Films on Central America
For our urgent use

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 15-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

Introduction to Third World Film Special Section:
Art, Culture, Politics
— the Editors

Third World cinema cannot be considered apart from imperialism. In this issue we have clustered under the title "Third World Cinema" articles on films by feature filmmakers from Third World countries, on filmmaking within the revolution in El Salvador, on a widely used film on infant formula made by Europeans to combat multinational corporate marketing practices, on a filmmaking and distribution collective in the United States, and on films used in the United States to organize support for Central American liberation struggles. Taken together, these films and filmmakers represent an oppositional film practice to worldwide capitalist institutions of filmmaking and film distribution.

Ousmane Sembene, two of whose films are analyzed in depth here, is a Senegalese filmmaker, who has denounced European and U.S. dominance of African production and distribution networks. He has committed himself to making films in his people's native languages that reflect their social and political concerns. Not coincidentally, his films' themes are specifically political, specifically anti-imperialist. Similarly, working in opposition to Western-oriented European and Hollywood cinema, Yilmaz Güney in his film UMUT offers a critical look at the lives of the poor in Turkey. And Lucia Lieras, Salvadoran camera person of a feature-length cinema verité look at life in a liberated zone of El Salvador, discusses how actually being inside as a participant in a Third World national liberation struggle affects the filming done about that struggle.

In the United States, films are commonly used in anti-imperialist support work. One of the main distributors of such films, Third World Newsreel, has also had as an ongoing, ten-year long project teaching filmmaking skills to minorities in the United States, people whose point of view is not represented by mainstream media here. Christine Choy of Third World Newsreel describes that group's work. Reviewed here is BOTTLE BABIES, a film widely used here to expose Nestle's genocidal marketing practices in selling infant formula in the Third World. And for our urgent use, as the Reagan administration steps up its military aide to Central American governments, are a wide range of films available here on Nicaragua and El Salvador, which are described and compared to television's depiction of events in those areas.

Writing about Third World film often demands a different methodology and a treatment of other concerns than writing about mainstream film does. Not only are the achievements of a given Third World filmmaker to be described, but in addition both that country's political situation and mainstream media's treatment of/ impact on that area must be analyzed. Guises of neutrality fall. Both Third World filmmakers and those writing about them are called by their very subject to take an activist stand.

Films on Central America
For our urgent use
by Julia Lesage 

(With the assistance of Doug Eisenstark, Julianne Burton, Ruby Rich, Nicaragua Communicates, and activists in the Chicago area doing Nicaragua and El Salvador support work. These people provided the descriptions of the films I was not able to see.)

When someone goes to see a left-oriented film, slideshow, or videotape about Nicaragua or El Salvador, that act represents a judgment and a decision. The judgment is that the U.S. mass media are not offering enough information or only filtered and distorted information about Central America. The decision is that we need to do things to keep ourselves better informed. Much of the organizing being done around support for revolution in El Salvador and Nicaragua begins from this generally felt public need. People turn away from establishment media to other sources to find more complete analyses of Central American politics.

In the Vietnam era, a flourishing alternate left and feminist press and radio as well as film were important vehicles for providing information around Southeast Asia. Films and slide shows offered occasions to bring people together for militant action. Now alternative cinema seems to play an even more important role in organizing work, since more films are available now, especially about El Salvador and Nicaragua, than were then about Vietnam.(1) Looking toward the future, the widespread distribution of video recorders in homes, bars, schools and other places across the country points to a potential radical media source, videotape cassette, that has yet to be fully used and explored.

