by John Mraz, with Eli Bartra
Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 37-39
A number of films on the El Salvador struggle are now available.(1) Most emphasize depicting the Salvadoran people's oppression by the ruling junta and its supporting pillar, the United States government. Cameras linger over slashed throats, hacked-off fingers, and sobbing women and children. We need to understand clearly the lengths to which the U.S.-backed ruling clique is willing to go in order to retain its power, and so these films have been useful and important. But, even more, we need to understand the dialectical response to this oppression. And we need examples of it in a form more concrete than the groups of guerillas in their red kerchiefs that we see at the end of these films.
The Salvadorean film collective "Cero á la izquierda" ("Zero to the Left”) graphically presents us with that dialectical response in their film, LA DECISION DE VENCER (THE DECISION TO WIN, 1981), the first film on that revolution made by an all-Salvadoran crew.(2) The film presents people's daily life activities as the material substructure of the struggle. Its intimacy, lyric texture, and understatement set it apart from most other films on this war. These qualities were recognized recently when DECISION TO WIN received the highest awards of the Havana (Gran Premio Coral) and Leipzig (Golden Dove) film festivals.
DECISION TO WIN was filmed in the department of Morazán, in a liberated zone, during July and August, 1981. It focuses on the relationship between people's daily life activities and the war. We see people engaged in the daily tasks which allow the struggle to continue. Men with pistols on their hips cut sugar cane. A young couple leave the church after their wedding and are cheered as they walk between lines of armed compañeros. Women make tortillas to feed the children attending the school established there. We hear people describe both their lives and commitment to the revolution. One campesino articulates, "A well-fed army is a strong army.” Others animatedly discuss the resumption of a soccer game they were winning before the passing of an army helicopter forced them to suspend the game for a few minutes.
Actual combat provides but another chapter to this story. Government forces appear in the film only after a battle when army members are shown as wounded and stunned prisoners. It is a sequence lyrically structured by a silence as deafening as the sounds of war. The silence allows us to see these soldiers not as the enemy but as unfortunate pawns caught in a struggle they do not yet understand.
To focus on the structure of daily life activities in the liberated zone breaks with a whole tradition of insurrectionist cinema. The film does not emphasize the junta's — the “legal” government's — role and criticizing its legitimacy by showing the atrocities it commits against its own people. Instead, DECISION TO WIN posits the legitimacy of the liberated zones. Productive activities there contrast with the disruption caused by the invading and occupying national army. Rather than dwelling on the people's oppression, this optimistic film prefers to demonstrate concretely people’s daily resistance. It does so with a clarity of expression and explanation rarely seen in documentaries on El Salvador.
In the following interview, a member of the collective and the principal cameraperson of DECISION TO WIN, Lucio Lleras, discusses making the film, the film's role in revolution, and the relation between filmmakers and people. He also talks of the collective's relationship to revolutionary organization — the FMLN(3) and its antecedent revolutionary groups. He provides important background material on the war. Lucio's vision is textured and his answers are candid. Through his candidness, his wit, and his incisive perception, he shows us a human dimension of the struggle in El Salvador. He indicates that the collective's decision to focus on daily life activities was one whose importance they perhaps only came to understand while making the film. Furthermore, he provides a perspective somewhat different than the "official" revolutionary position on the participation of women in his remarks about machismo — "the Latin American problem that isn't going to be solved by the magic art of being in a revolutionary environment." And the filmmaking itself demonstrated this problem, as Lucio admits a particular woman plays a scene "because she's pretty."
Why did you choose to focus on the daily life activities in the liberated zone?
Many of the previous films had concentrated on aspects of the massacres, the repression, and the army, or if not on those specific things, still too focused on the armed struggle. But no film had dealt yet with what has really permitted the struggle to develop. Since productive activities had already been greatly developed in the controlled zones, we started from that idea.(4)
The Salvadoran national army takes on the appearance of an "army of occupation." Was it your intention to illustrate the legitimacy of the controlled zones by contrasting them to the national army?
The national army has been repudiated by everyone and continues to exist only because of direct U.S. aid. So it serves the function of an army of occupation, for example, like the French army served in Algeria. It's not an army defending territory against foreign aggression; it's repressing its own people. Juxtapose this to the popular army, which exists because of the food, clothing, and all the rest of the things the people provide. The film's intention is to show that this popular army exists because the people work directly for its sustenance.
