Loma Verde: Through our own looking glass
Latin America is one of the most unequal regions on Earth,
and Central America today, 200 years after its independence,
is still Latin America’s most unequal region, and its most violent,
notorious for homicides, armed gangs, paramilitaries and drug cartels.
But there are also other kinds of violence, ones kept more unspoken,
that make development unsustainable and democracy a falsehood.
Several of these kinds of violence are vividly reflected in Loma Verde,
a Nicaraguan TV series that realistically reflects everyday life
in several rural Central American countries.
María López Vigil
Violence against women is an endlessly repeating cycle in thousands of households in Central America. Incest and sexual abuse of young and adolescent girls have the characteristics of a pandemic in our region. The machismo that drives these tragedies is internalized; as much a part of our culture as the daily tortilla. The mass migration of Central Americans in search of a better future has a lot to do with this cancer, which is inextricably mixed with inequalities, in which men spend their lives trapped in a toxic masculinity and women only find meaning in imposed motherhood, existences in which inevitable suffering is repeated over and over again. The Nicaraguan television series Loma Verde (Green Hill) talks and teaches about all of this clearly, intelligently, bluntly and, oddly enough, with Nicaraguans’ ever-present humor, one of the most important keys to its success.
In the Kingdom of Heartbreak
Years ago, the journalist Sofía Montenegro described Nicaragua’s sexual culture as the “Kingdom of Heartbreak.” It’s not very different from the rest of the region. The individual dramas caused by sexuality experienced in this way lead to a succession of social dramas: early pregnancies, unwanted children, abortions, suicides, femicides, addictions, sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, human trafficking...
The foundations of the common home, Central America, have been built with this mortar. How can we build walls of democracy and development, of authentic independence, if we don’t begin to consider very seriously what we keep hidden in the cellar of the house? The walls will collapse if this isn’t taken into account.
Data speaks: according to the Regional Team for the Monitoring and Analysis of Human Rights in Central America, 2,200 femicides were recorded between January 2018 and August 2019 in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), an average of 110 women murdered a month. The Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras confirms this, documenting 30 femicides in January 2020, the majority committed by the victim’s partner or former partner.
There are also other countless, continuous and constant, less extreme forms of violence against women. According to data from the Children’s Rights Observatory in Guatemala, at least 5,133 girls aged 10 to 14 years old got pregnant in 2019; 14 a day on average. According to the Observatory of the Institutional Coordinating Office for the Promotion of Children’s Rights (CIPRODENI), 111,216 girls aged 15 to 19 became pregnant that year: on average 12 adolescent pregnancies per hour, most as a result of sexual violence. Abortion of these forced pregnancies is permitted in Guatemala only if the mother’s life or health is in danger. Not even that exempts it from criminalization in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
According to a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean published over a decade ago, “a third of Latin Americans came into the world as unwanted children.” What will be the consequences in so many of our people’s lives from starting life in this way? Has this alarming figure changed in the last ten years?
This reality is the background to much of what is reflected in the Nicaraguan television series Loma Verde.
Félix Zurita, documentary filmmaker
When the Spanish filmmaker Félix Zurita de Higes came to Nicaragua in 1981, attracted by the young Sandinista revolution, he had already begun to translate into images what he had learned from studying Sociology and Political Science at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He worked in various media as a correspondent but in 1984, frustrated by biased information about Nicaragua, he created Alba Films, a film and video production company based in Spain, Switzerland and Nicaragua with the vision of building communication bridges between the North and South.
In 1993, with both the revolution and the civil war over, he helped create the Fundación Luciérnaga
In more than 25 years Luciérnaga has produced dozens of documentaries and audiovisuals on environmental issues, childhood, sexual rights, the rural world, food sovereignty, human rights… Hundreds of other films made in Nicaragua and other Central American countries were also recovered and today Luciérnaga has a documentation center in Managua for audiovisual materials from the entire region.
Opening closed doors
“A documentary converts reality into images, and a good documentary captures that moment of authenticity that is there in any reality on which we focus the camera,” says Zurita.
