The World Stopped Watching
A sea of Nicaraguan Contra rebels raising clenched fists on October 12, 1989. (Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Nicaragua became one of the biggest news stories of the 1980's after the successes of the leftist Sandinistas, who overthrew the ruling Somoza family, attracted the hostility of the U.S.
Today, all but forgotten, Nicaragua lies in ruins, it's economy devastated. Civil strife and natural disasters have made it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, one where more than 25 percent of the population struggles to survive on less than one dollar per day.
Now, for the first time, see unprecedented behind the scenes images and interviews as Canadian documentary filmmaker, journalist and writer Peter Raymont takes you into the forgotten country of Nicaragua in his award-winning film The World Stopped Watching.
Through images rarely seen in Western media today, this provocative 58-minute documentary (also available in an 82-minute feature length version) takes you on a journey through Nicaragua from starving families living off a garbage dump, to a survivor of a murderous Contra attack, from a meeting with legendary Sandinista commander Julio Ochoa, to an interview with former president Daniel Ortega.
The World Stopped Watching is a must see tribute to the Nicaraguan people and their strength.
The film is a sequel to The World is Watching (1987), a cinéma vérité investigation of the role played by U.S. and European television and print journalists and the major news media, in covering the U.S.-financed Contra War against Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinista government.
In 1979, the Sandinistas ousted the repressive Somoza Dynasty that had ruled Nicaragua with the backing of the U.S. for five decades.
Ronald Reagan responded to this "communist threat" by suspending aid and establishing a CIA funded counter revolutionary force, the Contras, consisting of former Somoza loyalists. The ensuing David vs. Goliath war lasted almost a decade and resulted in 30,000 civilian deaths.
Bill Gentile, a Newsweek photographer, made a name for himself photographing the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras.
In The World Stopped Watching, Gentile talks about his profession: "One of the facets of journalism is that we as journalists have to help set the agenda — not just pander to the lowest common denominator of reader or viewer interest. We have to converge to a certain degree, with the people and the causes and the movements that we believe are important and fight along with them to reach a higher goal. That's our job."
Randolph "Ry" Ryan's columns for the Boston Globe challenged Washington's war against the Sandinistas. The U.S. government used the Contras to carry out their strategy of low intensity conflict - an issue Ryan wanted his readers to understand.
In the film Ryan sums up why he was there: "Nicaragua gave me an opportunity to do good work ... to be a leader in trying to make a case that needed to be made. The overwhelming issue to me was that this little country and this government trying to transform a society that needed to be transformed, was being stomped on in a hundred ways illegitimately by my government ... and not enough people were saying that loud and clear."
For Gentile and Ryan, Nicaragua was more than just another assignment. It was an opportunity to witness history in the making.
The promise of the revolution dissolved in 1990 when Daniel Ortega, the symbol of the Sandinistas, lost the election to the U.S. backed candidate.
Since then Nicaragua has been forgotten by the international media who moved on to more exciting hot spots.Without the press, the world stopped watching Nicaragua.
In 2002, filmmakers Peter Raymont and Harold Crooks returned to Nicaragua along with Gentile and Ryan to discover what became of the first revolution to be conducted in the glare of the world media, and to see what happened to the people and stories they had covered.
Directed by Peter Raymont, this documentary demonstrates that the only thing worse for a Third World country than being trapped in the glare of the U.S. media, is being ignored by the U.S. media.
One of the most chilling scenes in The World Stopped Watching is film footage from 1984 of freelance Belgian cameraman, Jan Van Bilsen, literally walking into a massacre. The footage shows Jan coming upon a wedding party that had been ambushed by Contra soldiers. Eleven people were dead. The next day Jan and other passengers are pulled off a bus, and even though Jan fears for his life he keeps his camera rolling and interviews the Commander of the Espinoza Regiment "Jimmy Leo" who allegedly took part in the wedding party massacre the day before.
As part of the film's exploration of the remarkable reconciliation between the "compas" and contras, Van Bilsen, and Gilles Paquin of Montreal's La Presse conduct an extraordinary interview with Fremio Altamirano, a member of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party and a National Assembly member for the ruling party coalition. During the Contra war, Altamirano fought under the nomme de guerre, "Jimmy Leo." Van Bilsen and Paquin confront Altamirano with his notorious past and his transformation from demon to statesman is one of many scenes that will keep you riveted to the film.
