El Salvador: Revolution or Death

by Peter Steven

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 20-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic title sequence for any film: a young man kneels on the pavement in the central square in San Salvador, dips his finger in the blood of a dead compatriot lying nearby, and quickly scrawls on the side of a building, "Revolution or Death."

In the forty-five minutes which follow, the full human and political meaning of that gesture become very clear — the present situation in El Salvador is at a critical point. Revolution has reached every corner of the country and has changed every Salvadorean's life crucially. At this moment in history there is no middle ground, one either supports the military junta or the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR).

Made in 1980, in El Salvador and Holland by a Dutch crew, REVOLUTION OR DEATH is a particularly important film for North Americans right now because it tackles head on the view of the U.S. administration and the mass media "interpretations," which have parroted that government position to the letter. Both the Carter and Reagan governments have argued that the problem in El Salvador is violence from the extreme left and right. They have stated that the new junta, which took power in November 1979, represents a moderate road that has the support of the majority of the people. The United Nations, the Salvadorian Catholic Church, and the testimony of the people in the film argue otherwise.

Contrary to the U.S. view, both the opposition groups and international observers state that the junta has the support of only a tiny class of landowners, literally known as the Fourteen Families, who have conspired with the right wing of the military and foreign capital to keep most of the country in a semi-feudal state for the past fifty years. Attempts to introduce even modest agrarian reform have met with a stonewall and increasing repression, and have led to the current revolutionary situation.

There was some hope in the early weeks of 1980 that the new military-civilian government would implement a plan for agrarian reform. Yet the reform, which was loudly touted in the U.S. press, was little more than a rural pacification program coupled with vicious repression of rural labor organizations. The U.S. architects of this program were the same advisers who had imposed the Phoenix pacification scheme in Vietnam in the 1960's.

Within a few weeks of the new junta, all but one of the civilian and moderate military members had resigned in disgust. Some immediately joined the revolutionary opposition. In April 1980, all the progressive mass organizations and political parties joined together to form the Democratic Revolutionary Front, and in November 1980, after a summer of major escalations in the conflict, all of the popular armed guerrilla and mass forces joined to form the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (the FMLN). Since the formation of the FDR-FMLN coalitions and the installation of the Reagan government, the greatest danger has been the possibility of a U.S.-sponsored invasion to prop up the faltering junta.

What makes this documentary so riveting ate the obviously precarious conditions in which the filmmakers worked. The recorded footage is not a random documentation of demonstrations, comments from people on the street, urban violence, etc. Rather, much of what we see provides crucial historical evidence supporting the analysis originating from the democratic forces in El Salvador.

Of vital importance is a short interview with Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of San Salvador, who strongly condemns the violence of the junta and the U.S. aid. Romero had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for his strong stance and had personally written Carter demanding an end to U.S. aid and military advisers, In March 1980, shortly after this interview, he was assassinated by a right wing death squad.

Immediately following the interview is a long sequence documenting the tragic funeral of the Archbishop. Several thousand mourners carrying palm leaves had gathered outside the cathedral to participate in the mass. But near the end of the ceremonies paramilitary troops set off a number of bombs and began firing into the crowd. It's during this incident that the young man seen in the title sequence writes the slogan in blood. Later footage shows hundreds of mourners coming out of the church with their hands above their heads, filing out of the square that is ringed with troops. All this time the camera has recorded the slaughter from within the crowds in the square and inside the cathedral.

At a news conference held by the junta the next day — also documented by the film — an official states that no troops were stationed in the square during the mass. Without need of narration, the filmmakers insert over his voice footage taken from the funeral showing troops on the rooftops around the square.

Following in the steps of the great Dutch documentarist Joris Ivens, who filmed in Spain, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China, these Dutch filmmakers have achieved a concrete act of solidarity with the people of a Third World country. The film is clear and partisan in its politics of support for the revolutionary forces. The narrator does not hide behind TV news conventions of "objectivity." At one point he calls the situation of the rural poor "disgraceful."

