Havana Film Festival Filmmaker Interview: Roberto Salinas (The Troublemaker)

Very few films have been made about the United Nations. The film archive of the UN is immense and entering the rooms where this material is stored is like stepping into the annals of the history of international diplomacy. But how much of this material is actually available to the public? What does the public know about the operation of the world’s largest international organization?

Obtaining permission to film inside the U.N. is virtually impossible, but Roberto Salinas managed to gain unprecedented access to areas inside the U.N. where cameras had never made it before. This access was possible with the assistance of Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, presidential chair of the General Assembly from September 2008-September 2009.

‘The Troublemaker’ played at the 2015 Havana Film Festival in New York City. Upcoming screenings are June 7th & 11th at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna, Italy. We spoke with the film’s Director Roberto Salinas about making a documentary about such a controversial figure, how he was able to gain unprecedented access to the United Nations, and more.

How did the idea for The Troublemaker originate?

RS: I was in Nicaragua in 2008. I am half Italian, half Nicaraguan so I spent a lot of time in Nicaragua and I heard that father Miguel D’Escoto was a candidate for the next President of the UN General Assembly. At the time I was very interested in exploring what was going on in Latin America especially, with the new socialist movement, with the ALBA countries, with this new alliance of socialist countries. I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to put these things together with a

broader look at the international diplomacy from the Latin-American perspective. Father Miguel was already in New York so I found his contact and gave him a call. We had our first interview and we got along very well. I was blown away with some of the things he was saying. He was very modern, very radical in his thinking and at the same time it was good for him as well because as we show in the documentary the office of the President of General Assembly doesn’t have many resources for the work at the UN. They work with a yearly budget of $300,000 dollars, so they have a lack of resources in the communication department.  For them it was a great opportunity to have somebody documenting what was taking place there. And this is how it started basically.

Where did you get the inspiration to make a documentary about the United Nations?

RS: Well, being an Italian and a Nicaraguan, being somebody who knows Europe and knows the realities of Latin-America and Central America, it was very interesting for me to try to portray the inequalities that are in the society we live in. So in terms of inspiration, I’ve always been interested in history. The work I’ve done has been sort of related to biographies of people who’ve made a strong impact, especially in Italy. My previous work has been mostly in Italy and I’ve done a series of five documentaries that are portraits of key figures of Italian culture and politics. In this case, it was father Miguel, a central figure in Nicaragua. It just made sense to me. It was the logical thing to do.

How were you able to gain such unprecedented access to the UN during Father Miguel’s presidency? The camera follows him everywhere, even to places in the UN protected by extreme security. How did you manage to get access to these places and meetings where confidential information was disclosed?

RS: It was all through father Miguel. He was brave enough, some might say crazy enough, to let us film. He protected us in many situations from people that were not too happy having a camera around. He was convinced however that it was the Trusteeshipright thing to do, to explain what was going on. Of course what you see in the film is not all of the footage we shot. It’s only what we were allowed to use. But regardless, it was very good research material for us because we were able to understand the situation and I think this is crucial. If you want to explain something you need to have the knowledge to understand what you’re talking about.

Can you briefly talk about the reasons that motivated father Miguel to become President of the GA?

RS: He is very modest. If you asked him why he wanted to be President of the General Assembly, he would say that he didn’t even have a thought to become the president. In fact, his run for presidency was proposed by the Latin American countries group. The election of the President takes place every year and each group from different countries of the UN have the right to promote their own candidate. The Latin-American group proposed his candidacy and he accepted, out of what I think was of a sense of duty. He knew it was a crucial moment and he came to the UN with an agenda, with a precise idea of what he wanted to do. He felt that the developing countries in the UN were not properly represented, their voices were not being heard. So during his presidency he focused on elevating the voices of developing countries and promoted the centrality of the work of the General Assembly. He wanted to give the G.A. more weight in the decision making process.

Having spent so much time within the UN system and having attended many of the GA meetings, what is your personal opinion of its effectiveness? Do you agree with Father Miguel that the entire system is unrepairable?

RS: Well, the UN is very effective on many levels. There are some agencies of the UN that do tremendous work – OCHA, UNRWA, FAO, UNICEF. There is a lot of incredibly important work that is going on at the UN. At the same time of course I agree with some of the critics that father Miguel does to the institution. I believe

as he does and as many do that the system was flawed from the very start. It was supposed to be something extremely democratic and it is not. In a way it has betrayed expectations from the beginning when it was founded. I agree with father Miguel however, that we need the institution. It is impossible to think that we should get rid of it and not consider it as a tool to find solutions to many different problems, but it needs a drastic reform to be able to be more effective.

What do you hope resonates most with audiences who view your film?