North American, European, and Latin American filmmakers made the films listed here.(2) Some of the Latin American made films come from directly within the struggle and were made by nationals. For example, DECISION TO WIN was filmed in Morazan, a zone of El Salvador controlled by revolutionary forces, by an all Salvadoran crew. In general, the Latin American filmmaker has a different, more intimate relation to the subject matter of Central American revolution than a U.S. or European filmmaker does. In this regard, for example, two Costa Ricans in Nicaragua in 1977, Antonio Yglesias and Victor Vega, produced a detailed view of life in a mountain guerrilla camp that took time to linger over men and women bearing arms eating lunch outdoors; this sequence demonstrated both the social structure and the texture of the combatants' daily life. Thus Vega and Yglesias' film, PATRIA LIBRE O MORIR (FREE HOMELAND OR DEATH), reveals in both its pace and eye for detail a cinematic sensibility different from that of European and North American filmmakers, whose films are often shaped by the demands of their country's television industry and do not demonstrate so vividly the dimensions of a Latin culture in its various facets.

Beyond informing us about the political situation, these films taken together provide a body of work that has specific use for film and communications studies. When various films about a country such as Nicaragua or El Salvador are shown in a series or cluster, in effect, the films comment on each other. Different aesthetic approaches between the Latin American-made ones and the others become visible. Political differences also emerge. And these political difference are expressed both in the kind of content dealt with and in the stylistic, cinematic decisions made in structuring the films. The films themselves, as indicated in the suggestions for using them, "speak" differently to different audiences — a fact to which the organizers currently using the film testify. For these reasons, the films taken together raise crucial issues for film theory and aesthetics — especially about the stylistic construction and use of militant documentary films across international lines.

Considering how to present history on film has long preoccupied documentary filmmakers.(3) It remains a complex topic debated in film theory. Currently many filmmakers are filming repression and revolution in Central America, including Latin American revolutionary filmmakers, European and North American sympathizers with the revolution, and television reporters paid by major networks. Contemporary revolution takes place within the context of a “wired planet,” for better or for worse. The question of how to document history has become an issue of how to know, and film, the present. In particular, the films listed here raise aesthetic and political questions about what it means if revolutionaries are the subjects or objects of study, subjects or objects within a film.

Anyone who sees these films here can immediately compare them to North American television and U.S. government pronouncements about Latin America. The news and the government seem to have no memory. Just a short while ago, our government hoped Argentina's military forces would provide a potential strike force against the Salvadoran revolution. But Argentina has used its army to occupy the Malvinas (Falkland Islands), and the U.S. government supported Britain.  The television news media seemed to forget or at least downplay this ironic contradiction, just as it forgot Vietnam after the last Marines flew out or Three Mile Island after the "hydrogen bubble" went down.(4) El Salvador news was neglected during the Argentine-British war, but the day Argentina surrendered, June 15, news announcements told us the United States was sending ten planes to El Salvador to "replace" its air force. What had been going on in El Salvador in the meantime?

The U.S. media respond to the government's, especially the State Department and Pentagon's, manipulation of the press. Government officials provide a calculated flow of information, which is a mixture of predigested facts and deliberate lies, to the news media so as to test the climate of opinion here. Often this takes the form of "reliable inside sources" giving out "leaks" about planned government actions. This way, the government can gauge current popular resistance to its long-term strategy of intervening in Third World political affairs. Furthermore, State Department officials repeat certain strategically useful lies, such as those about Soviet "manipulation" of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions, over and over, cynically, with no substantial proof. By inundating news conferences and leaks to the press with the same simplistic anticommunist line, the U.S. government guarantees that its position always figures prominently in newspaper headlines and television news.

Within the U.S. government itself, arguments — crucial ones — about how reliable the information we have from Latin America is shape U.S. foreign policy and Congressional reaction to that policy. More important, in its covert action policy, the CIA has a tremendous monetary and tactical investment in directly manipulating Central American newspapers,(5) the Latin American Press Association, and U.S. press and television treatments of "human rights" issues (e.g., to find human rights violations supposedly occurring in Nicaragua but not to dwell on the massive ones visible in Haiti).

