Screening at this year’s edition of the Human Rights Film Festival, Rosita documents the aftermath of a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl’s rape, her subsequent pregnancy, and the fight by her Costa Rican parents to gain approval for a “therapeutic” abortion in a country where termination is strictly illegal. HELEN SIMS asked co-director Janet Goldwater to shed further light on Rosita’s plight via email.

Directors Janet Goldwater and Barbara Attie

What motivated you to make this film? Did your motivations change during the process of making the film? For example, is it educative? Condemnatory? Redemptive?

As filmmakers and feminists, we believe that people in all societies will make better decisions if they have more information. Our documentaries always deal with women’s issues, and several have dealt with embattled reproductive rights here in the U.S. Although abortion is legal in the U.S., it is often unavailable to young, poor or rural women, and we are both active in groups that work to make abortion available to women in our area. Most people who learn of a nine-year-old being told to have a child say that in this case, they believe in abortion. We believe that makes them pro-choice. Our hope is that they will make that logical leap and realize that all girls and women need to decide when they are able to support another life.

What impacted on your choices as to how to present the film technically?

Our biggest single challenge came when we realized that we had to portray an invisible protagonist. The family were protecting the girl from exposure after a terrible breach of confidentiality by the Chilean press (in which Rosa’s face was shown) and there was no question that we would have access to her or her image. We quickly realized that this was a positive thing, as we believe the audience would feel uncomfortable and complicitous in Rosa’s exploitation if they saw her on camera. Luckily, we had her drawing and the wonderful oral history from which we could create a character. We felt that the childish qualities of the drawing made it impossible not to feel how young she was.

The news media play an important part in this story – how do you think they did in relation to engaging with the issues accurately or fairly? What are the responsibilities of the news media in these types of situations?

I can’t say that the Latin American did any worse than the American press would have done. In Nicaragua there was a conservative and a fairly liberal paper and people seemed to figure out what was happening. The televisions stations showed their usual love of sensationalism and hounded the family endlessly to try and show the girl’s face on tv. Ideally of course all media would bring on thoughtful people to discuss the issue. That was not the case.

What do you feel this film illustrates about where power resides in society?

Well, I guess every society is different. But certainly being poor and illiterate seems to disenfranchise people in most societies. Being an undocumented worker in a country that needs your labor and yet officially denies your existence is another barrier. Being young – and female – is another indication that you will have very little or no power. But the coalition of women – and some men—who came to Rosa’s defense, represented the strong civil society that continues to exist in countries that seem to be dominated by the church and conservative interests. In protecting Rosa, they prevailed. In protecting the women of Nicaragua, they ultimately failed.

What do you feel this film illustrates about community action groups?

The Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua and the resulting government empowered many progressive men and women to become leaders. Now many of them run community action groups, and they all know one another. This was a tremendous boon to quick organizing in Rosa’s case. In addition, Latin American feminists have made a point of coordinating their efforts, and this was helpful when it came to working between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. But the most important thing it illustrates, I think, is that intelligent use of the press is the single best way to pressure government to do “what is right.”

Did anything surprise you during the making of this film? After it was released?

During the making of the film, we would have liked to have more access to government officials in Nicaragua. They would make appointments and always cancel. I guess we should not have been surprised, as they had nothing to gain. And I guess we should not be surprised that the church officials are always available, as they feel they have nothing to hide, and everything to gain. This has been true in our work in the states as well.

Should there be limits on the freedom of religion – for example when a life is at stake? Do you think a conflict of rights is what is involved here? Or does abstracting the subject matter of the film in this way risk losing sight of the facts it is based on?

The Nica constitution—like the U.S. – has a separation of church and state. Freedom to choose an abortion when the girl or woman is unprepared to be a parent does not conflict with freedom to practice religion. Being free is just that – one is free to practice religion, free to choose a different religion, or free to choose to disregard arbitrary edicts of those religions.

Did you experience any difficulties/risks in telling a story that is intimately tied up with its social, cultural and religious context being an outsider to this context? If so, how did you overcome/ameliorate these difficulties/risks?

Barbara Attie speaks decent Spanish, as her deceased husband was Colombian. I speak very little. We found relying on translators to be quite a disadvantage, especially when we depend in our work on developing personal bonds. Our solution was to befriend translators who in turn befriended the subjects. But the answer to the bigger question about being an outsider is this: I feel that being an outsider is an advantage in that we take very little for granted. We are not afraid to ask questions that might appear naïve to “insiders” and yet sometimes inspire the most profound answers. A documentary-maker must never be afraid of sounding stupid.

I noticed on your website that the film was broadcast in Latin and South America in July-August 2006 – how was it received? Did you face any censorship issues?

We were never censored, although we agreed (happily) for the sake of the family that we would blur the parents’ faces in the Latin American broadcast. Pro-choice advocates are under renewed attack in Nica and it is important to the family to be anonymous. We are happy to report, however, that the Catholic Church did react by trying to organize a boycott of Cinemax (the broadcaster) because they claimed it was supporting murder. This was done via a few websites.

Documentaries seem to be increasingly popular with film going audiences. What are the greatest challenges facing documentary makers? Is documentary making in a healthy state?

Since we make documentaries for television and classroom, as well as for community or advocacy use, we are not affected by the popularity in theatres. But in general, it has become very easy to get broadcasters excited about documentaries, and I think this may be an important part of keeping genuine political discourse alive, as the print media becomes dominated by a small numbers of powerful players.

What are your hopes for the film?

We would have hoped to impact abortion politics in Nicaragua, but in fact since Rosita’s broadcast, the opposition has tightened its control of the government and abortion is now completely criminalized in that country, with no exception to save the life of the mother. Rosita is being used by many advocacy groups in other Latin American countries and we hope to have an affect there.

Where to next?

Rosita has been broadcast in much of South America and Europe. It has yet to be shown on U.S. television. In the U.S. public television very much reflects the administration, so we are hoping for a new administration – soon! We are currently working on a film about attitudes towards female genital mutilation in both Africa and the U.S. Wish us luck!