A still from the documentary "River Tales" shows schoolchildren from a small town on the San Juan river in Nicaragua
Photo: Martine Hemmer
Luxembourg’s 2021 Oscar nomination is a multilayered story that has yet to be shown in the country in which it was shot.
On the surface, “River Tales”, Julie Schroell’s gentle and poetic snapshot of life in a Nicaraguan town on the San Juan river is an antidote for our stationary times.
The documentary follows theatre teacher Yemn and local children in El Castillo as they tell the river’s history in a play. Through the unfolding story of five centuries of colonisation, from the Spanish conquistadors to what at the time was the 73rd bid for an international oceanic canal through the area, Yemn encourages the children to think of their own stakes.
Such reflection is a powerful tool in a country where censorship is widespread. “That was a big obstacle,” Schroell says. “The first time I was there, I could still travel along this future canal route and talk to people. A few months later, the authorities arrested people for reporting on this topic.”
Schroell, who spent five years on the project, found a workaround, collaborating with a local firm and hiring cameraman Frank Pineda, a hero from the Nicaraguan revolution.
The film itself is not openly critical. “I adapted it into something more subtextual and poetic. Even if it’s not openly critical, you can read between the lines.” The end credits lay out the situation more starkly--in 2018, Yemn fled to Costa Rica after participating in a civil movement against President Ortega. “That’s why the film hasn’t yet been shown in Nicaragua. We don’t want to endanger these families,” the Luxembourger says. “These people are already poor and vulnerable. It’s a pity, these kids should see how great they are.”
Some cast members, like Christa, who plays the river, have flourished since the film was shot; others have been hard hit by the pandemic. The 2021 presidential elections add further to the community’s uncertainty as does the perennial shadow of the canal developers who, despite the canal being mothballed, may have other plans for the region. “Even if it’s not built, it’s a big problem,” says Schroell.
The Oscar nomination, for which the shortlist will be announced on 9 February, is not the only big news for 2021. Schroell is negotiating for the video-on-demand rights to stream the documentary in France. An episode she has made for TV series “Some of Us”, about discrimination in elite sports, will be released the same year.
This article was originally published in the January 2021 edition of Delano Magazine