Do we see a microcosm of one individual community that exists in the controlled zones or an overview of several communities in these zones?
Everything takes place in one controlled zone. The various controlled zones in El Salvador do not all have the same characteristics. This one is situated in Morazan, in the northeast of the country. The people we filmed have lived there all their lives, and they understand the nature of their undertaking. Quite simply, they've established an entire productive infrastructure — all the sugar mills, etc. They're not displaced from another area, or refugees. The refugees are in Honduras and do not produce, but they must live off the structure of international aid and institutions like the Red Cross.
This film was made by Salvadorans, whereas several others on El Salvador were made by foreigners. Do you see any differences?
Yes, in the point of view more than anything else. Foreigners generally try to highlight the most spectacular events or those with most impact, so they've fallen into filming things like dead people. Someone making tortillas, for example, doesn't seem to interest them much. However, when you see the struggle from the inside, you begin to place emphasis not as much on the combatants but on the popular base which permits them to act.
Of course, the people filmed don't react the same in front of someone who needs an interpreter as they do with a Salvadoran. This varies but they can be more natural. First you explain who you are and what you're doing, so that they're perfectly informed — but with a foreigner there's always some minimal distrust.
Whom did you make this film for?
The largest audience possible. We didn't contemplate showing it to the people we filmed, though that would be ideal. There are no electrical generators in the controlled zone to run projectors. We were clearly thinking of mobilizing international solidarity. Political media in our movement must generate sympathy in the outside world so as to help the struggle progress. So we were thinking primarily of the foreign community and not of the national audience in an immediate way, though we want to provide valuable documents for the future.
Within the context of international opinion, we were perhaps most interested in the people of the United States — to stop U.S. aid and correct Reagan's error. We don't pretend to speak to the U.S. government. It doesn't function because you convince it. It acts in terms of its interests.
Could you talk a little about communications' role in the struggle — perhaps as the well-known "camera as gun"?
Well, I don't really agree with that. It overvalues the gun as the only weapon. In the liberated zones, someone entrusted with productive tasks is as important as a leader of a column of combatants. Even people who bear arms but who have the capacity, for example, to produce sugar, are shifted to do what they really know how to do well. The gun, a necessary tool, is not the primary one. We should differentiate each function within the revolution rather than identify them all with a gun. Filmmaking has its specific function, just like cutting cane or planting corn — each task is a weapon, a tool in the struggle. We should not associate all weapons with guns.
Do you see any contradiction between a political commitment and objectivity in a documentary film?
From the moment that you frame anything, you leave something else out. From that moment, absolute objectivity does not exist. One always takes a certain position.
It seems that there is some sort of complex relationship in documentary films between credibility and "objectivity." Do you think of the audience and what they will find credible?
When you film without wanting to fool anybody, there's no reason to ask yourself whether they're going to believe you or not. Because you film what's going on just as it's happening, and there's no manipulation. The place to make it more or less credible would be in the editing. But perhaps our primary concern there was to make the film as attractive as possible, so as not to bore the audience.
We tried to avoid any appearance of manipulation. Political documentaries are always full of declarations: "Our movement is this and this and pursues this line," etc. — something one either believes or doesn't. Such films tend to emphasize the leaders, who speak for the others, saying, "us" and "our people are doing this and this." However, the people themselves hadn't really spoken in film here until now. You don't see any propagandistic speeches or posters or graphics — or leaders either in our film. And we used no voice-over narration, for example, because it's also manipulative to put in a voice-over narration that explains the visuals but comes from who knows where. We began with these principles: to avoid voice-over narration; to avoid materials dealing with the enemy; to avoid mixing materials for the sake of a more homogenous film. And, finally, we wanted to give the people at the base an opportunity to speak.
What were your relations like with the combatants?
The film couldn't have been made without them. The equipment we carried was in nine or ten packs, and I went with only one sound person. We slept and ate with the combatants. We had to count on them every time we moved the equipment.
(Laughingly) I'm a Salvadoran who's been in the revolutionary organization for a long time, not a foreigner who went to live some kind of African adventure. That's precisely the difference that we were talking about with respect to the foreigners who have made films on El Salvador. I think that the Swedes who went there lived a very intense adventure and felt a sense of brotherhood with the people, sharing the same needs and dangers. Because I already knew the combatants well and had already been there, for me this sense of collectivity didn't represent any unusual experience.
