El Salvador: The People Will Win

by Michael Chanan

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 21-23
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

A group of shots intercut with the credits at the end of EL SALVADOR, EL PUEBLO VENCERÁ (EL SALVADOR, THE PEOPLE WILL WIN, El Salvador, 1981) shows a figure emerging into a clearing carrying a 16mm Arriflex camera. He carefully places it in a basket of clothing which a peasant woman has waiting and which, after covering the camera, she lifts onto her head and carries off. In terms of simple denotation, these pictures indicate the conditions under which various parts of the film were shot: the scenes in the interior of the country where the normal conveniences of filmmaking, like cars and trucks, were unavailable. At the same time, they symbolize the necessary cooperation in making the film between the filmmakers and the nameless peasants of the country's liberated zones in the hills of El Salvador, where peasant struggle has a rich and long history. These are the people who provide the support system for the FMLN and from among whom the combatants of the FMLN are overwhelmingly recruited. These pictures of a woman and a camera among the closing credits therefore become, amid the names of collaborators and testimonials to fallen comrades, a further imprint of authorship. They say: "Also made with the help of many people who must remain anonymous."

It can be said that films are always made with people who remain anonymous, because filmmaking always involves a certain kind of anonymity on the part of the majority of filmmakers. The long list of names which form the credits of a film mean nothing to the vast majority, probably 99%, of the people who watch the film. But in this film the credits draw attention to themselves. And when the anonymous cameraman appears on the screen together with an anonymous peasant woman, with another anonymous cameraman behind the camera which is showing us this image, the sense of anonymity acquires a new dimension. Many of the names in the credits are pseudonyms, the nombres de guerra of the liberation fighter, and they're clearly indicated as such. Because of this, the anonymity of those we don't see but whose presence we feel in the usual indications of authorship which a film manifests, this anonymity is redoubled and merges with that of all those whom we do see but who remain nameless. What comes to be symbolized in the closing credit sequence is that all together are the collective authors of the film (together with the dead as well), just as they will all become the collective authors of the victory they're fighting for. The film is part of this struggle, an instrument.

It is produced by the Instituto de Cine Salvadoreño Revolucionario (Revolutionary Salvadorean Film Institute), an organization of the FDR.

Not that this film institute is simply a servicing unit, a public relations body, for not only has it undertaken a program of film production to promote solidarity outside the country, it has also embarked on the use of film and audiovisual media with El Salvador itself, in parts of the liberated zones, for the purposes of political education. The Revolutionary Salvadorean Film Institute belongs squarely to the history of involvement of film as a powerful protagonist of anti-imperialist struggle throughout America, demanding and forging political and cultural self-expression for the entire continent. It joins a roll call that begins in 1956 with the film school set up at the University of Santa Fe by Fernando Birri and continues with the Cuban Film Institute, ICAIC, set up in 1959; with Ukamau in Bolivia; and with Chile Films under Allende between 1970 and 1973; and which now includes INCINE, the film institute set up in Nicaragua by the Frente Sandinista and incorporating the filmmakers who had filmed the insurrection. The Salvadoreans have gone a step further and are not just using film within the struggle but have set up their film institute even before victory. They have been able to do this because the New Latin American Cinema movement, to which this film belongs as much as it belongs to the Salvadorean people, is wedded to the principles of internationalism. THE PEOPLE WILL WIN was made through international cooperation between militant filmmakers in several Latin American countries. It is directed — perhaps this is especially apt — by a Puerto Rican, Diego de la Texera.

The film is an invitation to its audience to identify with its collective authorship and symbolically to join in the struggle of the people of El Salvador. Symbolically, because this is the level on which art does its work, including political art, and this is a film made with great artistry. Symbolically, however, not in a passive sense but by inviting the acts of solidarity in which we express identification with anti-imperialist struggle, symbolic acts which may produce highly practical results as they did in the case of the war in Vietnam. A film contributes to building such a movement because it gathers an audience, it enters the process of mobilization.

Liberal detractors of political films often declare that they only preach to the converted. But even the converted need to be informed. There are also many people apt to express their solidarity because their human instinct tells them to, who are nevertheless horribly confused by the pile of disinformation poured out by the mass media. They know they're confused, like the old lady in a recent cartoon by Jules Feiffer, sitting in front of her television screen. She says:

"The media told us that the Vietcong didn't have a lot of support among the population, that the Zimbabwean guerrillas didn't have a lot of support among the population, and that the shah of Iran had a lot of support among the population. But the media tells us that the rebels in El Salvador don't have a lot of support among the population. Beware of the media. It screws up our capacity to think straight."

In face of this disinformation the film presents — among other things — an account of recent political history in El Salvador. This, in order to counter the silence and the active misrepresentation of the imperialist media in regard not only to the enormous popular base which exists for the FMLN but also the process of unification that has gone on among all progressive forces in the country, in opposition to the Military-Christian Democrat Junta now headed, after cosmetic treatment in the Washington style, by a civilian president, Jose Napoleon Duarte.

