Defenders of Life: Fictional Feature about Ngabe People of Costa Rica

Defenders of Life is the first narrative film made with and about the Ngäbe indigenous people of Costa Rica.
The singularity of the film comes from the fact that it does not present an ethnographic look nor a documentary approach of an indigenous community.
Rather, Defenders of Life was conceived as a fictional feature and created together with its main Ngäbe protagonists, and follows the destinies of three generations of women, their dilemmas and contradictions in all their human and universal complexity. Against the ominous backdrop of the struggle for cultural survival, individual rights clash with the rampant phenomena of forced marriages and teenage pregnancies.
“We had a script, but since the Ngäbe actors playing their own roles were all non-professionals, most of whom don’t know how to read, we relied a lot on rehearsals and improvisation. I wanted the film to go beyond the ethnographic clichés. We show that Ngäbes are multi-layered, with contradictions, and made of good things and bad things like everyone else. But most of all, they are authentic, true to themselves and they don’t get intimidated by outside pressure,” said Ziyasheva.
Defenders of Life tells the story of Esmeralda, a Ngäbe indigenous girl who lives on a reservation in Costa Rica. Esmeralda’s grandmother Carmen raises her alone; the girl’s mother was murdered by her jealous boy-friend. In the movie, as in real life, when a Ngäbe girl reaches puberty, she becomes eligible for marriage, as is the custom of the tribe. When the village elder asks for her hand in marriage, Carmen must decide whether Esmeralda should follow in footsteps of Ngäbe women or break away from the tradition which ultimately means breaking away from the community. What looks like an obvious choice to outsiders is not obvious at all in a place where one’s identity and livelihood depend entirely on being part of the community.

In the film, as outsiders to the community, Pamela, an anthropologist from the University of Costa Rica, and her son Feb, an American tween, advocate different approaches to dilemma of an indigenous people’s society. Through his friendship with Esmeralda, Feb becomes part of tribal dynamic, while well-meaning Pamela aims to force her notion of development on the Ngäbe, until their internal conflicts hit too close to home.