If the U.S. government calculatedly manipulates the information it provides to the news media here, correspondingly, as large-scale corporate enterprises, the mass media challenge that information only to a limited degree and always within the parameters of mainstream or hegemonic discourse. In particular, the news media give an immense amount of space to dialogue conducted between heads of states, and to official governmental business conducted among capitalist countries. Witness the television time allocated to cover Duarte's visit to the U.S. or to the Salvadoran elections. Far less news time is given to images of genocidal government repression in El Salvador, the U.S. manipulation of Salvadoran politics in the weeks following the elections, or the U.S. government's role in maintaining Florida-based counterrevolutionary training camps staffed by Somoza supporters and Cuban exiles. Nor is news space commonly allocated to socialist countries' successes, such as social gains in Cuba and Nicaragua.

In addition to its daily news programs, television offers other kinds of documentary programs, which viewers turn to if they want more information about international affairs. Programs like 60 MINUTES analyze "colorful" social problems, often from a human-interest point of view. From time to time, international issues, especially those affecting U.S. electoral politics, get aired on a "special.” Most often, information about foreign countries is dealt with in "situation" reports on NIGHTLINE, NBC WHITE PAPERS, CBS REPORTS, or the McNEILL-LEHRER REPORT. The ideological bias and structural limits of such situation reports can be seen from the example of a recent McNEILL-LEHRER REPORT (May 4, 1982) about the Salvadoran government's decision to halt agrarian reform.

"Debating" were U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Deane Hinton (defending the newly elected Salvadoran government), University of Washington Law Professor Roy Prostermann (regretting that the third stage of land reform giving land to the migrant peasant labor force had been officially abandoned), and U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd (explaining why the current abrogation of land reform in El Salvador meant we should curtail military aid to that country). None of the speakers discussed either how the military took possession of the land from the landed aristocracy during the first phase of land reform in El Salvador, nor the pretext this then offered the military to terrorize the peasantry. Nor did the speakers discuss the very real contradiction among the Salvadoran ruling class between the rich who lost land (many of whom are now in Florida) and the nouveau riche military officers who gained it. Ironically — and, of course, not mentioned in this program — Roy Prostermann, who took a liberal stance here, authored not only the agrarian reform program in El Salvador but that of South Vietnam, where his 1968 strategic hamlet program similarly became a pretext for the military to use brutal force to "pacify" an oppressed peasantry and force them into urban areas so as to undercut the VietCong's popular rural support. (6) Liberal and conservative positions, as aired on these television situation reports, too often cover up both the contradictions and the structural realities of the international issue being discussed.

What we need to see and what television does not offer us is the depiction and analysis of Latin American reality as the majority of Latin Americans — the peasantry and the poor — experience it. That reality has overwhelmingly been shaped in Central America by the historical fact of U.S, imperialism — an imperialism worked out in economic, cultural, and political/ military terms. Not only does the media industry in the United States eschew depicting and analyzing imperialism, even more it makes invisible the structures of resistance and the people's struggle to shape their own history.

It is precisely this "will of the people," this rising up against repression, that Central American revolutionary movements have to offer to the left in North America and Europe. In a very sophisticated way, the revolutionary forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador have demonstrated their capacity to work in coalitions and with institutions that are revolutionary at the base but not at the top, such as the Catholic Church. It will be to our political benefit if we can enter into a dialogue with representatives of these forces in a far more concrete analytic and personal exchange, and hopefully future films will contribute more to this kind of dialogue.

Currently, the media developed by alternative left and feminist groups here provide a necessary corrective to the half-information and misinformation coming from newspapers and television news. The films described here are usually seen in alternative viewing situations, which include discussions after the screening and literature for sale. One purpose of such screenings is to teach viewers how to continue to keep themselves better informed, which includes understanding the value of left films and the left press. It is not a question of the bourgeois media's lying and the alternative media's magically providing some kind of “objective truth.” Rather these films indicate a different way of getting at the truth. A left perspective characteristically includes analyzing the international situation of the poor and working classes and people's struggles against oppression. Media produced within such struggles has more at stake in pursuing a complete and accurate analysis than does the media produced for capitalist television. Those of us who are committed to social change know that the truth makes us more effective. And whenever we are involved in a struggle, the struggle itself teaches us new ways of thinking about our situation. As a feminist, I understand that how our struggles to change sex roles have led women activists to construct new knowledge about those roles. In the same way, the films listed here all depend on Central American revolutionary movements and are part of that struggle, even if made by North Americans and Europeans and distributed only here.

