Back in 1940, Henrietta Boggs was a restless 22-year-old woman from Birmingham, 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, 99, is the subject of a new documentary by Washington filmmaker Andrea Kalin, First Lady of the Revolution. Esteban Penrod, Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel, organized a private screening of the film Aug. 18 at his Ramat Gan residence.
“Shalom rav l’kulam. Thank you for coming, and I hope you’ll enjoy this documentary,” Boggs, speaking in her soft Southern drawl, said in a recorded video message to those who had gathered for the occasion. “I remember my first trip to Israel, and how I was impressed by the similarities between the two countries — how both of them were struggling at that time to set up democratic societies to serve all the peoples of their countries.”
She added: “This film may also, I hope, give you a hint as to what Costa Rica was like 70 years ago. Toda raba.”
Figueres is best remembered for abolishing Costa Rica’s armed forces on Dec. 1, 1948, just as Israel was fighting its War of Independence. Román Macaya, the country’s ambassador to the United States, said at a screening last year in Washington that Kalin’s film depicts “what could arguably be called the most influential decade in Costa Rican history.”
From her budding romance with Figueres to their marriage, two-year exile in El Salvador and finally their triumphant return to Costa Rica, First Lady is the story of a determined, adventurous young woman eager to see the world beyond the white, Christian, conservative, racially segregated Deep South where she grew up.
“Henrietta Boggs’s story is relatable because what she observed and endured in Central America — from early in World War II through her husband’s first presidency at the end of the 1940s — is not just her own story or a lesson in Costa Rican history,” Kalin told me via email. “It is also a universal story of historical relevance about achieving against all odds.”
Yet as her husband grew more powerful, the often neglected Henrietta grew increasingly unhappy in their marriage. After 10 years, she left Figueres and moved back to Alabama along with the couple’s two young children.
She remarried, eventually becoming editor of a monthly magazine in Montgomery. Her daughter Muni served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 2010 until Macaya’s arrival in 2014.
The 71-minute film is a production of Spark Media, Kalin’s Washington-based production company. Her 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.
Kalin, who studied at Hebrew University in the early 1980s and speaks both Hebrew and Spanish, said she’s honored to have her film shown in the Jewish state.
“Henrietta is a voracious reader,” she recalled. “When filming in her personal library, I discovered amidst the crowded shelves a sizeable collection of books on Israel, including a copy in French of a handbook to the Knesset, and a well-worn hard copy to Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Her trip to Israel with Figueres in the late ‘40s catalyzed a lifelong interest in the country and its struggles and triumphs.”
Kalin’s award-winning documentary has already been shown in dozens of locations across the South — places like Oxford, Mississippi; Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Barbourville, Kentucky — as well as in New York, Mexico City and Mar del Plata, Argentina.
But nothing, said the director, compares to the evening First Lady 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,” Kalin said. “She didn’t just ride up to the entrance of the theater, she opted instead to ride smack down one of the aisles inside the theater. 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.”
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 credits cards, a crowdfunding effort as well as 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 photography, 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,” she said. “We just had to be creative and find ways to do things as efficiently and economically as we could.”
Kalin would love to see her documentary screened at film festivals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and thinks it would be warmly received. Noting that both Costa Rica and Israel came of age at the same time, she said “there’s a number of direct parallels in their titanic efforts to each becoming a vibrant democracy in historically troubled regions.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then, she says, that the name of the farm Figueres used to launch his revolution was La Lucha Sin Fin [endless struggle] — “a sentiment that likely resonates profoundly with Israelis.”