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February 15, 2010

Three Films About El Salvador: Then & Now

Documentary filmmaker Don North generously provided me with access to interview transcripts he prepared for his film Guazapa: Yesterday's Enemies [discussed below], and those interviews proved crucial as background for Do They Know I'm Running?, especially in the portrayal of my protagonist's uncle, Tío Faustino.

Tim Muth, in his always informative blog about El Salvador mentioned in his most recent post three films, one about Dr. Charlie Clements, and two by documentary filmmaker Don North, all of which examine the events that took place on the Guazapa Volcano, a guerrilla stronghold, during El Salvador's civil war.

Clements, who served in Vietnam, became a doctor dedicated to helping victims in war zones, and he worked with Salvadoran communities during the war that otherwise would have been neglected. In particular, he aided the guerrillas and their families who took refuge on Guazapa Volcano, a staging ground for attacks on the capital. The volcano became the battleground for one of the most violent offensives of the war, and both Clements and North address that time and place.

The Clements documentary is titled Witness to War, and it's based on his memoir of the same name; it won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 1986.

The first film by Don North, Guazapa: The Face of War in El Salvador, appeared in 1987, and dealt with the daily life of the guerrillas on Guazapa as they endured daily bombing runs and, finally, a full offensive from the Salvadoran armed forces. That offensive led to a group retreat, called a guinda, that North covered at the time. His report on an atrocity that killed twenty-eight women and children earned him the scorn of the Reagan administration, and he was called a liar by State department flacks trying to discredit him. (The truth has vindicated him.)

Twenty-six years later, North and Clements teamed up to return to El Salvador and interview witnesses on both sides of the conflict that led to the Guazapa guinda. That film is titled Guazapa: Yesterday's Enemies, and reveals what has happened to the people and the country in the ensuing two and a half decades. As one witness states plainly: "There are more deaths now than during the war," and another confesses that circumstances for the poor, if anything, are even worse than they were before.

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