(Jorge Sanchez) How is it that within a military-political structure they value a film project and use resources normally destined for other tasks to help make it?
In fact, in the beginning, when we were making shorts, the organization showed slight interest and didn't see film work's real dimensions. But, to the extent that international work has been successful — for example, the French-Mexican recognition (of the FMLN-FDR) or the unanimity that exists in the Socialist International — the necessity to work outside El Salvador began to be felt. So films became a priority. International work has become a front. In fact, there is a foreign front and a national front. If international solidarity with the Salvadoran revolution didn't exist, the United States wouldn't even still be hesitating. They would have made their 200th intervention in Latin America without any problems.
(Jorge Sanchez) Will you continue making films as the revolution develops?
The revolutionary struggle will progress and present new situations to film. Films will have to be made. In El Salvador, the people are so committed to this struggle that exterminating the guerilla force would mean exterminating a good part of the population. Even the U.S. military leaders have said that there's no assurance that an armed U.S. intervention could terminate the movement.
The optimism you see in the film comes from this, that the people feel we're no longer in a position where they could defeat us quickly. The stronger we are, the more possibilities we'll have to make films. The two are directly related. Being able to make a film in Salvadorean territory is a demonstration of the power the organization now has — like having a radio operating. The radio that you see in the film scandalizes the government. They've located it precisely, but can't do anything about it, because that radio is in the center of the controlled territory where we made the film, in Morazán.(5)
Could you talk a little about the background of the collective, "Cero á la izquierda"?
We made three prior short films, all of which deal with the Salvadoran process: THE VIOLENT EVICTION, A SONG, and MORAZÁN. We've been working together for about three years.
There are only three of us. Really, we use no serious structure of production, nor division of labor either. What we follow, more or less, are the lines of the organization or, now, of the FMLN. It's a collective that depends on the FMLN, but the funds for production come from a mountain of different sectors. For this last film we counted on the collaboration of Mexican institutions: S.U.T.I.N. (Syndicated Union of Nuclear Industry Workers), the film school at U.N.A.M. (National Autonomous University of Mexico), and Zafra.
Were there material limitations in terms of cameras or film?
The limitations were what you could normally carry on your shoulder. So we had to carry light equipment and not much film. We entered with 15 rolls (Eastman Kodak Color 7245), a camera (Atun), a tape recorder (Nagra SN), a tripod, and a light.
I've heard that some of the film you used had been buried. Is this true?
A reporter who was around during an army offensive had buried some film. During such mobilizations the combatants dig holes and bury what they can't carry, such as radio equipment. They cover and disguise the holes, waiting until they control the zone again and can dig it up. Well, this way we had another 15 rolls of unexposed film.
We found the film buried, but the combatants told me that it might not work because it had been given a "summer burial." During the dry season, when they think they're going to return soon, they make a simple hole with boards and that's it. But when they think it will be a longer time, they make the hole in an "L" shape with plastics — the "winter burial." This summer burial had already been rained on, and the film cans were full of mud. The material was still good, but because of the burial some scenes turned a little blue.
(Jorge Sanchez) Thanks to Kodak packing? (laughing) The camera work appears integrated with people's attitudes. There is an intimacy achieved. People don't act as if they're in front of a strange instrument. Can you say something about their attitude toward the camera?
Some, of course, already had contact with equipment, because people with cameras had passed through before. In our case, though, we arrived with people in the revolutionary organization from Morazan. Coming from a long march, the first thing we did was rest. And that usually took a couple of hours, while they brought us something to drink. We used that time to get acquainted and explain that we were all in the same organization. It was very important that they understand immediately that we weren't reporters — which was the first thing those who didn't know us would think we were. Later, they were always happy to see us, because there's a certain routine and boredom in war. So we always provided a sort of spectacle for the people.
The beauty of our closeness to the people could be seen, for example, in the fifteen minutes we had to wait after mounting the camera until everyone had looked through the eyepiece. Once they knew we weren't reporters or foreigners, they had no respect. They wouldn't ask anything of a reporter, or go near the camera. But from us they wanted explanations. I think this unconsciously contributed to a thawing out of the situation.
We had to explain to people who told us they wanted the camera explained to then. It's like explaining a gun they don't know — you have to explain it. Everybody has to know how to operate all the weapons, and there were an incredible number of different models. In a bit, we were explaining to every person in the line.
One thing that hits me in the film is the role of women. What is the role of women in the revolution?