Discussions after showings of these films often promote a sense among the audience of a need to act. Collective actions such as teach-ins and demonstrations are often planned following an initial film screening. The organizer may have suggestions about writing Congresspeople. Often cards are available for viewers to fill out that authorize one telegram a month to be sent in the viewer's name. These films are used to provide basic education about and elicit sympathy for oppressed peoples. In terms of an audience response, the films may have as their goal to motivate viewers to act against U.S. intervention in Central America. Yet, when most effective, discussions following the films move beyond these limited goals. Spectators with more knowledge or personal experience in Central America often contribute information that helps audiences understand these revolutionary movements in greater depth. At this moment in history, because Central America lies in such close proximity to the United States, and because we benefit from a widespread knowledge of Spanish here, dialogue and interaction between the U.S. movement (feminist, gay, anti-racist, left) and the revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua become an exciting new possibility. Within this perspective, we should keep in mind that discussions following film showings which explore the widest range of political issues will help build the broadest anti-imperialist movement in the United States

Teachers can also effectively use these films. Into almost any course in the social sciences, communications, or the humanities, a "unit" can be built about contemporary Central America, dealing with the reality of the situation, what people in the United States know about it and how they get their information, and what can be done. A pedagogic reward comes when students gain interest in dealing with a contemporary topic obviously important to them. Furthermore, since some of these films have been made by anglo filmmakers and others by Latin Americans, the resulting cinematic differences and emphases are of particular value for film students to observe and analyze. In this way, communications students can arrive at a greater understanding of the relation between the filmmakers’ cultural background, the audience's cultural background and political development, and distinct forms of cinematic expression. These films shown against the news (news programs can be captured off television with a video recorder) offer very rich curriculum material to any teacher of history, Spanish, sociology, political science, or mass communications — since television news mediates many people's understanding of social process.

Students can use these same tactics — to alter what might otherwise be an unsatisfying curriculum — by viewing these films and writing on them for class projects and term papers. Many local support groups for Nicaragua and El Salvador own one or more films and will gladly share their resources. Progressive teachers can and should rent films and speakers from these support groups so as to further their anti-imperialist work.

The films listed here offer crucial organizing, teaching and consciousness raising tools. At the same time, as films they have certain limitations — political and aesthetic — that are important for viewers and especially for organizers of the screenings to consider. In particular, the films often restrict themselves politically to a left liberal politics of noninvolvement, as seen in the demand, "U.S. out of El Salvador." Such a stance characterizes the television documentary style of the films most used by movement organizers in the United States. These are the films made by U.S. and European filmmakers. At the same time, the films that we have seen from Latin American filmmakers too often use an imagery and structure which reveal the filmmakers' lack of reflection on the sexual-political dimensions of both the revolutionary struggle and filmmaking itself.

These are real political limitations. Many films most often used do not analyze the genesis and structures of imperialism, nor the repressive structures of national dependent capitalism in the Third World. Instead, the films often concentrate on images of repression or offer testimonies by useful, "accredited" liberal authorities — such as ex-ambassador White from El Salvador. These films, especially the U.S. and European-made ones on El Salvador, plead against U.S. military intervention, a plea which really builds on an old-style appeal to U.S. isolationism in foreign policy. Furthermore, too often the films fail to examine either the structure of the revolutionary forces, or what these forces could teach us about tactics of resistance to economic and racial oppression within the United States

Many such films are made with an eye to getting on U.S. television, on the more liberal educational or public television stations. Although these films, such as EL SALVADOR: ANOTHER VIETNAM and AMERICAS IN TRANSITION have a great deal of cinematic polish and present their points effectively and clearly, their format is conventional and perhaps too easily digestible. Films like these made in a television-documentary style are characterized by an essay-like argumentative structure and often use maps, charts, authorities, lists, and captioned portraits. North American and European viewers find this organization comfortably familiar with its interviews, voices-over, authoritative narrator, and comparison and contrast editing.

