A Dispatch From the Neocolony
Here’s a review of the film Land that appeared in this month’s issue of the North American Congress on Latin America’s Report.
North American developers have in recent years sparked a real estate boom and bust in Nicaragua. They have created new resorts and retirement communities along the country’s picturesque coastlines, and in some cases, packed up and left when the going gets tough. Canadian filmmaker Julian T. Pinder is part of a new crop of foreigners who decided to set up a life for himself on a speck of coastal land, and his personal experience there led to the creation of his first feature documentary film, Land.
Shot in 2006, and set somewhere on the southern coast in a remote beach town that goes unnamed, the film is a journey inspired by conflicting perspectives on what it means to be a gringo on the front lines of 21st-century colonialism. Pinder sets the scene in the first minute of the TV version of the film.
“Following lengthy days of rum drinking, I purchased an untamed piece of property near the sea. I came to think of it as my paradise. It was virginal and pristine,” he says. “And I was a goddamned fool.”For the next 50 minutes, Pinder mixes archival footage from the 1970s and 1980s of the Sandinistas and their historic leader, Daniel Ortega, with candid and open interviews with other North American tourists and local community members. The film is, for the most part, set in a lush, tropical region right on the edge of the water. From the beach town, we meet expat after expat who has come down to Nicaragua during the past 10 years to escape the routines of U.S. life and start something new. Some of them are developers with big plans to build up the coast, constructing monster hotels, condos, and restaurants; others range from a back-to-the-land cattle rancher to a perpetually beer-swilling alcoholic.
“You know what, I don’t much care for gringos, but I got born one. What the fuck do you want me to do about it now?” says Sandino Dean between beers, in a brutally honest tone. Dean’s perspective is miles away from those of the other gringos, who see themselves as bringing progress and development to a country where people are “adverse to change.”
By comparison, the film’s coverage of Nicaraguans in the village adjacent to the development area reveals little about their personalities. What is clear, however, is how resentful and disempowered local people feel as they watch their land being taken over by outsiders.
“This [North American developer], he came and started to make the baseball field into lots. He took it away from the people,” says Zac López, a local man who says he worked as a manual laborer on a hotel but was never paid. “Now there is no baseball in our village.” Later in the film, López goes on to become mayor of the unnamed village by the sea and begins to take steps to reclaim land he thinks has been wrongfully occupied by foreigners.
The film’s strength and weakness is that it is essentially a film for North Americans about North Americans who just happen to be living in Nicaragua. Through accompanying these men—yes, they are all men—as they decide how to build their piece of paradise, Pinder presents compelling testimonies from locals and the developers themselves that show just how questionable these tourism projects are.
“You’re developing, and you love what you’re doing, and you think you’re doing the right thing, but really, at the end of the day, if you had to have an argument with somebody over that issue, it’d be a really tough time defending yourself,” says Sean Jackson, a developer who had plans to build a hotel complex
There are two big contrasts in the film. The first is the marked disparity between the living conditions of the North Americans and the Nicaraguans who are now neighbors in this small coastal village. Locals complain they can’t afford to buy underwear and that they have enough money only for food, while North Americans plan to build ostentatious hotels and condos, complete with swimming pools, game rooms, yoga centers, five-star restaurants, and clubhouses.
The second contrast is between the North Americans’ outsize dreams of development and what actually exists. Pinder visits a variety of sites that, according to their owners, will eventually become luxury additions to the so-called Central American Riviera. But so far they amount to half-built condominium projects, where rebar and concrete cover the land, together with piles of rubble and gravel and rusted machinery.
Unfortunately, the film fails in drawing out the political and legal context of land ownership and development in Nicaragua. Partway through the film, Pinder decides that he doesn’t like Daniel Ortega, who in 2006 was again elected president of Nicaragua, without explaining his reasons. By demonizing Ortega and emphasizing the events surrounding his most recent presidential win in 2006, the film takes on an unnecessary subplot.
Instead of focusing on a unique storyline around tourism, Pinder wanders off course and superficially explains the political and electoral system in Nicaragua, without any pretense of deep research or reporting that should accompany documentary filmmaking.
Eventually, we meet up with Zac López again in his coastal village after he has been elected mayor. But instead of helping us understand the changes that might take place with an activist mayor at the local level, Pinder hints that López is corrupt, while one of his interviewees alleges it outright.
When Land finally winds its way back to the theme of tourism, the film chalks up the exodus of foreigners who decide to abandon their projects and leave Nicaragua almost exclusively to Ortega’s election, instead of considering other factors that may have caused them to leave, such as the recession and the actual feasibility of their business plans.
Even with the film’s meandering and unconvincing foray into electoral politics, Land is still a film worth watching. Though some viewers may be left wanting more details, the film problematizes the difficult subjects of tourism and colonization in 21st-century Central America—both serious topics that deserve our attention.
Dawn Paley is a journalist based in Vancouver.