Duarte is represented in the mass media according to the official Washington line as a moderate — the military once prevented his taking office after an election victory — caught between the two extremes of left and right. After seeing this film he will be understood, without ambiguity, as leader of the civilian extreme right, the man who moved into the junta when the rest of the civilian politicians left it because the neo-fascist military refused to budge, even just a little to please their paymasters north of the Rio Grande.

The film tells us of the creation of the FDR and the way it brings together the gamut of revolutionary and progressive forces in the country in a unified organization with a single program, whose first objective is the overthrow of the junta and all it stands for. The basis of the FDR program is the recognition — shared by the progressive church — of the people's right to armed struggle to overthrow the regime and of the FMLN as the military force conducting this struggle. Hence there is no political distinction to be made about this film as to whether it follows the line of the FDR or the FMLN. It is not a question of the revolutionary Marxism of the FMLN being toned down to suit the FDR's social democratic objectives. What the film shows is that a process of political polarization has taken place in El Salvador, which has radicalized the bourgeois politicians at the same time as forging unity across the entire left.

What has happened in El Salvador in this respect is a model for us in the neo-imperialist metropolis. The process has equally radicalized the Communist party and the leftist groups who previously held sectarian positions — frequently of the same kind that are still held by some of our own Trotskyist or post-Maoist grouplets, who insist on declaring that the Salvadorean Revolution lies in danger of betrayal because, they roundly accuse, of approaches made by the FDR for negotiations. This is errant nonsense, an instance of what Sartre called "lazy Marxism," which stems from a completely undialectical conception of reality. And in the end, it is no better than Sartre's example of the Hungarian Communist party official in the fifties who proclaimed Budapest's subsoil to be counterrevolutionary because it wouldn't permit the construction of a subway.

Because of the complexity of this recent history, the political sections of the film are difficult to digest. But the presentation of any such material without loss of clarity is a very difficult thing indeed. In spite of structural problems, THE PEOPLE WILL WIN is a paradigm of the kind of film which has come to be known in the new Latin American cinema as the film of combat — cine de combate or cine militante. Conceived on a large scale — the film runs eighty minutes — this paradigmatic quality is evident from the incisiveness of the very first moments, a quality that is pretty well sustained in the varieties and contrasts of style which the film goes through. As in all films of this kind, where the pressing need to communicate a political content comes before the formal criteria of aesthetics, the stylistic variety of the film is in the first place a matter of necessity, not design.

For example, images of certain events which the film needs to picture are available to the filmmakers only on videotape, and they do not hesitate to use them, though the transfer of video image to film is imperfect. But the filmmakers have succeeded in dominating their material. They have given significance even to the imperfection of the image. They have made it signify not only their own urgency but also something about the way the images they bring to us have arrived on our screens. In more formal tens, they have found imaginative ways of incorporating the texture of these video images so as to give them a plastic quality that enriches rather than impairs the overall texture of the film. The shaky and lined images of the massacre in front of the cathedral at the funeral of the assassinated Archbishop Romero are artistically contrasted with the fresh colors, clean lines, and controlled filming of the drawings used to accompany the ballad which narrates the life of Farabundo Marti, the leader of the 1932 uprising killed in the course of its brutal repression when the military in El Salvador first came to power: Farabundo Marti, after whom the united forces of the National Liberation Front have named themselves.

The music in this film is in many ways quite extraordinary. Composed by the Argentinian Adrian Goizneta working with a group of Costa Rican musicians, it comprises film music of an almost unique kind. The number of politically progressive documentaries with specially composed music has always been very small. Pare Lorentz found the resources to get Virgil Thompson to write his marvelous score for THE PLOUGH THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (USA, 1936) but independent cinema over the intervening decades has rarely been able to include such resources. Moreover, motivated increasingly by critical distrust of the uses of music in commercial cinema and television documentary, there has been a tendency instead to use only music recorded live during the filming, if there is such, or else only period popular song, usually carefully selected and arranged in the interests of authenticity. On the other hand, Cuban political documentary has developed other paradigmatic uses of music, which are the ones adopted here.

Because of this, the music in this film may come as an awkward surprise among various audiences. The viewer may not readily grasp how much music serves as a leading, not merely an accompanying, even counterpointed, voice in the film. There are moments when the music prefigures the narration and where it explains aspects of the image to which the narration refers. This music, too, stakes out the film's claim as a piece of work within the contemporary tradition of political art in Latin America. It's not merely a matter of style, such as the use of elements from Latin American popular music. I cannot say whether it was consciously and deliberately done or not — I suspect that it was — but in the latter part of the film, I heard a pattern of intervals in the music which seemed to be quoted from the cantata, Santa Maria de Iquique, by the Chilean political song group Quilapayán, a work composed in the folk idiom at the time of Popular Unity to commemorate the massacre of mineworkers and their families perpetrated in the interests of foreign capitalism in 1906.

