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Julie Schroell • Director of River Tales

“The San Juan river is a metaphor for the history of Latin America as a whole”


- We talked to Julie Schroell, director of River Tales, an essential documentary about Nicaragua which has just won the Peripheral Visions Award at the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland

Julie Schroell  • Director of River Tales

Since autumn 2019, the first independent documentary from Luxembourgish director Julie Schroell has been on a laudable journey through film festivals. First, at Close Up Dokufest in Edinburgh (Scotland), where River Tales [+see also:
film review
interview: Julie Schroell
film profile
won the Best Environmental Documentary award. Recently, the film was well-received in Serbia as part of the selection of the Beldocs International Documentary Film Festival in Belgrade, as well as last week in Ireland at the Galway Film Fleadh. The film is a testimony, as precious as it is necessary, on the contemporary history of the San Juan river in Nicaragua and its inhabitants, especially the younger generations. We talked to the young director about her poetic, delicate and profoundly engaged work.

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Cineuropa: You’ve just won the award in the Peripheral Visions competition at Galway Film Fleadh, which was carried by the "Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture" project that responded to the following themes: "landscape, language and migration". In what ways do you think your documentary is at the intersection of these three very current topics?
Julie Schroell:
The San Juan river is a metaphor for the history of Latin America as a whole. The construction of a gigantic interoceanic canal, a project headed by Chinese people based in Nicaragua, becomes a symbol for modern colonisation, with its effects on populations and on the environment, such as deforestation and migration. A fourth theme should be added for River Tales, that of culture or the importance of access to culture and to art. In a complex geopolitical context, what role can be played by learning its history?

How is this award from Galway important for your work? Tell us about the festival journey of River Tales this year: despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that some of these events had to change their traditional formula, what is your takeaway from these festival experiences?
The award from the Peripheral Visions competition is a great recognition! River Tales is a “small” film with a small budget and this selection represents a certain opening to the world, an ideal occasion to make the film shine elsewhere. That is what I hope for, anyway, and I want to thank Galway Film Fleadh and the Luxembourg City Film Festival for supporting my work. The documentary was launched just before the health crisis began (amongst other places at the Festival dei Popoli in Florence), an unlucky timing. Since then, several festivals have been cancelled or postponed. Despite all that, my film found a way through. I think that the experience of online film festivals can be interesting in the sense that it allows more people to see more content. However I regret the fact that I couldn’t travel with my film, meet people around my work… That is such an important step in a director’s journey. Moreover, River Tales was conceived and directed for the big screen; it is frustrating to know that people cannot live it with the magic of the big screen.  

How did you first get interested in the San Juan river and why?
The mythical San Juan river is in continuity with the “Cocibolca” lake, one of the largest reserves of pure water in the world. This water network forms a passage between the atlantic and pacific oceans (adding a little bit of ground a few kilometers long in the west). The stories of that river are so fascinating that I wanted to give it a voice in the film (it is that of Christel Orozco, an 11-year-old girl, who plays herself). A few ruins testify to that rich past: that of Spanish conquerors who fought against English pirates; the story of Mark Twain who wrote Travels with Mr. Brown; or even the era, not so distant from us, where thousands of gold diggers went through this passage, considered to be the fastest way to go from one ocean to the other in the 19th century. Today, the region is completely abandoned: it is progress in reverse. I was particularly interested in that contrast.

Could you tell us more about Yemn Jordan Taisigûe López?
He is an exceptional person and an extraordinary man in a strongly macho Nicaraguan society. A feminist activist, a professional actor, an anthropologist, Yemn was teaching in a university in Managua before he was forced to leave the country when he received death threats, in the context of the current political crisis. The authorities did not like his social and cultural work in rural communities (theatre of the oppressed or forum theatre, amongst other things). This crisis led to the fleeing of about 100,000 political refugees, Yemn unfortunately being one of them.

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(Translated from French)

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