Despite the scenes of poverty and sadness in The World Stopped Watching, there are also signs that the country is moving beyond the past.
One of Bill Gentile's Sandinista Army contacts in the 80's was legendary military captain Julio Ochoa.
In the film, Gentile explains that after the war, Ochoa abandoned the life of the military. Although Ochoa comes from a family of staunch Sandinistas he told Gentile "Today we are brothers — [Contra] Resistance Army, Sandinista Popular Army, and Nicaraguan Resistance."
In a poignant scene Gentile asks: "Do you think the Nicaraguan people have learned something from this historic lesson?" Ochoa's friend sadly answered, "I think it must have taught us something because for me there are no winners. The truth is — we were killing our brothers."
Ochoa and Gentile discussed the whole idea of convergence in The World Stopped Watching. Ochoa feels men who are on opposite sides have this collective sense of union of convergence among them — to struggle not against each other, but with each other and for each other, for a life better than the one they had before. The people of Nicaragua are looking forward — not to what Nicaragua used to be, but to what Nicaragua can be.
Ochoa goes on to say, "It's really important ... that you journalists are here ... it motivates the people. And when the people know that people are watching and that they are under the spotlight again — no matter how small and brief that spotlight is, it's important because it gives them the sense that they belong to this larger community of the world and not just Nicaragua."
Ryan and Gentile interview former president Daniel Ortega, who in a fascinating exchange says: "Never in the history of Nicaragua has this country been so x-rayed by the international press and the American press as it was in the 1980's. The coverage that the international press gave to the struggle that we faced in the 1980's played a very important role in presenting the Nicaraguan drama and to motivate and stimulate the public opinion around the world. There was an extraordinary effort by North American journalists to try to show this.
"But on the other hand there was a lot of pressure by the U.S. administration on the owners of the media...we were in a situation that had to do with the U.S. concept of empire. The owners of the media are part of that empire. And in the end if they have to choose between justice and empire — they will choose empire."
Daniel Ortega goes on to say: "It's painful now to see the international community and the international media so far from Nicaragua and Central America. There's no war, so there's no media. No international community, no more money. Now in Central America we are fighting another war. The one we didn't win. The war against poverty, misery, unemployment and child mortality. But that's not news of course."
The World Stopped Watching also highlights the fact that few in the international press covered the scandalous looting of the national treasury of US $100 million in public funds by former president Arnoldo Aleman and his cronies. Aleman, the first Nicaraguan leader ever charged with corruption was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison. Much of this historic story was unwitnessed and unreported according to the film, except for a few journalists like Gilles Paquin who has continued to aggressively cover Nicaragua. In the documentary he interviews the female judge Juana Mendez, who relentlessly pursued the Aleman case. Paquin's interview with Judge Mendez takes place before Aleman was found guilty. She tells Paquin, "This phenomenon — justice before politics — has significance. Throughout the world, not just in Nicaragua, this has created an atmosphere where getting this resolved is a real possibility."
Bringing Aleman to justice is not only incredible for Nicaragua but sends a message across Latin America that the long tradition of political corruption is over.
In The World Stopped Watching Paquin also interviews Nicaragua's current President Enrique Bolanos who says he is committed to ending the country's tradition of government corruption. Despite Bolanos' promise to fight corruption, the country is so poor and polarized few dare to hope that there will be any real change.
Nicaraguans paid dearly for their long struggle against dictatorship and foreign intervention. As narrated so hauntingly in the film, Nicaraguans suffered for years as brother killed brother. They have been manipulated, used and ultimately abandoned by the international press.
But there is a spirit of reconciliation in the air. Society is trying desperately to rebuild itself. And while the international media might not think so, their struggle to control their destiny is a huge story.
It is hoped that The World Stopped Watching will be used widely in media literacy and development education. For more information about how to order the film, visit http://www.frif.com/new2003/wsw.html. The video is also available for single-copy sales and educational distribution from the National Film Board of Canada at http://www.nfb.ca or directly from White Pine Pictures at http://www.whitepinepictures.com.