When Luciérnaga was created, communication for development in Nicaragua was in its infancy. It began to fill that void, producing audiovisuals financed by international cooperation to help raise awareness about different issues and for campaigns. More than 70 documentaries were produced with the Luciérnaga label, always with international NGO funding.
Nicalibre (1996) and Ya no más (2005) were two of the most famous: Nicalibre (Free Nica), for the ironic critical clout with which the images and sequences document the transition from the revolutionary dreams of the 1980s to the stark neoliberal pragmatism of the 1990s; and Ya no más (I ‘ve had enough), for the realism with which the camera captured moments and testimonies of the ubiquitous machismo that lies behind and spurs on so many forms of violence suffered by women in their relationships with men.
“Making Ya no más had a very strong impact on me,” recalls Félix. “It’s one thing to know that sexist violence exists and another to feel it up close, to accompany the victims. Listening to the women I interviewed, I thought about how many other problems, as serious as domestic violence, remained hidden behind the houses’ closed doors. I faced a pain that was so commonplace and so trivialized, which didn’t take place on the battlefields but in the house next door. I found that very many women secretly bore that burden and survived by concealing or masking their wounds, both by putting on make-up to go out and look good, and by keeping quiet about what they felt. Starting with Ya no más, it became clear to me that it’s useless, not to mention ridiculous, to talk about human development, sustainable development, any development, if the profound reality so many women are enduring is ignored. I felt that if I didn’t continue talking seriously about the other forms of violence suffocating more than half the population, women, there would be no development in Nicaragua.”
Loma Verde was conceived from this experience, with these insights. Educating for development requires bringing out into the open what was never talked about: the many expressions of machismo accepted by both men and women, and normalized in Nicaragua for centuries.
In its four seasons, its 40 episodes, the TV series opened the closed doors of silence, of shame, of fear of speaking about sexual abuse, maternity imposed by rape and the dilemma these pregnancies represent. It brought up the issue of sexual diversity. It highlighted not only the macro-machismo that wounds and kills but also the micro-machismo that is barely even acknowledged. It presented the narratives that lead to human trafficking and migration and also denounced religion based on fear, which betrays the Golden Rule in Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew7, 11): Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you.
2010: Teaching about HIV
When making the documentary Ya no más, Zurita realized that such dramatic issues, based on interviews and personal testimonies, make for very good documentaries but can put the women who decide to talk about their experiences at risk. “I realized I had to find another format.”
In the later years of the revolution, Nicaragua was enraptured by the Brazilian TV series Roque Santeiro, which broke audience records. In the 1990s, national television was inundated year after year with Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan soap operas, which competed with the fare from Brazil, with its superior quality plots and acting. All were passionately followed by a massive television audience.
More than 60 TV series were being broadcast daily at different times on Nicaraguan open TV channels in 2010, when Félix was thinking about which format to explore in order to talk about the wide range of sexist violence. The screen was saturated with clichéd relationships between men and women, filling people’s heads with trite stories about “romantic love.”
It isn’t easy to produce films and videos in Nicaragua. There are no public funds for cultural projects and not many private funds either. That only leaves the NGOs, and in 2010 several of them hired Luciérnaga to produce audiovisual materials to raise awareness in the rural population about the risks of HIV transmission. While HIV was known about on a global level since 1981, it wasn’t until 1987 that the first case of HIV was detected in Nicaragua. When Luciérnaga set out to produce an educational audiovisual on this subject, HIV was already an epidemic elsewhere in Central America, but in Nicaragua’s rural communities, people said, “it isn’t true.”
Make a TV series!
The Luciérnaga crew produced not one but two 20-minute audiovisuals. They were structured differently, with plot continuity, no longer strictly documentaries. They had that magical “hook” that captures the curiosity written into all human beings’ social brain: a fascination with the narrative, the story, and also with gossip, rumor and the bedroom… with wanting to know what happens to whom and why, and what happens afterwards… Knowing what happens next in a story and how it ends is always exciting… it attracts and captivates.
