The Cinema Culture of Nicaragua: Just another casualty of war
Ricardo Miranda Zuniga

It had been nearly two years since the war had ended, but much of my mom's home town remained in shambles. The streets were an abstract composition of grenade ditches, torn cinder tiles and exposed earth. The facades of the once beautiful Spanish-style homes were littered with bullet holes and the graffiti of the victors: "VIVA SANDINO;" "PATRIA Y LIBERTAD" and on every corner the letters FSLN accompanied by the silhouette of Sandino, the long-dead peasant's hero resurrected in the name of a popular insurrection.

In 1979, the Sandinistas had pressed right through Masaya all the way to Managua as Somoza's soldiers retreated into the capital. Along the way little was left undamaged, including El Cine Masaya, one of three movie houses in the town of Masaya. The war had torn the roof off El Cine Masaya, leaving behind an open-air cinema -- which is exactly what it became during the early post-revolution years.

With the projection room intact, the seats still in their place and the screen only slightly damaged by a couple tears, burns along the right side and water damage along the bottom, the movie house just needed a good cleaning before it could be reawakened. Once the broken red clay tiles and exploded wooden trusses were cleared off the seats of the main floor, old reels were pulled out and a new audience was enraptured. Ironically, the first movie at the reconfigured El Masaya was Midway. You'd think people had had enough war, but this was the only movie house for a town of about 45,000, so the lines were long and seats were difficult to get.

I went with my brother and one of my cousins. I was 10, my brother 13 and my cousin 11. Unfortunately we didnÕt get to the movie early enough to sit in the balcony, so we were stuck down below. In most places this seating situation wouldnÕt matter, but in Nicaragua it means that you're an easy target for the balcony audience.

Outside the theater, you could buy any number of snacks from vending carts, and the most popular snack were the mamones, a bag filled with small fruits that you tear the peel off of, to suck the fruit and are left with a nearly two-inch seed Š the perfect projectile. That night my brother got pegged at least twice, I got one on the ear and my cousin was struck on the neck. There really isn't much you can do, beside sink deeper into your seat and hope that youÕre surrounded by better targets.

Now Midway presented an interesting cohesion of fiction and reality as it interwove a star-studded 1976 cast (including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn) with actual wartime footage and a story line that paid close attention to historical fact. The Nicaraguan audience delighted as the outnumbered U.S. heroes defeated the evil Japanese Imperial Navy, little did they know that they were just a couple years away from a prolonged Reagan sponsored counter-revolution.

The film reel itself was in bad shape, I wouldn't be surprised if it had been sitting in that projection room since the revolution hit Masaya, awaiting its Nicaraguan premiere. Along with numerous scratches and tears in the emulsion, the projector would occasionally stick and the illusion of movement and time would fail which meant an invigorated offensive by the balcony crowd, nothing for us to do but duck and cover as we as well hollered our complaints. Once the movie got going again, it was amazing to see giant waves crashing against battleships below a Nicaraguan night sky in which some stars could still be seen shimmering above gathering clouds.

As the movie went on, I thought to myself, holding a burning right ear, this is better than the drive-in. That is until, I felt something wet hit my other ear. My cousin had already been spat on early into the movie, so I quickly cleaned off my ear thinking it was some kidÕs phlegm, but I wasnÕt the only one being hit as people started to jump out of their chairs to head for cover.

We were getting a tropical downpour, a regular Nicaraguan aguacero, the kind of rain that comes down hard in huge painful drops. And once again we could hear the balcony kids laughing, because beside it being a great vantage point, it was the only part of the theater that still had a roof. By the time we made it out of the movie house, my cousin was laughing hysterically, my brother was sulking because he loved WWII movies and I was just trying to keep up with them as we sprinted from one cover to the next on our way back to our grandparents' home.

Since 1981, Nicaragua endured nearly 10 years of US embargo and five years of war due to US intervention. Masaya has grown to about 60 thousand, but it's been nearly 20 years since it had a cinema. The reinstitution of El Cine Masaya under the open sky was short lived. We did however manage to go one other time and that time we enjoyed the movie from the balcony.

In a town where people spend their evenings on rocking chairs by their front doors involved in conversations, usually gossip, with one another or with passers-by taking an evening walk, the cinema represents a popular space for entertainment and congregation. For younger generations that prefer to have an evening out, the cinema can be a great date as well as a means to get together with friends and socialize while taking in a good movie. And just as the balcony crowd of El Cinema Masaya displayed, the cinema in Nicaragua isnÕt merely a passive form of entertainment. Unfortunately, in Masaya it remains unavailable.

Over the past three weeks Nicaragua has been celebrating the election of a new president, Enrique Bola–os. And as with every other election, the country hopes that its fortune will change.