The video, the drawings, the further footage borrowed from other sources, all serve as contextualization and preparation for the directly filmed sequences which in many ways constitute the heart of the film. There is above all the sequence towards the end in which a young boy at a burial in a country clearing bewails the death of his father at the hands of the military, declares at the graveside that the only way to avenge the murder is to join the liberation struggle, and is then presented with the red kerchief and insignia of the rebel militia. The sequence is neither sensational nor rhetorical but deeply moving and, for the observant viewer, packed with detail. Particularly to be noticed is the way the adults gently encourage the boy, dropping into a familiarity that in no way destroys the solemnity of the occasion. Perhaps this is what many viewers of this film in our own countries may find the most striking thing about it: that in this struggling society, fighting for its very survival, children are treated as whole and responsible persons, with minds and wills of their own, fully capable and entitled to devote their slender lives to the cause of liberation.

Not the least thing about this strangely lyrical sequence is that the camerawork in it is particularly intelligent. The camera is neither too distant nor too close. Handheld, among the mourners at the funeral and the witnesses of the boy's initiation, it is evidently — judging from the way the boy himself at one moment glances at it — completely trusted. When this film has been more widely seen, this sequence will, I'm certain, be recognized as a paradigmatic piece of engaged documentary. Many such films fail, with the best of intentions, to present their subjects as more than stereotypes. But not here.

On the other hand, the film is pitched emotionally very high. I don't know exactly how this goes over in North America but in Europe it presents certain difficulties — at least for the film sophisticates who mediate the consumption of film in our societies (including many who write and read leftist film journals). The difficulty was apparent at Pesaro in Italy last June, where the festival was devoted entirely to Latin American cinema and THE PEOPLE WILL WIN was thus seen in good company. But the festival produced a clash, a failure on the part of the Italian critical fraternity in their daily reviews to understand the imperatives of the New Latin American Cinema (this being only the most immediate sign of the hard time Latin American filmmakers have had in Europe). The denunciation of the Italian critics by the festival's director, Lino Miccich, repeated on the last night by a representative of the dozens of Latin American filmmakers present, Walter Achugar, must be gauged by the political atmosphere in Italy. To balance the presence of the intellectual-cultural left, Pesaro was also playing host on the festival weekend to a military parade. In the square outside the festival cinema there was a procession of veterans commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of a regiment which had fought in the Mussolini-Fascists' foreign campaigns in North Africa and Europe. The scene was a reminder of the real alignment of political forces behind the images on the cinema screen: humanity versus fascism.

The Italian critics complained of rhetoric in the Latin American film. The complaint was thrown back in their faces. What it comes down to is this: if Latin American films are often rhetorical, and if this rhetoric sometimes misses its target a little, the political imperatives which give rise to it are nonetheless the most authentic and legitimate and of historic proportions, with the consequence that to dismiss them as mere rhetoric says more about the critic who does so than about the film. In none of the films on show at Pesaro was the essential urgency of the rhetoric of Latin American cinema as obvious as in THE PEOPLE WILL WIN.

If it seems misplaced to talk about the plasticity and texture of images which show such scenes as the mass of people attending the funeral of their murdered archbishop themselves being massacred, the justification for this lies in the creative intelligence of the film itself, which makes its rhetoric so eloquent. The source of this intelligence flows through the filmmakers' rejection of mechanical and utilitarian notions of what political films should consist. These notions are symptoms of a dissociation of sensibility which is fundamentally European in origin. Latin American filmmakers have sometimes employed recent European paradigms uncritically, partly because of the force of European cultural models as an alternative to the populist (as opposed to popular) forms of the dominant cultural imperialism of the United States. But a film like this one, which leaves these models behind, shows them up as sterile symptoms of the very cultural alienation they mean to oppose.

Alienation is, among other things, a fear of emotion. Artistic expression cannot succeed in mobilizing the beholder if it entertains this fear but only if it works to overcome it. (How much of Hollywood does that, I wonder?) It's a matter not of what goes on at the surface of the film. It is rather a way of earning the viewer's trust and not, for example, throwing at the audience a welter of undifferentiated and therefore emotionally numbing images, as certain kinds of pictures from El Salvador which form the stock in trade of the mass media are bound to appear at first sight. The filmmakers' intentions must be to integrate the variety of material in a way that combines feeling with thought and thought with feeling. The viewer need not be consciously aware of the integration of perception in this process. It doesn't matter. Aesthetic perception is not the same as theoretical understanding. Theoretical intelligence analyzes; aesthetic intelligence synthesizes.

This film is indeed a highly synthesizing piece of work. And in more senses than one. Directed towards the fullest possible integration within a political process, it has been given a mobile form — again in more senses than one: I have seen it now three times over the space of eight months and each time I've seen a different version. This reworking of the film represents a healthy disregard on the part of the filmmakers for the idea that a film has to have a definitive original form. (Where does such an idea come from, anyway?) They clearly see this film in terms of the dynamic of the revolutionary process it belongs to and have therefore been concerned to improve its political efficacy by introducing changes where necessary. Whatever weaknesses it may have, this film is alive: it therefore asks not to be reduced to a text but to be viewed, and used, in the same spirit as the one in which it has been made.