hoping the film effort might help draw tourism to her town, the first 10-minute documentary, “The Sculptor,” is about an 80-year-old stone carver in her town. The film had its first screening in Granada at a recent graduation celebration held for the students in July.
After the screening, Mena was approached by several people interested in talking to her about the possibility of future production work.
“I’m very happy because I think with this opportunity I am going to be able to be independent,” Mena says.
She says she hopes the experience will lead to paying work, so she can save some money to travel and study.
“I realize what I want now, so I am looking for help finding a university scholarship,” Mena says.
She is also helping Granada Filmmakers produce its next big project, a documentary about LakeCocibolca.
The largest lake in Nicaragua, Cocibolca is polluted daily with raw sewage and garbage. Yet for hundreds of people living along its shores, the lake water is still used for laundry, dishes, bathing and even drinking.
Drori said the film about lake conservation will become part of a media campaign to save the lake.
The director for the project is Jaqueline Martínez, a fearless 17-year-old who was chosen for the director’s chair by her peers.
“This has been the best thing that has happened to me in 2009. I am a director… I have made new friends with the girls,” Martínez says.
But things have not always been so easy. Martínez’s father was murdered before her second birthday.
“It has been difficult. My mother has been alone and maintaining the family by herself, through great struggle,” she says.
With four other siblings, money has always been short. “If I had a dad maybe I wouldn’t be working and I would be in high school,” she says.
Still, Martínez remains optimistic and describes her family as “poor in money but rich in love.” With plans to attend high school next year, she wants to keep working in film.
Involving Men, Too
More recently, Drori expanded Granada Filmmakers to include young men in the program, too.
It was through this class offered to men that Julio Ramírez became involved. Now the technical assistant to Drori, “Saint Julio” – as she calls him – has a knack for fixing anything, even a tape that Drori’s puppy had chewed on.
The 23-year-old Ramírez, living independently from his parents, says his one-year involvement with the film school has made him “more confident than before.” Ramírez says his planned trip to the United States with Drori, visa pending, will allow him to present the videos of the filmmakers and look for support to keep the program going.
Cash-Strapped, but Determined
Drori, who is returning to the United States in August to fundraise and teach a film course at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, admits that running the film school is a full-time job that is sapping her personal resources.
“I’m broke,” she said, adding that over the past four years she has “spent thousands a year that I don’t have to keep it going.”
Unfortunately, the cash-strapped school will have to go on a hiatus until December when Drori returns. She hopes to raise enough money to keep the school going and eventually hand it over entirely to a Nicaraguan protégé.
Drori does not expect all her students to pursue futures in film production, but she makes sure they walk away with business cards, resumes, and a DVD of their work.
In some cases, she helps them make follow-up calls to find work. And there have been some successes. Martínez worked for a bit with a Managua-based production company, and Ramírez is looking forward to his first film project about a veterinary clinic upon his return from the United States.
Drori says film work can be a long, “frustrating” process. But at the screenings, when everyone is applauding and she sees that her students “feel really good about themselves – then it makes it all worthwhile.”
And by placing a video camera in the hands of young women and men and giving them a chance to write a script about the world around them, Drori is helping them take ownership over their lives.
For more information about Granada Filmmakers and how you can help, visit www.cinegranada.org