Three films on El Salvador

by Michael Chanan

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 19-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Introduction to Jump Cut special section: Films in struggle
— John Hess

The six films discussed here were made in the midst of class conflict (not excluding ATTACK ON THE AMERICAS, of course, the review of which we have reprinted as a counterpoint to the rest of the films). The filmmakers were direct participants or, though outsiders, dependent for their very lives on the people they depict. Committed left wing artists/intellectuals made these films and have not made much effort to romanticize class struggle in the interests of more timid or less conscious audiences. In some cases this presents problems with using a film as an educational or organizing tool in certain contexts in the USA. And care should be used. However, because of how they were made, they uncover and layout for observation the full brutality of this struggle between the owning class and those it exploits. The films share the crude energy and the human poignancy of the conflicts they portray and which have been part of class conscious filmmaking since the Soviet revolutionary filmmakers and the workers' film movements of the 1930s. Despite their scarce resources, these filmmakers use the full range of film techniques — drawing heavily on the various traditions of radical filmmaking: Vertov, Eisenstein, Evens, Godard, the Cubans. Solanas and Getino, and the rich developments of feminist filmmaking in the last decade.

The films show clearly the stifled lives, the community disintegration, and the thwarted imaginations of the oppressed. But by so doing, by getting inside the struggles, they also show us the incredible human potential and creativity rising up to face an arrogant capitalism, which must crush human life in order to maintain itself. We see many kinds of bravery: women coming to selfhood as a result of their involvement in strike support organizing; a young boy who buries his father with the most eloquent eulogy on film and then joins the local guerrilla band; Irish families who continue to organize services for the old and the young under the withering oppression of the English Army and grinding poverty; and all the singers and poets arid leaders, risen up, out of the people. All this creativity and change points with hope to the future.

All these films portray responses to imperialism in El Salvador. Canada, Ireland, and Guyana. They remind us again how dramatic, consistent, and important this struggle is, how much we can learn from it, how necessary for us and for them our support efforts are. North American and European wealth depends on the exploitation of these people. Their struggle for human dignity clears a path we will eventually follow, grateful to them for their pioneering effort.

These films, as do the struggles they present, have a lot to teach us about politics, filmmaking, and about life itself. The films both deserve our attention and reward that attention many times over.

Three films on El Salvador — Michael Chanan

According to the ruling military-Christian Democrat Junta in El Salvador and most of the international press to boot, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) launched a final offensive on 10 January 1981 and was defeated. Government forces, claimed the Junta, had within a few days gained control throughout the country, and the guerrillas were no longer in occupation anywhere. The claim was completely false. It was designed both to preempt and to disorient the media, who have continued schizophrenically to repeat that the FMLN final offensive was defeated while from time to time carrying reports from liberated zones, items on demoralization within the Junta's Army (a separate body from the crack National Guard), and other stories which shed doubt on the Junta's veracity.

The FMLN has said that it was a general, not a final, offensive. There has been some confusion about this since the FMLN did indeed speak of the offensive as the beginning of the final stage of the struggle, but a few days before it began — I was on my way to El Salvador to film a report for West German television — I was told by a spokesperson in Mexico of the united Salvadorean political opposition organization, the FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front), that while every offensive aims to achieve the overthrow of the enemy regime, not every offensive gets that far. It was a realistic assessment. A couple of weeks later the FMLN estimated that the offensive had achieved 75% of its aims. Government forces had been placed on the defensive. In response to guerrilla occupations and actions in as many as forty different towns, the Junta had been forced to move reinforcements rapidly around the country only to find then in many instances pinned down in places from which they could not withdraw without the risk that the guerrillas would reoccupy. These occupations, carried out in conjunction with the revolutionary popular militia in each location, were not intended to be permanent. Rather they were designed in order to carry out acts of sabotage and preemptive attacks on military and police garrisons and to build the mobilization of the urban popular organizations toward the eventual tasks of insurrection.

Meanwhile, because of fear of ambush, the main highways remained largely unpatrolled, and the FMLN has remained in occupation of large liberated zones in each of the four fronts into which they have divided the country for strategic purposes. Even known points of entry to these liberated zones have gone unguarded while government forces are garrisoned, moving out only in very large numbers — as many as 5,000 troops at a time — to launch mostly ineffective invasions against guerrilla territory, although they've also been bombing FMLN strongholds which they cannot reach by land.

Five political-military organizations, each maintaining its own internal structure and chiefs-of-staff, make up the FMLN — named after the leader of the 1932 uprising in which 30,000 peasants were killed. The first of these organizations was set up in 1970. There is a joint chief-of-staff in each of the liberated zones which co-ordinates the actions of the different organizations in accordance with the United Revolutionary Directorate (DRU) which was set up a few months before the FMLN was created in October 1980.