“Our success was to make a fictional story with the reality of a documentary,” Félix recalls, “and that was the igniting spark. I didn’t know how to make anything other than documentaries, but what we accomplished was so attractive that at the end of those first two episodes we decided to continue with the story, adding characters, linking their conflicts, touching on several issues, not just HIV... To make a TV series! I had never seen a whole one in my life, so I applied myself to watching a lot of them. Yes, this was the way to go: it ensures the viewers’ loyalty so they follow a story that develops over a long period, with continuity. And in a TV series we could give many messages, not a single isolated one. It would allow me to address commonplace and also intimate issues but without putting anyone at risk.”
The shortest or even very lengthy Netflix series of today in Spanish, all first cousins to Latin American TV series, are trending as a means of entertainment, information, knowledge and—whether intended or not—even education for development… or for social change.
2013: Successful premiere
With the first 10 episodes ready, the TV series Loma Verde premiered in Nicaragua in January 2013 on Channel 14 and on the 35 local TV stations that existed at that time in Nicaragua. It was a success.
In this first season, the plot is centered on the conflict between Merche and Chico, the lead couple. It reconstructs step by step the stages in the cycle of violence, starting with when Chico cheats on Merche and gives her HIV, and culminating in his attempt to kill her.
The story takes us to Loma Verde, a small rural community of just 20 houses in Northern Nicaragua in the district of El Portón, so similar to many others in Central America: replete with the local shaman-healer, the Evangelical pastor, barrooms, billiard parlors, dances with music from juke boxes, rodeos, the surrounding coffee plantations that also attract migrant workers from other parts of the country during the picking season, and the inevitable conflicts of limited horizons, sometimes a living hell… As the story progresses, other characters appear: Chico’s friend Toño; Toño’s wife Moncha; Julissa; Julissa’s uncle; a female friend of Merche’s; and in a later season Jessica…
Loma Verde was first advertised in Nicaragua as a “provincial” TV series, a story about the rural world. It soon stopped being promoted that way when it was found that other sectors were following it. Did that show that Nicaragua’s urbanized sectors have a rural mentality? Or do problems of sexist violence have common denominators in both rural and urban areas? Were there still so many Lomas verdes in Nicaragua? The success of the series’ in Central America soon thereafter indicated that there are also many throughout our region, evidence that we are “united” in these perpetual dramas and are too much alike.
A tool for reflection
Like other Luciérnaga products, Loma Verde was designed as a discussion tool for raising awareness and also to move beyond home TV sets. Since the premiere of its first season, Luciérnaga promoters—accompanied by actors from the series—have gone out into communities, schools, organizations and institutions throughout the country to organize forums and promote dialogue after watching the “movie,” a 90-minute abridged version that picks out the main issues in the 10 episodes. Pulling together larger groups in the field showed that the tool worked to make people think.
“In the forums,” recalls Félix, “discussion was strengthened by the fact that they had never seen reflected on screen their homes; their faces; their way of laughing; crying, doubting and fearing; their sayings and ways of talking—including Nicaraguans’ use of vos instead of the more universal tu as the second-person pronoun. They found it all fascinating!”
People were totally into the story, but conducting a discussion afterwards about issues that “aren’t talked about” wasn’t easy. “Working with men in the forums about what they understood it means ‘to be a man,’ the main issue in the first 10 episodes, was tricky,” recalls Marvin Corrales, who played the shaman-healer to whom Chico and Toño turn “to cure them of AIDS”. “We watched the movie and when Chico and Toño appeared, acting out their machismo, the men laughed a nervous laugh
; I call it a gallows laugh. But later, in the discussion, they didn’t say a word.”
One of the Luciérnaga promoters recalled that “it was different with the women. Many of them cried to see the ways Chico wronged Merche. They saw themselves in it. There were emotional breakdowns when we tried to analyze the stages in the cycle of violence with them. At the beginning we were unprepared for some reactions. We learned as we went along.”
Another promoter added that “we have to pry things out of the men. Among young people, the girls seem more eager to talk, while we have to ask the boys questions. And they talk even less if we put a microphone in front of them.”
Whether on the television’s small screen or the forums’ large one, the series did its job: to raise awareness. “One guy told us that a neighbor confided to him in the street that ‘my woman is watching Loma Verde, and I’m worried she’s going to get riled up,” recalled a promoter. Another added that “I always remember a woman who after the movie said she was like Merche, experiencing violence… without knowing it.”
To the farthest corners of Nicaragua
With the success of the first season, Félix and his crew obtained funding to produce another 10 episodes. In mid- 2015, while they were filming, Channel 2, which has national coverage, replayed the first season at prime time on Saturday evenings, the same spot occupied for years by the very popular Univision Spanish language variety program Sábado Gigante. It was an Olympic leap. In the crew they proudly said, “That year we reached every last corner of Nicaragua.”
Félix recalls, “One Saturday, when we finished filming in Esquipulas, the technical crew and the whole cast were walking down the town’s main street just when Channel 2 was broadcasting an episode of the series. From their houses, people watched us go by in bewilderment. It was as if the characters they were seeing on their televisions had stepped out of the screen and were passing by waving to them… It was a moment of total confusion between fiction and reality. We understood more clearly the power of the communication format we had chosen for speaking to them.”
In January 2016, when everything was ready to launch the second season, Channel 10, which had the largest national audience, also ran the first season again.
In the second season the main issue is sexual abuse and incest. Julissa, 16 years old, is stalked and raped by her uncle and becomes pregnant. Her story reflects a reality that eats away at the foundations of Nicaraguan society, in which those who survive it don’t talk, whether from pain, shame or fear.
In these 10 episodes, the shaman-healer—who one intuits is gay—begins to come into focus. The series touches on the issue of sexual diversity through this character, who is so much a part of particularly rural peoples’ social fabric, even though imported stigma views such figures negatively.
“It was a challenge to me to play this character,” says Corrales. “I was helped by a Garífuna buyei I met in Honduras. That’s what Garífunas call their shamans, whom they respect a lot. He dressed as a woman. In the Garífuna culture the masculine and feminine are valued equally and the buyei are a bridge between both sides of a human being. This helped me a lot in bringing the character to life. My theater teacher always said that every man has a woman inside and every woman has a man inside and told me that when a man can connect with his femininity, he will stop being macho. I got into character with this in mind. Doing it was a social commitment to dignify the many people who are marginalized because of their sexual orientation.”
A captive audience of
hundreds of thousands
Week after week, 800,000 viewers followed the second season. All the characters in Loma Verde were already known, some were loved, others rejected. The series had a captive audience hooked by the stories of people so very like those they know in their own neighborhood or family.
At the end of the second season, by popular demand, Channel 10 provided a Sunday slot in which actors, experts and dedicated fans were interviewed to discuss the content of the series. The TV viewing audience was also large for this specifically educational segment: 400,000 people a week. “In presenting the issues, we opened closed doors in many homes,” recalls Félix, pleased.
In the third and fourth seasons continuity is given to all the problems and how the characters’ lives unfold, reaching extreme situations. By the close of the final season, some kind of end is put to their stories, a more existential one than the usual “happy ending” of so many series.
Migration and human trafficking are the main issues in these last two seasons, filmed in Guatemala and Honduras in 2016. Toño emigrates to the United States and a young woman named Jessica ends up in a brothel in Guatemala after unsuspectingly falling in love with a pimp she met in an Internet café. An additional issue in the third season is a satire on international cooperation, so ubiquitous in our region. A “gringo” appears in Loma Verde working for the NGO “Latrines for the World.” He shows the community how to make ecological latrines. “It was a personal pleasure to include this topic and we have verified that it was pertinent,” says Zurita.
Traveling through Central America
Starting in 2016 Loma Verde decided to leave Nicaragua and travel through Central America, verifying how similar our problems and their concealment are.
It went to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica, even to Mexico. It has been broadcast in these countries, even several times, on national and local public and private television channels, including those of several universities. With the lockdowns due to the pandemic, Loma Verde can be seen on the Luciérnaga Foundation’s YouTube channel and its Facebook page, where online conversations were organized so that Internet users, especially women—who saw an increase in domestic violence with the pandemic—could talk about seeing themselves reflected in the characters
There is total identification in El Salvador and Honduras. The environment in both countries is similar to that of Nicaragua. “In Costa Rica, empathy was particularly aroused in that country’s very large Nicaraguan immigrant community. In Guatemala’s indigenous areas they asked where this series was from and they liked it because the machismo and the realities are very similar,” explained Blanca Gutiérrez, a Luciérnaga promoter.
In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala Luciérnaga has conducted educational and awareness-raising workshops presenting the series to social organizations that work with women, migrants and young people. They watch the movie, discuss what they have seen, and learn that another reality and other male and female role models are possible.
They are given the 40 episodes and 8 leaflets, written material that addresses the various issues that appear in the TV series so that, without having to be an expert, they are able to conduct better prepared discussions in the communities where they work on the series’ issues, in accordance with Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy: starting from reality, analyzing it and, on returning to practice, transforming it, the see-judge-act method that planted and harvested so much critical thinking in Latin America.
Innovative, creative, impactful…
These materials have been handed over to 26 organizations in Guatemala and Honduras, 16 in El Salvador, and more than 50 in Nicaragua. The most widely received compliments describe Loma Verde as an “innovative, creative and impactful” resource.
Blanca Gutiérrez told me, “In Jocotán, Chiquimula, we held a forum with a women’s organization called Tierra Viva (Living Land). The movie we saw was the one with Julissa as the main character. They watched her when she discloses her uncle’s sexual abuse, when her aunt doesn’t believe her, when she learns she is pregnant, when she tells Chico and when she feels alone and doesn’t know what to do about her pregnancy… As the scenes passed, with the lights out, we could hear the sobs of the women present. I can’t forget it. They were Julissa. Another time, also in Guatemala, we presented the series in the Ministry of Culture’s gender area, sharing Julissa’s story to different women from state institutions. We saw one of them leave the room and didn’t know if maybe she disagreed with what we presented in the series. We found out later. The person in charge who went to look for her found her crying in the bathroom. She said this was her story; she and her sister had both been abused by their father, who was now old and the two sisters had to care for him. That’s how it has been in every workshop, in every video-forum; there’re always some people who identify with one of the Loma Verde characters.”
Kedin, a member of the Young Street People’s Movement, who migrated from Honduras to Guatemala, was moved to tears watching the story of a young man and boy found together with Jessica in the fourth season. He saw himself in those two Hondurans on the banks of the Suchiate River. “I lived that; that is my story; seeing this hurts me. I remember when we got to the Suchiate. They killed the boy who came with me and put me into a juvenile detention center.”
Loma Verde cameraman Román Umaña told me, “I took the whole series to my family in the United States. Everyone saw it. My mother’s friends from Colombia and from other countries met together at home. They watched the episodes back-to-back, straight through without stopping. Even though it was made here in Nicaragua, other Latin Americans immediately identify with the scenes, problems and even the language. Once, a quiet elderly woman was crying at the end of an episode: ‘I’m remembering’ she said, ‘what I went through many years ago.’”
Identification and the
demand for a happy ending
In every country, identification with the characters is followed by an assessment in the forums of what the different characters decide to do with their lives. Generally speaking, there is high regard for how Merche “manages to overcome” everything Chico does to her. Although Chico makes us laugh at the beginning of the story, he ends up being unanimously condemned, but Julissa’s uncle gets the greatest condemnation.
There’s no shortage of opinions proposing that Merche “forgive Chico and they reconcile.” The desire for a happy ending comes up even more strongly when Julissa decides to end her pregnancy. This is a very controversial issue that has not been seriously discussed in our societies, remaining trapped among the fears sown by traditional religion, the one preached by men, despite efforts by feminist movements throughout the region.
Many young men in forums in Nicaragua, when asked how they want Julissa to resolve her conflict, say that it would be best for her “to have her child because the baby will make her happy,” without giving it much thought. They expect her to be a “fighter,” just like Merche, certain that this will make her “victorious.”
The ending that adult men would want for Julissa is also revealing. One said, “I would like that girl to find a good man who will love her and tell her: I’m going to take you on with that boy, I’m going to raise him.” Others are less specific, but they also don’t delve into the complexity of a forced pregnancy. “Despite all the adversities she has gone through, she isn’t the only one who has suffered in life; you can’t succeed without it.”
In all the workshops, one unanimous opinion is that governments and States lack accountability in their response to the dramas talked about in Loma Verde. And since NGOs also prompt groups to talk about international cooperation, which has come to replace the role of the absent States in so many areas, criticism is also leveled at it. One Honduran said, “Canadian cooperation is in favor of women and sexual diversity, and that is very good, but it also supports the mining companies in this country. It isn’t good that they defend extractivism.”
with real-life experience
How did Loma Verde manage to integrate the educational with the cultural in a TV series format, addressing such sensitive and painful issues? Félix Zurita acknowledges that it was a “huge challenge because those who usually make these series try to hook people for commercial reasons and we proposed doing it for educational ones.”
They achieved it by working with non-professional actors, most of whom had no acting experience and if they did have some it was in theater. “For what we were doing, theatrical techniques stifle spontaneity. In the theater you have to overact, to project your voice. Here no, here we want to capture even the smallest gestures, even an eye movement,” says Zurita.
They succeeded because their spontaneous, convincing performances, the naturalness in laughing and crying, came from life experiences. “I met Elizabeth Torres (Merche in the series) when we made Ya no más,” says Félix. “Already a feminist and working in theater to raise women’s awareness about their rights, she told me about the violence she had lived through for eight years with her first partner. This is what makes her performance so real. Something similar happened with the other actors: they had either experienced what they were interpreting or had known it from up close. We were filming fiction but all the stories were based on real events, experienced or known about. Some 90% of everything that Loma Verde relates has very specific realities behind it. This allowed us to avoid resorting to interpretation techniques. It was enough to know the experiences and tap into the actors’ own emotions.”
or TV fiction series?
Due to the emotional nature of the performance in this TV series, fiction is confused with reality. It all seems like a documentary, as if the camera is filming life and nobody is acting.
Chico’s violence against Merche is totally convincing. “It was hard for me to play this role,” said Juan Carlos Gutiérrez. “I had to be very violent, to use offensive words, and I’m not like that. But I got swept up by the plot. I was helped in my acting by José Luis, who plays Toño and is closer to being bad. Elizabeth (Juan Carlos’ partner in real life) also helped me a lot to get into the strongest scenes because she really knows about violence.”
Knowing Elizabeth’s past and Juan Carlos’ character, what they both managed to do on camera was surprising. It was so real that they had trouble on the street, such as the time Elizabeth laughingly told me about: “One day the two of us went to a place where they sell delicious enchiladas. The lady who sells them glared at me and when we sat down to eat, she shouted at me: ‘What happens to women in this country is because of women like you!’ I looked at her in surprise. She went on: ‘Why are you still with that shameless man, who should be ashamed to be here!’ When her daughter arrived, she apologized and told us that it’s because her mother watches Loma Verde. The daughter tried to calm her down and explain that we were actors, but it was no good. She continued shouting: ‘I don’t know if it’s a TV series or not, if it’s true or a lie, but I can’t stand the sight of that man!’ We grabbed our enchiladas and left. It made me think about the importance of what we were doing, so real that we couldn’t convince that lady otherwise.”
