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Child marriage in Costa Rica: in conversation with director Dana Ziyasheva

“Defenders of Life” is a new fiction film which explores how child marriage and maintaining tradition play out within the Ngäbe community in Costa Rica. Director Dana Ziyasheva spoke to Girls Not Brides about making the film and what she hopes it can do to end child marriage.

What is “Defenders of Life” about? What issues does it tackle?

“Defenders of Life” tells the story of Esmeralda, an indigenous Ngäbe girl who lives in a reservation in Costa Rica with her grandmother, Carmen. Carmen raised her alone after Esmerelda’s mother was murdered by a jealous boyfriend.

Esmerelda is a fictional character but she represents the reality of girls’ lives in the Ngäbe community. Once they reach puberty, indigenous girls become eligible for marriage. When Esmerelda begins menstruating and receives an offer of marriage from the village elder, Carmen has a difficult decision to make. She must decide whether Esmeralda should follow in the footsteps of Ngäbe women or break away from the tradition.

Why did you decide to make the film?

I made “Defenders of Life” with the Ngäbes and for the Ngäbes.

The movie was born out of the real and unlikely friendship between myself and Carmen, a Ngäbe matriarch who married at the age of 12 to an old man in her tribe. When I was working with the United Nations in indigenous areas, I stayed in Carmen’s house and in the evenings her daughters would tell me all about what it meant to be an Ngäbe girl. Carmen often said she feared her traditions were disappearing without a trace.

Listening to Carmen and the girls inspired me to make a film about the challenges of keeping up traditions and they loved the idea! The indigenous characters are all played by real people in their tribe including Carmen and Esmerelda. This was the only way to make this film happen as I wanted to make sure the film represented the true reality of the problems faced by Ngäbe women and girls.

Dana Ziyasheva directing Defenders of Life

How has the film been used so far?

We showed the film at the Costa Rican Presidential Palace, which triggered a national debate about child marriage. Just getting people talking about the issue is an important first step.  We saw representatives from native tribes advocating for the inclusion of indigenous populations and promoting girls’ rights. Members of these communities are still using the film to advocate for girls’ rights. “Defenders of Life” has also been shown at festivals worldwide reaching a truly global audience.

And at these screenings, what reactions have you had to “Defenders of Life”? Have the Ngäbe seen the film?

The world premiere took place in the Ngäbe communal house in La Casona reservation in Costa Rica. It was important that we got their approval first. They certainly approved of the film although the screening was very emotional. There was a sense of pride that Ngäbe language, personalities, nature and customs were honoured in a film. For them, it was our common work of art, a true reflection of how they were, not a critical outsider look. This is an important message for activists working to end child marriage to take from the film.

What do you hope the film can achieve?

I wanted “Defenders of Life” to give a voice to indigenous girls and women suffering abuse and living under patriarchy but I also want to emphasise how tradition interacts with these problems.

TraditiDefenders of Life poster2on cannot be ignored if we want to overcome practices like child marriage. Working with communities like the Ngäbes, not against them, is the best way to promote sustainable and respectful change. By using indigenous legends as metaphors and being inclusive of men, I hope the film can trigger meaningful debates and avoid the pitfall of isolating women further.

We recently screened the film in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose to an audience of 300 young people, diplomats, journalists and political leaders. I would love to present “Defenders of Life” at universities or NGO events where I could share my field experience too. I hope the film can continue to raise awareness about child marriage in this way.

The award-winning film is now available to view in the US and the UK on the Flix Premiere VOD platform for independent cinema at