RS: My expectations for the film are on two different levels. I hope audiences will get to know and understand and feel related to this man, Father Miguel d’Escoto, who is an expression of a certain era, a certain time in Latin America and its values. I also hope to give the audience a glimpse of what the UN is, show them how it works. When I was doing this I realized that people don’t know a lot about the UN and we figured out pretty quickly that we needed to put some general information for the people to orient themselves and understand the situations that were taking place. So the original idea was to produce a Cinema Verité piece, but we realized that without explaining a number of key positions and certain logistics that people would not really understand the full scope of the work father Miguel was doing.

The tense relations between father Miguel and the United States’ representatives  to the UN are palpable in the film. It’s also been said that Father Miguel had a biased position being the President of the GA, when he’s supposed to be neutral, not polarized. What are your thoughts on this?

RS: I think it is correct in a way that he was pretty radical in certain positions. Daniel Ortega (President of Nicaragua) once said in his speech at the UN in the 80’s that Nicaragua has a historic right to be scared and to have prejudices against the U.S. because Nicaragua has been invaded many times by the US and has suffered as a result of U.S. foreign policy. It’s the same for many Latin-American countries that for many years were affected by the way the U.S. was managing foreign policies towards Latin America. So it’s understandable in a way that he as President was polarized. There was a lot of expectations and many people thought that it was about time that somebody said things that nobody else would say. Of course some people were frightened because they thought that he was another one of those voices with this rhetoric of revolution. They thought we were reverting back to another era. It should be understood though that during his presidency he actually had very solid relationships with everyone, particularly with his opponents. Ban Ki Moon was a big opposer, but they eventually developed a very warm and friendly relationship. It was the same with the American and Israeli ambassadors. Father Miguel’s talent as a diplomat was exactly that, to find points of connection especially with his opponents. That’s what a successful diplomat does.

What was the intention when you chose to show statements and interviews of controversial figures like Chaves, Ahmadinejad and Castro?

RS:  The judgement of these leaders mostly comes from the established media. We wanted to show that father Miguel is somebody who is open to have a dialogue with anyone. He really admires Castro, an icon not only for him but for other revolutionaries in Latin-America. He also spoke with Ahmadinejad, who has been stigmatized by the media and considered to be evil. By stigmatizing him, the whole nation of Iran has been stigmatized. They created a monster, a tyrant. I’m not saying that everything is beautiful and nice in Syria, Iran, Libya, but these countries are always portrayed in this way by the media and unfortunately this is the need of the U.S. and Europe as well, to constantly create opposers and enemies. So we wanted to show that dialogue is possible. Most of the time you hear a quote of a speech of Ahmadinejad, or Ghadafi, and it’s only a piece, out of context and in a way it’s not the actual truth, and that’s how the media shapes public opinion.

Have you kept in contact with Father Miguel after he left the UN? If so, what endeavors is he currently involved with?

RS: I am in close contact with him. We developed a very warm friendship and every time I go to Nicaragua I visit him and spend time with him. His health is not so good lately. He’s dealing with a number of health problems that were affecting him during his time at the UN. He suffers from Menier disease, hearing problems and vertigo. He’s still very active though and right now he’s a consultant for foreign policy for the Nicaraguan government. He’s putting together a team of archaeologists in Nicaragua because there is a possibility of an excavation of the Nicaraguan canal which means there will be a lot of discoveries of art and pre-Columbus pieces and he’s very much concerned for the preservation of the Nicaraguan patrimony. He has a foundation, an NGO that does humanitarian work, so he’s very active.

What was father’s Miguel opinion about the film?

RS: He watched the film several times. We submitted him rough cuts when we were working and got his approval and feedback during various stages of the film. Only recently we had a screening in Managua at el Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura Hispánica which he attended with other former members of his cabinet. It was beautiful because there was a lot of people and he received a lot of warmth from the audience and it was his first time seeing the film on a big screen. He’s very modest so I had to force him to come down to the screening not because he didn’t want to come but because he felt that this tribute we were showing to him was a bit too much, but he’s happy with the movie and we are happy that he’s happy.

If you could give one piece of advice to first time documentary filmmakers, what would it be?

RS: To do a responsible amount of research about the subjects they are exploring. Also be well prepared during the shooting and editing phases. It’s important to know the story and the characters, but also to try to establish human and profound relationships as much as possible. One must also gain trust with the people you’re working with and of course honesty. You have to be honest with the public with the story you are trying to tell. That makes the difference.

What is next for you?

RS: I am actually traveling to Cuba in a couple of days. I want to start doing more research on Cuba. I am interested in the changes that are happening there, especially from the point of view of the arts because I think that in a way one of the greatest achievements of the Cuban revolution and the society in general is that the arts flourished. It’s possible that with the changes ahead, some of these realities that are particular to Cuba cannot be found anywhere else. There will be a need for other kind of jobs or positions, so I am going to investigate this and will hopefully make documentary on this subject.

-Interview conducted, edited & transcribed by Stephen Reilly

About The Filmmaker

Roberto Salinas is an Italian-Nicaraguan documentary author, director and cinematographer. His last feature documentary TheTroublemaker, behind the scenes of the United Nations premiered in December 2014 at the 36 Havana Film Festival in Cuba.

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