During the shooting of the film, the director, Frank Diamand, was interrogated by the National Guard. As he escaped from the barracks, they shot and wounded him but he managed to get away. Diamand and his crew had previously filmed in Vietnam and in Nicaragua just prior to the July 1979 victory of the Sandinistas. That film, NICARAGUA SEPTEMBER 1978, is especially powerful in its documentation of the guerrilla training camps, as the rebels prepare the last offensive against the Somoza regime.

REVOLUTION OR DEATH handles the conventions of political documentary extremely well, managing to document the recent events and provide the necessary background on the country's history and economics. But most importantly it translates on a strong emotional level the desperate situation and just cause of revolution in El Salvador.

A series of graphics and cartoon photomontages sketch in the country's history and economic structure and outline the program of the FDR. Using satiric and humorous drawings, photos and animation reminiscent of Monty Python (though with considerably more political edge), a narrator analyzes the power of the Fourteen Families, the events of the 1932 peasant uprising in which 30,000 people were killed, and the rapid series of events of 1980 which saw the murders of over 10,000 Salvadoreans by the army, the National Guard and the right-wing death squads.

REVOLUTION OR DEATH is exemplary filmmaking and well worth study by political documentarists. It keeps an authoritative narrator's voice to a minimum, allowing mise-en-scene and montage to carry many of the arguments. It has a great variety of sequences, carefully edited not only for clarity but to encourage real audience involvement. Such an involvement provides the basis for audiences to understand morally and politically the aims of the FDR.

One horrifying sequence requires only three shots. A young man of about 17 lies face down on the sidewalk with his hands tied by the thumbs behind his back, a National Guard with rifle standing over him. The cameraperson tentatively approaches: "¿Que pasó?" (What happened?). The boy says that he was simply walking down the street here where his aunt lives, and when he heard shots nearby, he panicked and ran. Shot two shows the boy now in the back of a National Guard truck surrounded by troops. The third shot from sometime later shows a crowd of people gathering around the mutilated body of the boy, which had been dumped in the street.

The filmmakers obviously have professional TV experience — they have an eye for the dramatic and moving image. But the filming style differs in two fundamental ways from standard TV news and documentary reportage. First, the camera crew records from among the people, literally taking the point of view of the demonstrators and the guerrillas. This has considerable impact on audiences who are used to seeing demonstrations from a camera positioned behind police lines. For example, a recent program on El Salvador aired in January '81, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Fifth Estate came across as remarkably sympathetic to the aims of the revolutionary groups. Yet the manner of analyzing the situation was so dependent on the authoritative "Voice of God" narration and the testimony of expert observers that the real justice of the struggle was easily missed. In contrast, REVOLUTION OR DEATH derives tremendous power from the willingness of the filmmakers to get very close and involved with a variety of people and really listen to what they have to say.

A scene that is repeated with a number of variations shows a group of Salvadoreans standing in a circle in a street, or outside a factory, or in a small village, recounting details of the current events. As one person takes a turn speaking, the others listen carefully, nodding their heads in assent. The director has not rushed these scenes — he has concentrated on documenting the sad but determined expressions on people's faces. Most of the people who speak are clearly not well educated. They tend to speak quietly, some almost softly, but they are very clear and firm about their politics: "The junta has treated the farmers' organizations barbarously." "The agrarian reform is nothing but a sham."

For Salvadoreans in the audience, REVOLUTION OR DEATH may not be particularly informative since the political analysis in the film is quite general. [1] Nonetheless, REVOLUTION OR DEATH should be used as an organizing tool throughout North America. DEC Films, who distribute the film in Canada, report that it has been widely used for fundraising by various El Salvador support committees. It works particularly well as an introduction to the role of the U.S. in Central America,

Again, the great value of EL SALVADOR: REVOLUTION OR DEATH lies in its clear argument against the interpretations of the U.S. media and State Department. This alternative to the dominant media is crucial at this point since the FDR urgently needs international recognition and support as it begins its last offensive against the junta.


1. Fortunately, a videotape made in Costa Rica, entitled A CASE FOR EL SALVADOR, fills this gap and has been enthusiastically viewed by many Salvadoreans in Toronto. The videotape goes into much more detail about the internal politics of El Salvador and Central America and discusses more rigorously the politics of the various mass organizations which comprise the FDR.