In general or in the revolution? Because I don't see the distinction. Many people ask about the women's role in the revolution. Is it the same as usual? What is it going to be? There are things in which women have a special role, but in the film you see very little of them.
But in the beginning of the film a woman appears who is demonstrating the use of the M-72 rocket launcher. Why?
Because she's pretty, that's why. She was an unusually lovely girl, whom we borrowed to do a sort of gag for the film. Rut she wanted to know what she was going to do. Since she knew how the launcher worked, we told her to explain that. It was hard to convince her to do it because she didn't want to. She was very shy. In fact, there was no particular reason to prefer a beautiful girl to an ugly one. It wasn't a centralized decision, there was no director of the film. Sometimes we had to accept what the people said, and she was a collective decision of the people.
We weren't thinking of women's roles, and various women have said it is a film where women are almost absent. Now I see what they mean. The fact is there was no preconceived idea to promote the role of women.
But what is the woman's role in the revolution?
Well, it exists, but in a proportion that is clearly much less. You have to recognize that the proportion of women in the kitchen is much greater than the proportion of women in arms. But there are men who work at the heavy kitchen tasks for example, grindinq corn. And there are women combatants, women who are in the leadership up to the level of commandant. In Morazan, I found women working in the press and propaganda apparatus, in military communications, in the health brigades, and in Radio Venceremos.
Of course, there's a Latin American problem that you're not going to solve by the magic art of being in a revolutionary environment. The structure is macho and male-dominated, and you're not going to solve that so easily. Above all, it's a traditional society, because it's agricultural and they're campesinos. In the city, well, there are many more women in the revolutionary organization because they come from the university. But in the country, the traditional attitude exists that the tasks of war are men's tasks and those of the kitchen, feminine tasks.
In the film there's a wedding that couldn't be more traditional. The priest there is successful because he carefully acts out the entire ritual. He believes in the revolution and has put in nine years with the people's organizations. There are priests who dress in civilian attire — theoretical types with no real popular roots, who seem more like engineers.
Why did you begin the film with the scene of Roger at the wedding?
He establishes immediately exactly where we are by saying, "We are celebrating this mass in a controlled zone, conquered by the FMLN." Not to prioritize the religious question. But when the revolutionary organizations began the consciousness-raising process in Morazan, many of their local members were Christians. The local revolutionary groups utilized existing Christian organizations to create revolutionary organizations.
Are there problems between the country and the city people?
Not problems, but two different situations. City people, many of them privileged, enter the revolution out of conscience — because of their ideology and education. The countryside is largely illiterate. Many enter because the army killed their brother or mother, or because they themselves have directly suffered repression. Right now the tendency is to fuse the groups because the war is mainly in the countryside. So there's a number of city people out there providing a political education for the country people: first teaching them to read and write and later explaining to them about which forces are struggling and what their relations are with foreign countries.
(Jorge Sanchez) To what extent do you think the Nicaraguan revolution has influenced the campesinos in this liberated zone? Is there an identification?
It's only a few kilometers from Nicaragua. Yes, they're very aware of what happened there. They can see that revolution is possible, and this makes everyone very optimistic. In fact, in the film you see the celebration of July 19th.(6)
What do you think of "revolutionary cinema"?
I think it's a label that always comes after the fact. When it comes before, it's not revolutionary. Perhaps I could say that there's a cinema of agitation that's more immediate in its objectives — that's propaganda. But to be revolutionary cinema it would have to have a much greater transcendence — and perhaps a film is revolutionary in one context and not in another. Finally, revolutionary cinema is that which helps make the revolution, independently of its own pretensions.
1. For a fine introduction to films on El Salvador, as well as a useful resource guide, see JUMP CUT, 26 (1981).
2. The original title of the film was LOS PRIMEROS FRUTOS (THE FIRST FRUITS). DECISION TO WIN is distributed in the United States by El Salvador Film and Video Projects, 799 Broadway, Suite 325, New York, NY 10003.
3. Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional.
4. Salvadoreans use the terms "controlled zones" and "liberated zones" interchangeably to indicate areas in which the revolutionary forces control the productive activities. The army can enter these areas only with great difficulty, and the fascist paramilitary organization ORDEN has been driven from these zones.
5. The radio is Radio Venceremos of the FMLN, which broadcasts two hours daily.
6. July 19, 1979, was the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution.