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Movie Reviews : 'Nicaragua' Documentary Disappoints


"Vacation Nicaragua" (at the Fox International, Venice for one week) is a film whose obvious good intentions--and failed realizations--make you feel a little guilty.

It's a documentary about a cross section of 25 Americans on a vacation and fact-finding tour through Nicaragua--and it has obviously decent goals and high purposes (along with Bob Dylan, Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson on the sound track). Yet, it's so simple and unexceptional--so strangely unambitious, in a way--that it's unlikely to deeply engage anyone not already fervently concerned with Latin American politics.

Perhaps the problem lies with all those good intentions. Producer/director Anita Clearfield and cameraman/editor Geoffrey Leighton seem to be pursuing, far too narrowly, a dubious ideal of documentary "objectivity."

Rather than simply show us Nicaragua as they see it, they work through a double screen: following the 25 vacationers around Managua, Bluefields and the countryside, and then letting them describe their reactions. Throughout, the film makers seem to be trying for a common touch: a near-"home-movie" casualness of tone. All too often, they succeed.

It's an uncertain strategy for either polemic or documentary. This is a real tour--arranged by Tur-Nica, the Nicaraguan national tourism agency--and the tourists were not pre-selected or manipulated. Yet, does anyone seriously doubt that most of them will prove sympathetic?

The whole framing device of the film--the vacation--becomes strained, even a little surreal. The camera shows us poverty and shortages in the cities, local workers, and the heads of both the official Sandinista newspaper (Barricada) and the opposition (La Prensa). We see the tourists watching, meeting (and sometimes serenading) Sandinista leaders like Cultural Minister Ernesto Cardenal and President Daniel Ortega. All this is often less revelatory than the sights of the cities, or an incongruous baseball game or views stated by the Nicaraguans themselves.

You get an eerie retrospective twinge. Suppose, back during the height of the Vietnam War, someone had shot a film called "Holiday in Vietnam"--with 25 all-American vacationers, hiking through Hue, watching surfers off the Gulf of Tonkin, and gathering around to sing "All You Need Is Love" to Ho Chi Minh? Would it have been cause for outrage? Or would it have seemed trivial? In a way, "Vacation Nicaragua" (Times-rated: Family) signifies a more relaxed attitude toward media dissent. But, it also suggests something too relaxed, disturbingly smoothed out.


A Rock Solid production. Producer/Director Anita Clearfield. Camera/Editor Geoffrey Leighton. Executive producer David A. Griffin. Location sound John Luck. Additional camera Cathy Zheutin.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Times-Rated: Family.

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