The best definition of a liberated zone in El Salvador is one from which the fascist paramilitary organization Orden has been expelled. Orden (which means "Order" in Spanish) was set up in 1967 by the then-president and his security chief in order, in the words of its founders, "to organize the masses so as to control the masses" and "to provide the ideology of fascism with a mass base." Officially outlawed when the new junta took power in October 1979 after the overthrow of President Romero (no relation to the murdered archbishop), it quickly reformed under a new name. It is the implication of a large number of the country's senior military officials in this and other anticommunist paramilitary organizations and assassination squads which gives the lie to the moderate image which Washington has been trying to project of the junta.

Within the liberated zones, the entire population is organized to provide support for the FMLN's guerrilla army. But in both the countryside and in the towns and cities, corresponding to each of the politico-military organizations which make up the FNLN, there is a mass organization and a popular militia, through which the popular classes participate in the struggle. Just as the militia originated in the need for self-defense by the working class against military repression and the activities of the neofascists, so too the eventual task of the militia will be to lead the general strike at the moment of insurrection. This strong, extensive, and well-organized popular movement has been rendered all but completely invisible by the way the international mass media have reported from El Salvador. And yet only this can explain the fierceness and intensity of the struggle and the extremities the neo-fascists have been going to in the last two years.

Meanwhile, in the liberated zones, peasants who were previously seasonal day laborers, more out of work than in, now participate in collectives. They attend hospitals set up by the FMLN to care for wounded fighters but which also offer the first health care known in the rural districts. The FMLN has also set up schools while men and women both participate in workshops in which they produce mines, grenades, and explosive charges of various kinds; repair arms; and make clothes and shoes. Children of both sexes are given all kinds of responsibilities in this kind of society.

All of these are things which I saw in the days following the launch of the general offensive when I entered a liberated zone in the region of San Vicente, about 60 km east of the capital, where Junta forces several times since then have suffered repulse. All the guerrillas I spoke to agreed that since the beginning of the offensive, the army has become severely demoralized. This was partly because a small but significant number of soldiers had deserted to join the guerrilla ranks (including a few officers) and partly because the army rank and file is made up of drafted peasants who are having to fight their own brothers and cousins. Without the highly trained National Guard at their shoulders, there is reason to suppose that they would no longer be prepared to fight.

Government assault forces also rely on the services of Orden, which provides much of their local military intelligence. Orden also mounts guard in civilian dress and with government arms at strategic targets for guerrilla sabotage and openly patrols in the cities. Orden and the National Guard rely in turn on the regiment of U.S. military advisors. On the first morning of the offensive I heard some of these advisors in the capital on Citizens' Band radio. They were clearly directing operations against the occupied popular neighborhoods. We heard one of them barking the instruction, "Get those press cards [journalists]. Get them out of here. They haven't heard the worst one."

The odds against an all-out victory by the FMLN last January were enormous. But the offensive did concentrate international attention on the situation and boost international solidarity. As the impersonation of a cowboy replaced the peanut vendor in the White House, the dangers of direct U.S. intervention seemed obviously to increase. Reagan and Haig announced changes in policy. Abandoning the notion that an official human rights policy would reestablish international respect for the United States, they launched a broadsided attack on something they called "international terrorism." Taking El Salvador as the test case and defining it in terms of an East/West conflict, which it is not. What they meant by international terrorism was the supposed aiding and abetting of left-wing freedom fighters by the Soviet Union through its supposed client states, Cuba and Nicaragua. They published documents which they claimed proved their case, but the envoys they sent abroad to persuade European and Latin American governments to back them persuaded nobody. This is because, as Saul Landau remarked in a recent interview (Marxism Today, June 1981), Haig resorted to a Lewis Carroll caricature and asserted in no uncertain terms that terrorism is what he says it is and not whatever anybody else might think.

Social Democrat governments in Europe stuck by their commitment to the Salvadorean opposition organization, the FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front), the body which corresponds to the FMLN on the political and diplomatic fronts, one of whose member parties is a member of the Socialist International (only the Tory government in Britain supports White House policy). As for Latin America, even right-wing military governments do not seem prepared to accept direct U.S. intervention in El Salvador. They know it could only result in the Vietnamization of the whole of Central America, with all the expectable repercussions in their own countries. In other words, the January offensive had demonstrated that there would be no easy military victory for imperialism in El Salvador, while international solidarity had created pressures, direct and indirect, that made the new president think twice about translating words into deeds.

Yet the danger of escalation is by no means over and in another sense the Vietnamization of El Salvador is already underway, even if it isn't yet direct intervention. As Saul Landau explained:

"I don't think in the near future, that is, before the election in 1982, that this administration is going to send troops anywhere, without there being some terrible emergency. I think the dispatching of U.S. troops to any foreign land would defeat the political plan to capture the Lower House in 1982. So I don't think he's going to do it. I do think he's going to revitalize the Nixon/Kissinger Vietnamization Plan. That's what we're seeing right now in El Salvador. Get these little "greaseball spicks" into shape, right. That's the order to the American military. Advisors, equipment, heavy training — get them into shape to fight a war — all the aircraft you need, all the mobile support, all the artillery that'll flow in. Then you'll have AID teams going in there to shore up the economy to make the government look attractive…"

This, then, and its implications, forms the current context of solidarity work and of any film designed to be used to mobilize support for the struggle in El Salvador.