Leslie Galarza, in the role of Julissa, with no prior experience on camera, is heart wrenching. When I asked her how she did it, she said, “In Jinotega I conducted interviews with adolescents and girls raped by their fathers for a legal facilitators’ project. They were younger than me. Through talking they began to trust me and told me about it. I remember one of them who made me cry. The father had abused her from when she was seven years old, but when she reported him… nothing happened. When acting, I remembered all those girls and I felt a responsibility to represent them. There have also been abortions in my family. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in our society. We have to uncover these problems; sexual abuse that leaves girls pregnant isn’t a private matter.”
The realistic freshness achieved in all the scenes is due to Zurita’s directing and the empathy everyone brought to their work. Some of the actors already knew each other, others didn’t. Building trust between them and getting them to be themselves on camera was crucial. “I told them they could make mistakes, that it didn’t matter if a scene was repeated over and over,” said Félix. “In addition, something very interesting happened: at very emotional moments, Merche, Julissa, Moncha, Toño and Chico sought support from one another, according to the issue and the affinities. They looked to each other for the mirror that would help them access the emotions they had to express. This companionship, this empathy, was decisive. It helped them; it made them feel they weren’t alone. Especially Julissa, who acted in scenes that couldn’t be repeated, where there was no dialogue, just pure emotion.”
Julissa confirmed it: “The presence of others gave me confidence; it helped me especially when we filmed the abortion scenes. All the scenes in the second season were difficult for me. When I tell Chico that I’m pregnant, when I talk with the auntie, when I ask for help to stop the pregnancy, in the scene with Jessica, remembering when we were little girls… I really cried in those scenes. I lost weight, I got sick; the last day I had a high fever. It helped me a lot that Reyna, Elizabeth and Mr. Félix were there with me.”
This connection between the actors created unrepeatable moments and that’s why they are convincing.
A magical connection
The script, with sparkling dialogue, was written and rewritten as they filmed. It was never fully written before filming. “I didn’t take on the role of the demanding director. That flexibility ensured freshness. I told them this is not a script that you have to repeat. It’s just a guide; put it in your own words. That made them feel free and many times things came out that weren’t foreseen and they worked. A scene could be repeated two, five, ten times without affecting the quality. On the fly we would see how the character reacted and many times, if the character didn’t feel what was written, we changed the script. Letting myself go with the flow of a documentary filmmaker’s instinct, I tried to get to what was most real, most genuine. Sometimes I used the surprise factor and didn’t tell them what was going to happen… and it came out more authentic.”
This is how the boundaries between fiction and reality were erased. The actors appropriated the story to the point where the crew no longer knew what was script and what was a real story. That was how personal stories, the ones truly experienced, were superimposed on the stories told in Loma Verde.
“Catching instants, a piece of truth that will never repeat itself; that’s the magic of a good documentary and when it has been caught, what is broadcast can only be truth. Filming fiction with as many imponderables as we had—a truck passing by, we need sun and it rains, or we need rain and the sun is shining—and we did it. There were times when the actors got totally into their characters and created a magical connection between them. We had several of these moments, in both comic and dramatic scenes,” recounts Félix with delight.
No moralizing, condemning or prescribing
The truthfulness achieved had to do with breaking with the TV stereotypes of beautiful, always perfectly made-up characters and also with the words, the language in which the characters always speak.
Educational radio or TV products promoted and later approved by international cooperation organizations—a commercial, a spot, a short, or a video—are often explicitly didactic, overtly moralizing scenes in which the actors use careful, politically correct language rather than talk as they do in life. That’s why their messages come across as stiff.
Does this reflect the paternalism with which these organizations regard the populations with which they cooperate or is it that the traditionalism so deeply rooted in our Central American countries tells them that they can only achieve change through formulas? I think the acceptance achieved by Loma Verde, which broke many unwritten rules, shows that Nicaraguan and Central American society as a whole has changed, although the moralizing discourses of so many political and religious leaders are oblivious to it.
From the first scenes in the first episodes, Loma Verde avoided moralizing, condemning or prescribing. It avoided happy endings, which rarely occur in the complexity of life. It didn’t try to offer formulas to “solve” problems and always opted for promoting open-ended reflections, departing from the traditional practice of so many schools in our region, where they are taught to “be quiet, copy and repeat.”
