El Salvador is not one of my areas of specialisation. It is not a country that has received much attention outside of the field of post-conflict, trauma specialists, and those interested in the US sphere of interest, on the one hand, and literature, in particular those interested in the work of the poet and Revolutionary Roque Dalton. For those researching film, there have been films set there Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986), Romero (John Duigan, 1989) and, most recently Voces inocentes/Innocent Voices (Luis Mandoki, 2004). Due to over a decade of civil war (1982-1993), continuing political instability, and the everyday threat caused by the violent gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, El Salvador has not yet become a safe location for filming. This is exemplified by the constant stream of Salvadoreans who leave the country in search of a better life elsewhere, and by the death of the French filmmaker Christian Poveda, who was killed by gang members who were dissatisfied by the documentary he made about them, La vida loca (2008). However, a prompt to write about children’s performances and dictatorship in Latin American and Spanish films has meant that I have found myself having to research El Salvador’s recent history, with some reluctance.
The Latin American film I am considering is Voces inocentes, a film made by a Mexican, shot in Mexico and largely starring Mexican cast and crew, but set in El Salvador during the civil war. In order to understand more about the setting and context, I needed to research El Salvador.
This has not been easy.
It has proved difficult because, despite having an active interest in war films and films set during violent political conflict, there are times when it can become overwhelming. I have familiarised myself with a particular context (Mexico); frequently find myself emotional at the numbers and detail of the deaths over what has been a bloody twentieth century, followed by an even more gruesome twenty-first; and find myself frustrated with my own impotence confronted by the awfulness of what I read and see. So, I have turned to a new set of statistics of murders and awfulness with some trepidation.
Before I continue, I am not in favour of armed combat. Too many are damaged by it and I have yet to see/hear about/learn of a truly just war.
El Salvador’s civil war was caused by local conditions of gross inequality and brutal (largely) military governments who imposed terror on the majority population, and then was given financial (US$3 billion) and training support by successive US governments fearful of the threat of communism in the context of the Cold War. The outcome was 70,000 dead, 150,000 displaced, thousands of children orphaned, 1 million fled the country (20% of the population), and uncertain futures for all. The horrors committed by the army are many. I have read some of the detail of common practices, that included gruesome deaths, torture and dismemberment, and they are terrifying. I always feel slightly diminished by the knowledge of what men (very occasionally women) are willing to do to other men, women and children. The sadness I feel will probably not be conveyed by my chapter, which will assess the creative consequences of the use of innocence amidst such horrors. But, I thought I’d register it here. My reading may have a certain academic distance, but I haven’t been numbed by my topic. The civil war in El Salvador was a tragedy, so too are all the other unjust deaths of civilians (or non-combatants, if you will) in conflicts wherever they are in the world. I have now added to that catalogue of terrors in my head (and heart) and will use this knowledge to teach and research in the hope that it will add to the sum of human knowledge.