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New film, First Lady of the Revolution, puts Costa Rica in spotlight

By Larry Luxner

Back in 1940, Henrietta Boggs was a restless 22-year-old woman from Alabama when she arrived in Costa Rica, looking for a little adventure. She accepted a motorcycle ride from a coffee farmer. Little did she know she’d end up marrying that farmer, José “Pepe” Figueres Ferrer — a revolutionary who’d later become president of Costa Rica and set the Central American country on its irreversible path to peace and prosperity.

Boggs, 98, is the subject of a documentary, First Lady of the Revolution, that made its Washington debut Dec. 1, at a screening co-sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Embassy of Costa Rica.

From left, Costa Rican journalist Glenda Umaña, 98-year-old Henrietta Boggs and filmmaker Andrea Kalin appear at the Inter-American Development Bank for the Dec. 1 screening of Kalin’s new documentary, “First Lady of the Revolution.” Photo: Larry Luxner

The movie gives viewers the chance “to experience what could arguably be called the most influential decade in Costa Rican history through the eyes of Henrietta Boggs,” said Román Macaya, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States.

“She fell in love with Pepe Figueres, married him and witnessed through this partnership exile and revolution,” Macaya told the 400 or so people packed into the IDB auditorium to watch the screening. “This was a decade of tremendous social transformation but also a period of tremendous political turmoil, voter fraud and eventual revolution in 1948.”

Henrietta Boggs, former first lady of Costa Rica, speaks with filmmaker Andrea Kalin, whose new documentary chronicles a volatile period in Costa Rica’s history. Photo: Larry Luxner

The ambassador added: “People thought Pepe would reverse the social gains of his adversaries, but he actually deepened and broadened them. He nationalized the banks, expanded voter rights to women and 68 years ago today he did something unprecedented: he abolished the army. That peace dividend was invested in health care and education, and it has transformed Costa Rica into what it is today.”

Boggs left her husband after 10 years and moved back to Alabama along with the couple’s two young children. She eventually became editor of a monthly magazine in Montgomery and her daughter Muni served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 2010 until Macaya’s arrival in 2014.

Costa Rican President José “Pepe” Figueres and his wife, Henrietta Boggs, ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle in San José. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kalin

The 71-minute film is a production of Spark Media, a Washington-based production company owned by Andrea Kalin, whose credits include Red Lines (2014), a cinematic, boots-on-the-ground portrait of the Syrian conflict; No Evidence of Disease (2013), a musical journey that follows six gynecologists on a rock n' roll mission to save women's lives; and Soul of a People: Writing America's Story (2009), a groundbreaking documentary on 1930s America and the Federal Writers' Project.

“Having this screening at the IDB brings the film full-circle,” said Kalin. “If I hadn’t worked with the IDB and with Muni, I would have never known about Henrietta's story, nor would I have had the opportunity to read her riveting manuscript. So to be able to premiere the film at the IDB means a lot.”

Movie poster advertises Andrea Kalin’s new documentary.

First Lady
has already been screened at film festivals in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado and New York — winning two audience awards — and made its Costa Rican debut in San José.

“Henrietta made her grand entrance to the movie theater in a black leather jacket, vintage white lace gloves, and on the back of a 1940s Harley. She didn't just ride up to the entrance to the theater, she opted instead to ride smack down one of the aisles inside the theater,” Kalin said. “At first, when the lights went dark, you could hear in the distance the rumble of a motorcycle engine, but then as the sound got louder and more intense, the exit doors flung open, and there was the country's former First Lady, waving enthusiastically with a radiant and mischievous smile. The crowd went wild.”

Henrietta Boggs is interviewed in her Alabama home for Andrea Kalin’s documentary, “First Lady of the Revolution.” Photo courtesy of Andrea Kalin

Kalin said it took six years, off and on, to produce First Lady. All of the producing team, including herself, contributed their time. Her $250,000 budget was supplemented with credit cards, a crowdfunding effort and three modest grants from the Alabama Foundation for the Humanities. Kalin’s production team was comprised of Costa Rican and U.S. talent, including a top-notch producing staff, two directors of photographers, three editors, two sound designers, a colorist, two outreach people and several interns.

Kalin doesn’t expect to get rich or even make a profit from this movie — her tenth, she said. “We were resourceful and stretched the slim resources we had. What I wasn't willing to compromise on was the film's production values. We just had to be creative and find ways to do things as efficiently and economically as we could.”

Henrietta Boggs, 98, recalls her long and interesting life following the Dec. 1 screening of Andrea Kalin’s documentary, “First Lady of the Revolution,” at the Inter-American Development Bank. Photo: Larry Luxner

She added: “The Costa Rican Embassy has been extremely supportive of our outreach efforts and shares our desire to make sure First Lady reaches as broad an audience as possible,” she told the Diplomatic Pouch. “Ambassador Macaya agrees that it's vitally important to restore this page of history and has promised to help make it available at all of Costa Rica’s consulates across the country.”

At the IDB event, Boggs spoke briefly, thanking Kalin for making First Lady.

Costa Rican President José “Pepe” Figueres and his wife, Henrietta Boggs, are photographed during a visit to Israel sometime in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kalin

“I think Andrea has done such a fantastic job at capturing the history of the times, and the feeling there’s something magical about Costa Rica in the sense that for people living there, the idea that they do not have an army give them such an enormous source of pride,” said Boggs, who turns 99 in May. “She was able to focus on that, and to dramatize what it has meant to the country. It’s such a fabulous movie. It’s so emotionally charged, it’s hard for me to talk about it.”

Asked if she had a message for millennials, Boggs said that in fact, she does.

“Women are now in positions equal to those of men, and the message has seemingly gotten through. So women don’t need to hear anymore how they deserve the best things in life. They already know that,” she said. “We don’t have to belabor the point, we just have to elect them president.”

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.



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