Learning with laughter
Most important of all: it always included humor, pure Nicaraguan humor, uninhibited, relying on that unsaid saying that more is learned with laughter than with the cane. There were gales of laughter in many episodes. All of them included the knowing laugh and some the understanding smile.
As Félix acknowledged, “This was a bit risky because we had to combine drama with comedy and this either works well or falls flat because the two styles can cancel each other out. It’s the same with the documentary-fiction dichotomy. If the combination works it’s a success but if it doesn’t it’s neither documentary nor fiction. We were constantly toying with that risk because we had no yardstick.”
Machismo isn’t condemned in Loma Verde; it’s presented starkly but also with humor. Lessons but not prescriptions are given and they always include humor and “bad language.”
“I didn’t show any script to the funders,” says Félix. “And from the first season’s first two episodes there was humor where it usually isn’t found and we used strong, vulgar words… I think you have to be real and politically incorrect for the message to reach people. I also think that using realistic language, having the characters speak the way people actually speak, was a good move because it’s crucial that people identify with it. The language of Chico, and of Toño, in which there’s no shortage of humor, makes the macho say: that’s me, that’s how I talk… and that’s what I have done. We don’t believe you can fight against macho violence without including the macho in the equation. That’s why it seemed to be indispensable to also address men, not with well-intended but usually useless sermons, but trying to play their own game, with their own logic and language, and then show the contradictions and the consequences it can have, even for them.”
The challenge of authenticity
Opting to reach every last corner of Nicaragua with a convincing language people actually speak made it necessary to also be careful with all the other details. On the sets, in all the scenes, nothing could be untrue because it would invalidate all the rest, particularly the “message” they wanted to convey. In the scene where Merche gives birth, one of the selected scenes for the movie, she put cotton wool into her ear. She did this because the women in the countryside do it during childbirth.
“Country people don’t watch a film, they observe it, they notice everything,” says Félix. “I proved it when making the audio tracks for the second season. I gave them to a guy from Managua to mix. We had filmed some scenes in the Tisey forest. When he was ready with these episodes, I gave them to a farmer from that area for his opinion. He was absorbed, immersed in the screen, following the whole plot and when I asked him what he thought of it he said: ‘I really like everything but there’s a bird in it I’ve never heard around here.’ I kept thinking about it and discovered that in Managua they had added a “forest birds” sound effect. What most caught that farmer’s attention, the only thing that didn’t seem right to him was that the birdsong wasn’t from his neck of the woods. One doesn’t worry about these things when making fiction. In Loma Verde we had to worry about it. We’re talking about very sensitive issues and therefore everything has to be right so it is credible and convincing.”
Like a mirror
“It’s essential for us to build our own film industry. It’s part of the struggle for a dignified future,” commented Luis Argueta, Guatemalan film director and producer. “A country without its own movies is invisible,” stated María Lourdes Cortés, Costa Rican historian of Central American cinema.
Will Loma Verde make it to the big screen? “When I did the first take of that green hill and the lagoon, I already imagined the movie… When we started this, they called us dreamers. Now that I see the impact that what started with that first take has had, I know the dream already became real and has a longer road ahead…”
While it hasn’t yet become a series on Netflix or been made into a film, as it deserves, Loma Verde is a magnificent bid for Nicaragua’s dignified future in images, a work of art with the potential to make our country and the other countries of Central America visible on any screen of whatever size.
This TV series shows that perhaps the best way to prepare our societies for change is to tell stories, well-told stories. “Experience tells us that we have told them well. It tells us that the women who have suffered from violence, and there are so many of them, have become aware by fully identifying with the story.” Félix wonders what to do next with this new awareness, and answers it himself, “Loma Verde is just a first step. We open doors for people to see dramas about what they have suffered without being able to tell anyone about them, without being able to express themselves, and it is also collective therapy. Loma Verde will also be that and it will stay as a mirror that reflects the reality of Nicaragua, of all Central America.”
María López Vigil is the editor-in-chief of envío.