A train crawls through San Jose carrying a myth inside that slowly spreads to all communities in the country.
That train is a metaphor for our history as well as the vehicle that sets in motion the first full-length film directed by Nicaraguan director Gabriel Serra: El Mito Blanco (The White Myth).
The director documented the stories of three immigrant families and how their different realities are linked by years of invisibility.
Nicaraguans, people of African descent and indigenous people are the central figures of these stories. With intimate looks into their daily lives and their stories about immigration and identity, we are confronted by their reality, in contrast to the myth that the Costa Rican population is predominantly white.
El Mito Blanco is a mosaic of landscapes and faces that reflect on how a nation and its identity are built.
From official education to pop culture, we are taught that Costa Rica has a mixture of indigenous and Spanish roots, and that Ticos are mostly “white.” The film tries to dismantle this notion through the life stories of Janis, Emerita, Milagros and their families.
The Voice of Guanacaste interviewed the Nicaraguan director about his experience crossing the border with a coyote (a person who smuggles people across borders), how the pandemic changed his film and what we can do to dismantle this myth. Here are excerpts from the interview:
The Voice: Part of the investigation for the documentary was crossing the border with a coyote. Can you tell a little about this whole process?
Gabriel Serra: Getting to know the communities and those borders was very important for me to be able to talk about this. The flow of immigrants is enormous, both legal and those without papers. I’ll tell you a fact, around 2,000 people pass through the trail next to the border every day in December. I loved getting involved in this thing. I went early in the morning when they go through with cell phones to see the trails. I walked it at different times, in the day and at night with a coyote.
So the border Ticos wait for you on the road. When they get on the buses a few meters away, they check everyone. And if they don’t have their ID card, they throw them in jail. I didn’t have my passport and they threw me in jail. They put me in a police van with some Nicaraguan guys and I told them, “I have a passport, but I didn’t bring it because I’m in the process of doing research,” and they didn’t believe me. Of course they don’t believe anyone because they all lie.
They took me to a police van, closed the door where I had no oxygen and I told him ‘crazy guy, I can’t breathe in such a closed-in place. You’re going to kill me.’ He closed the police van and I was scared shitless because I couldn’t breathe. They are very small police vans where very little light shines in. And there I went, talking to several Nicaraguan women who didn’t have a passport either. But hey, it was part of the experience and I wanted to live it too.
TV: You used to have a story from San Vito that no longer appears in the film. Did you make some changes?
GS: I wasn’t satisfied with this movie and besides, I sent it to a couple of people and they never said anything to me. I sent it to a couple of festivals and they wouldn’t accept it. The pandemic came and I said, “I have to grab the bull by the horns. I have to re-edit the film.” So I sat down, and I went at it here at home for three months, to try out new structures, to give the train more prominence. In short, I made a new movie to be very honest with you. That’s basically what the pandemic allowed me to do, like getting more clarity.
In classrooms, hospitals and orchards, there are Nicaraguans fighting alongside us to get out of the crisis caused by the coronavirus. We tell you the story of two of them.
TV: What do these communities have in common?
The indigenous, the Nicaraguan and the African have this community bond, because their families are very, very, very close knit. Seeing how the children live and coexist in these places from their playfulness, their innocence, their naivete in the sense that they don’t understand the problems of their places very well. And I also think that what links them to these places is that in some way they lack opportunities.
There is something a little sad, that surprised us all. In some communities, poverty makes some of them feel a bit ashamed of their origins and that they don’t, they don’t want to continue, let’s say, with the tradition of their origins. However, it isn’t that noticeable in the three stories. They try to keep their roots alive despite their socioeconomic conditions.
TV: It isn’t that noticeable because it was your decision.
GS: Exactly. Due to a question of ethics, to me it doesn’t seem respectful of them to present impoverished characters, with a feeling of pity, to present them with that lingering odor that stays with them for life and that doesn’t allow them to move forward. In other words, you’re going to see that at the end of the movie, I don’t want to give it away, but there is always hope. Yes, there is love, yes, there is energy, yes, there is strength to keep going.
TV: There is a perspective that immigration has a very masculine face. In many narratives, it is always men who migrate to work and send money. What does having these female characters amount to for the documentary?
GS: I’d like to think that sometimes I don’t choose the characters because of the drama of each one of them. No, what interested me in the people and the stories was that they had their pain, but I was interested in the soul, the love and the life that still exists in them; in the innocence that can still exist in these families and in these stories, and this sense of fighting for their culture, to have rights in a society where progress is talked about, but it’s only on paper. It’s not carried out in the lives of these people and this community.
For me, it’s very important that they are women. The world is heavier in a capitalist and sexist system. It seems to me that they are even deeper stories because of this social burden that has been given to them. It’s the type of woman I have grown up with: my mother, my grandmother, my aunt. I grew up among women. They are all women who have been abandoned by men and who have had to keep going, and I identify with that struggle.
TV: You’ve talked before about the power of imagining places and situations. Which things happened the way you had imagined and which ones took you by surprise?
GS: The pandemic gave me like a moment of enlightenment, to reconnect with myself. For me, cinema is a way to open the third eye, which is this ability to connect with your dreams, with what you want and with what you aspire to.
The train is the heart of this film. It is a journey. It is a journey through the depths of Costa Rica that not everyone knows about. When we got on the train leaving Limón at 6:30 in the morning, the photographer, the sound engineer and I, to film all the landscapes, I was crying along the way. I was crying because it was something that I had imagined a lot. It was like fulfilling a dream.
“You always feel the memory of the past, always.” Janis, African-Costa Rican character.
TV: As a foreigner, do you feel that it helps you to be able to see this issue from the outside?
GS: Something like that. When you’re a local, it’s like you take everything for granted, right? So, for sure, I think that this position like of an outsider or of this other person, of this foreigner, of this person who is not local, like to me it seems relevant to talk about these issues. To me it seems relevant in a world context where there is a president like Trump and where it seems we are regressing in history and we haven’t learned as human beings from everything that has happened.
That these issues aren’t talked about in such a small country that is also considered very developed, but that is full of so many contrasts in a region that is impoverished and also stolen from, corrupt.
The way the world is now, we can’t give minimum coverage either to a racist situation, nor to a sexist situation, nor to a situation with a government that excludes others and doesn’t give them their rights. It seems to me like it’s beyond being an outsider or being someone from outside. It seems important to me that it be said. Let it be said from a visual, poetic, narrative and sensory perspective.
TV: Did you see the white myth embodied as much in these communities or do you think it’s something that’s stronger in the central part of the country?
GS: The myth is foundational, created by the politicians of this country and by a series of scientists and people at the highest levels. It was born with the national identity, with the idea of how we are going to build. It comes from the center to the communities. Where is the power centralized? In the capital. This is where the owners of the communications media are; this is where messages are put together; this is where thought is formed. This is where the school textbooks for the country come from.
You can tell me, “Gabriel, but I see that in that community, they don’t talk about there being a racial differentiation.” But in the way they are living, the way and the opportunities that they have, we are talking about there being a monoculture in these areas. The school is a nice school, but there’s nothing else. Since access to things is the State’s responsibility and that is centralized.
TV: Can that myth be dismantled?
GS: A tough question. I think that’s exactly why I made the movie. First, see the movie in the sense that it can help to get this talked about, start putting a finger over the wound. The second step to generate a dialogue with this film, how are we going to change this? But let this also have a greater impact in places such as the Senate or organizations; let the communities themselves begin to say “bastards, we have rights.”
I think the way this can change is for everyone to start talking about this and for everyone to start demanding; not just the African, indigenous, and Nicaraguan communities demanding. Let all of us as a population also demand for them.