A vast landscape of refuse and the community that survives by salvaging its waste is central to the plot in the debut feature from Nicaraguan writer-director Laura Baumeister. 

“Daughter of Rage,” which world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday, will also make its European premiere as part of the New Directors competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival later this month.

The narrative follows 11-year-old María (Ara Alejandra Medal) and her mother, Lilibeth (Virginia Sevilla), who pick through a littered shore to ensure their survival. Lilibeth, forced to travel to town to settle debts, leaves María to fend for herself at a sweatshop where children sort garbage for resale. With newfound pal Tadeo by her side, María grapples with an uncertain future, dreaming up fantastic scenarios to cope with the abandonment that looms over her head like an eerily dark sky before a storm.

The film is inevitably heart-wrenching but brave, balancing its portrait of poverty and environmental decay with the arresting resilience of María herself. Each character plays into the solemn realities they’re dealt, leaving room for small acts of care between the cracks in the fortified walls they’ve built-up to temper their disappointment.

The project marks an ambitious production between Laura and Rossana Baumeister and Bruna Haddad’s Nicaragua-based Felipa Films and Martha Orozco at México’s Marth Films alongside co-producers Halal, Heimafilm, Promenades Films, Caron Pictures, Dag Hoel Filmproduksjon and Nephilim Producciones. It’s the first fiction feature shot by a female Nicaraguan-born director.

International sales are handled by Brussels-based Best Friend Forever, which launched at Cannes in 2019 with a focus on boarding groundbreaking arthouse cinema from emerging and established global talents. They currently represent Venice Orizzonti competitor “To The North” and Alê Abreu’s rousing animation feature “Perlimps.”

Ahead of the film’s screening, Baumeister spoke with Variety about imagination, writing multi-faceted characters and what she hopes audiences will take away from the story.

How did your sociology background  influence the story, to ensure a level of empathy?

Sociology has allowed me to approach the world with less prejudice, with an attitude of curiosity and a lot of observation. It’s like a scientific method that tells you to bring your mind to change your mind. Observe, and observe, then after observing, try to process, but by slowing down the mind, first. That’s a method you learn. I’ll be forever grateful to sociology for giving me that. 

Fortunately I feel that it’s highly related to the work of directing actors. I start from the premise that all people are complex and deep with contradictions and an inner world. For me, it’s not so much that I make them complex but that I allow that complexity to come out. 

We see María and the other children use their imaginations to cope with their situation. Can you speak to that mechanism in the film, why it’s an important tool to have when facing traumas inflicted by life?

When I faced the reality of the location, this giant landfill in Managua, I felt the need for the way the characters experience things not to be seen solely through the objective reality of poverty and their economic condition. I also wanted to give them something that we all have, imagination. 

Imagination is a way of processing and altering reality to get ahead. That fits very well, obviously, in a child. Children still have a much more virgin world of imagination without much prejudice. I’ve thought a lot about imagination as a tool for resilience.

Your film carried themes of extreme poverty, the dangers associated with being a woman living in this situation, a child. But you also include morsels of hope, play, faith. Can you speak to that underlying tone of positivity in the script?

I think we almost always see less privileged realities from the eyes of privilege. From that privilege, it seems terrible to us. There are many disadvantages and a void of opportunity. Yet, there’s joy, an engine of survival that prevails in their day-to-day life. 

It was something I discovered from the scouting and casting sessions in the community, which were long processes, almost three years. Solidarity, tenderness, fantasy, and dreams coexist with adversity, poverty, and violence. For me, that makes for a super interesting emotional landscape.

Just as the community stayed with you long after you visited, what would you love audiences to retain from the film long after they’ve viewed it?

The creative drive, the drive of the imagination, it’s the pulse of fantasy, something that belongs to us all, beyond our social conditions. All human beings are multidimensional. The way that María can process the loss of her mother through fantasy, it’s a coping mechanism that can be applied to any adversity. Imagination is another layer of empowerment.

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