El Salvador: Portrait of a Liberated Zone

by Margaret Henry

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

This film is more important than it may first appear to be. It is a gentle film, shot during the early days of the FMLN's general offensive this January. It is primarily a political film that shows us aspects of the military situation, gives economic and sociological information, and presents an analysis of current forces in the context of the history and growth of the people's form of revolutionary struggle. Made in a short period of time, it is a film which knows its limitations and transcends them.

It is the day-to-day, quiet side of struggle; it is the heat, the debris of war, the fat-bellied unwell children, the painstaking cottage industry of making explosives ("… and this is the sawdust sunning itself, because it has to be dry to mix properly with the other materials"). It is women carefully folding tortillas in banana leaves, the ill-equipped field hospital becoming a first local clinic, and instructors using sticks to train the army. It is the wavering songs by which recent heroes are remembered, the melodies of grief and courage among fighters who are very young, very poor, very beautiful, very serious.

The speakers, casual and calm in a manner lost to metropolitan life, are grounded in a practice through which they have made their own authority. It exists as much in the song of a young boy as in the historical narration by Cayetano Carpio, so gentle in rhythm and tone as to be more like poetry than analysis.

At the beginning of the film we see pieces of pottery illustrating everyday scenes, including lovemaking, and with this we hear the first "voice" of El Salvador — the voice of a guitar. As Carpio begins to speak of the necessities of existence in which the struggle originates, we have the beginning of another dimension of the film. With humility and respect, Carpio honors the people and the organic development of their means of struggle. Speaking of the thirties, he tells how "Farabundo Marti headed the working masses and all honest persons in a struggle against oppression." Carpio is a baker, a military leader, and a poet. Although materially deprived and devastated by repression, the Salvadoreans we see in this film all share through their culture and struggle the same certainty and calm that Carpio has in his knowledge, experience, and practice. It is through the daily hardship and labor of these anonymous people that the revolution is created.

We can find further intimations of the cultural texture of this life in the four sounds in the film which, if sometimes toneless and halting, are always actively meaningful. In them, as Amilcar Cabral encouraged, "we may consider the national liberation movement as the organized political expression of the culture of the people who are undertaking the struggle." [1] We see too "that the armed liberation struggle is not only a product of culture but also a determinant of culture." [2]

What the songs do in the film reveals what they do in the community. The first song is ironic. It sings of "How beautiful is democracy in this lovely country," gives some sordid examples, and speaks of "gentlemen above [who] think in English while they speak in Spanish." By reworking other visual and verbal information we have had about the relation between the U.S. and Latin America, the song shifts our attention from information to experience.

The singers, like all others in the film except Carpio, are not named. Anonymity here, consistent with its value in FMLN revolutionary ideology, enables us to identify not with individuals but with their experience and activity. Anonymity does not suppress the individual; it embodies him/her as part of the community. It also allows us to see how profound the relation is between individual experience, cultural expression, and political consciousness.

This anonymity ends with death. We do not see death, but we hear about it. The other three songs are about people who have died. Here they are remembered by name, their actions identified with them as individuals. In song a young man is creating the community's memory of some of its members: a fellow fighter, a civilian, a child, a loved priest in his last moments "praying for all the oppressed, searching for their freedom." With these words the camera brings us to the graceful movements of women folding tortillas within green banana leaves. Then the song refocuses on life and on the fight for a future. Another sings, "This song … has been made for after the Revolution." Those who have died have done so in a manner continuous with the lives of their comrades, as are the singers in their songs and as is the film in its seeing — the community of struggle is the people's culture.

Pain — as in the field operation and the child having a wound tended — is silent. For her, an apple for after.

In the metropolitan countries we can see this film in two contexts: television documentaries and films like EL SALVADOR: THE PEOPLE WILL WIN (EL PUEBLO VENCERÁ), a co-production made with the help of the Salvadoreans themselves (reviewed above). PORTRAIT OF A LIBERATED ZONE is productively complementary to the latter.

The TV documentaries on El Salvador, some of them good television reportage, are rapidly produced, riskily filmed, and gory — with footage among the most shocking of the past year's deluge of catastrophes. With many mutilated bodies and a narration which is thin on political comprehension, they provide the "human rights" visceral shock treatment. These are films about violence, death, poverty, utter brutality, and hopelessness. They are overwhelmed by a horror which cannot anchor itself. They look at suffering more than at the struggle for change.

These TV documentaries have an important role to play, but Chanan and Chappell work both literally and conceptually from within the revolutionary process. Though low key, the film conveys the sense of time, the seriousness, and the certainty which the struggle itself creates.


1. "National Liberation and Culture" (a speech given in 1970), in Return to the Source, ed. African Information Service (New York: Monthly Review Press. 1973), pp. 43-44.

2. Ibid., p. 55.