Carla's Song: The Plague

By Sally Hibbin

For me, one of the most nail-biting moments of our time in Nicaragua was the period of ‘the plague’. Echoing some sci-fi horror, an unidentified disease was spreading down the country, causing people’s internal organs to fatally haemorrhage. Rumours abounded – was it a form of dengue or a form of malaria, how was it spread, how close was it getting, were our crew at risk? I had constant contact with the health authorities and it became clear that people were dying were those who lived in unhygienic conditions, those who were ill-fed (most of the rural population) and those who did not report the symptoms early enough believing it to be just another attack of dengue which is endemic to the region. As it reached the outskirts of Esteli, where we were staying, it was identified (as a virus spread by rats urine – the plague, in fact) and immediately an antidote became available. The saga was one of those incidents which convinces you that although you live in a country for some time, you never really share the life of the locals.


During our time in the north of the country we filmed in two small villages. In Ducuale, we prepped for a month and shot for a week, involving the whole population in one way or another. We had, of course, paid for their labour, but the concept of a location fee is unknown in Nicaragua so we asked what we could do to help the village to say thank you for their hospitality and support. After lengthy discussion we agreed that we would create a fund to help them solve their water problems – for professional advice and material costs. Arinal, where we filmed for a couple of days, was even poorer. A co-operative formed during the revolution, it was in danger of the bank foreclosing on its land and losing its tiny hold on survival. When we asked them what we could do to say thank you, they asked for help to repair their church! After much soul-searching (on our side) we explained this wasn’t quite what we had in mind and, once again, we left money to help with their water problems.

Capitan Betanco

The Nicaraguan army provided facilities, people, guns, transport and all sorts of back-up that we needed both in front and behind the camera. Being female, I was somewhat apprehensive about how we forged such close links with the men of the army but we encountered nothing but respect and co-operation – and barely a hint of machismo from the male-dominated military. Nicaragua prides itself on being a nation of poets and one or two of these very gentle and welcoming army guys became warm friends. They told me about how they had all joined the army as revolutionaries and about the choices they now faced as it changed into a career army of the Nicaraguan state. It was with a sense of shock then that, one day, as we stood on the location for an ambush sequence and asked Capitan Betanco how the battle might have been waged, I listened with amazement and a sense of growing horror as he described in graphic simplicity how he would have conducted the attack. For the first time, I understood that these guys – who I had encountered as so gentle – had fought and survived a war on the ground for the best part of 15 years. I still struggle to reconcile the two images and cannot imagine how anybody fights such a cruel war for so long and yet manages to retain their warmth and humanity.

Land and Freedom

During preparation, the Cinematecca was hosting a week of European Culture and the British Ambassador asked us to donate a film. So Land and Freedom opened the event to an audience of government functionaries and diplomats. In many ways, Land and Freedom resonates with Nicaragua’s problems – land reform, the disbanding of a revolutionary army, the hopes and aspirations for socialism. I watched the film in terror, fearing that the government (who were generously hosting Carla's Song without once asking to read the script) would throw us out once they realised the strength of our politics. But the Vice-Minister of Culture (who wore short skirts, silk blouses and stockings – a sure sign that she only returned from Miami when the Sandinista were defeated) praised Land and Freedom for its honesty and accuracy and hoped we brought the same qualities to our Nicaraguan film.