Filmmaker and activist, Laura Baumeister DeMontis, was born in Nicaragua in 1983, in the midst of a revolution spanning three decades. She became interested in story-telling from a young age, and studied filmmaking at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC) in Mexico.
She has directed more than six short films in Nicaragua, Mexico and Germany. Her 2014 film Isabel Im Winter has been screened around the world, won best fiction short film at Festival Ícaro, and was shown at the 55th Critic’s Week at Cannes in 2016. Laura traveled with Nobel Woman’s Initiative to Honduras and Guatemala for our Women Land and Peace delegation in 2017, and created two powerful short films to document the amazing women human rights defenders we met on the trip.
What inspired you to get into film?
When I was very young, I grew up very close to my grandmother. She was always telling stories about her life and about my grandfather, and she was very fantastical in the way she told stories. My mother and my uncles used to constantly correct her, saying, this didn't happen like that! My grandmother would respond with, “Well, sometimes it's better to have the attention of your public than to precisely recount what happened.”
I always told the grown-ups to leave her be—I wanted her stories to be as big and as dramatic as they could be! This is how I believe that I got attached to storytelling. There isn’t a film school in Nicaragua, but there is an art school. So I started approaching film through video art, installations and performance. But what I quickly realized is that although I felt fulfilled in terms of the aesthetics, I felt it lacked in terms of the narrative. That’s when I turned to film.
As a woman in a field historically dominated by men, do you believe that your voice adds to the shifting of a narrative presented?
Yes, I do. When I started getting into film, I first learned about all the big men of the industry. In all the countries with prominent film industries, some men are practically institutions. But when I was trying to find a voice—something that I could connect with on a deeper level—that’s when I really got into researching women directors. As an audience member, I felt women directors presented a different way of telling stories and put their emphasis on other aspects of life. For instance, sometimes the way these women narrated social conflict had a different texture. Then I realized that this was happening with my own movies. I don’t know if you can identify them as being made by women per se, but definitely that intimate dimension comes through, whether you’re working with conflict or characters.
Speaking more on your craft, what role do you think film plays in building a more just and peaceful society?
My desire would be that cinema could play a more practical role in terms of being committed to telling stories that shift the way we think about our relationships, towards Earth, and towards the economic system. I believe in thoughtful cinema—films that make you think, criticize and question yourself and your surroundings.
But, I also have a more pessimistic view because I come from a generation that grew up through a revolution—one that ended with disaster. So the other half of me says that art is art, and you have to focus on doing your craft right. And, that a focus on social change is maybe even megalomaniacal—to believe that with my point of view and with my movies I'm going to change something on a larger scale. But I do believe that if one of my films could really touch someone—even just one person—that I can build a bridge through my art. I believe in that kind of change.
What role are women currently playing in the protests and the human rights situation in Nicaragua?
A very active role. For example, there was a dialogue that took place between civil society, business and the government that was mediated by the church—but they didn’t invite any women. One prominent woman from the Campesino movement wasn’t allowed to be there to represent her campesinos. This prompted women to start a campaign on Facebook and Instagram to have their voices heard. They are just as active as men in the student and campesino movements, but they don’t get that visibility or access to the conversations.
I have interviewed mothers of those killed in the clashes in Nicaragua and they told me about their encounters with the police. When asking for more information about their sons, they were harassed, threatened and labeled as “crazy women”. Some of these mothers are also camping outside the El Chipote prison, where folks are being taken from the streets without any due process, and sometimes even tortured. These mothers are fighting for their kids’ return.
During your filming of The Women, Land and Peace delegation in Honduras and Guatemala, were there any notable moments of inspiration for you?
During that trip, there was a mining company in Guatemala that came out with a TV spot announcing that Nobel peace laureates were coming, and the company falsely framed it as if they were hosting them. At the time, we were at a community hall and were sent a link to a video made by this mining company. Jody Williams took a stand — she was committed to telling the truth. She pushed us all to stop what we were doing and do something about it. She reminded me that every opportunity, every day, you can put your beliefs into action. That was inspiring.