Nevertheless, the format itself is ideological and hides certain things. For example, it often reduces to generalities the voices of Latin American revolutionary organizers and peasant fighters; rarely do they speak the analysis that shapes the film. Furthermore, the form assumes images are self-explanatory. Thus, we do not get to learn from those images how different Latin American culture is from our own, i.e., the uniqueness of the social organization of the culture from which those images emanate. If we can assume that we "know" the connotations of an image, let us say, of a child with a rifle just as soon as we see it, if that is the way the film uses that image — flatly, as self-explanatory — then we are not taught what that image means to the people among whom the child lives.

Like television news, these films also do not demonstrate the structural nature of capitalism and imperialism. Beyond providing the shiver of viewing tortured and mutilated bodies, this kind of filmmaking does not challenge viewers sufficiently when it asks then only to struggle against direct U.S. governmental intervention abroad. CIA ties with the AFL-CIO, for example, and the willing collaboration of the AFL-CIO in undermining labor unions, communist analyses and organizing in the Third World is the kind of structural contradiction inherent in U.S. capitalism that the television documentary cannot explore. We need films that demonstrate how and why we should ally ourselves with the liberation forces themselves. And if this is a film's goal, it will not likely get on U.S. television.

In a sense, movement organizers can justify wanting visual media made in a familiar format — so as not to "confuse" the audience, to make memorable points, etc.. But the ideological restrictions of that format are rarely challenged by those who use the film. This poses a dilemma not only for organizers but also for political filmmakers, who need to question at what point they would create an aesthetic break and make audiences confront new forms. It is a crucial issue, for without stylistic innovation, the filmmaker may not be able to express politically what s/he understands the solidarity movement needs.

The films commonly judged most effective as organizing tools are those made primarily for North Americans or European audiences by filmmakers familiar with these countries' media conventions, especially their television conventions. Films made by Latin Americans on the revolutionary struggle often elicit a different and even unsympathetic response from anglo audiences than from latino ones. Certain connotative details and rhythms of presenting material cinematically seem to make more sense to audiences in a Spanish-speaking environment than in an English-speaking one. For example, what a North American film audience may interpret as an image connoting "poverty" may signify "a farm family's daily life" in its country of origin.

In general, elements in Latin American films that most distress U.S. viewers are those that seem to connote "militarism" or "left rhetoric." In EL SALVADOR: EL PUEBLO VENCERÁ made by the Film Institute of Revolutionary El Salvador, we see many images of young people with rifles and. red face masks — images which have been criticized here as glorifying militarism. As was discussed by Michael Chanan in his review of the film in JUMP CUT, no. 26, these images of taking up arms and active military participation in the guerrillas are presented with eyes of love by Latin American militant filmmakers and are images that connote "the people's will." Yet understanding the emotion with which such images are invested is often difficult for U.S. left and feminist viewers to comprehend.

In fact, images of people who have suffered oppression now bearing arms have a liberating function in Central America. They serve as images of empowerment for people who have not previously had social, political, or cultural power. Nicaragua and Cuba's example serves a similar function as an image of a country which successfully fought a war of liberation and which proceeded after that to effect social and economic revolution. And within Cuba and Nicaragua themselves, images of guns and martyrdom still have an emotional force. Political and cultural leaders are not seen just as politicians or functionaries; they are revered as those who made the revolution. Ordinary people in Cuba and Nicaragua understand the U.S. government's intent to destroy their social gains. When I was in Nicaragua last November, one woman explained her version of "military imagery" like this:

"When your tanks come rolling in, I want to meet them with a gun, not without one. Whoever conquers us will find only a cemetery, because we all will have died defending what our loved ones have already paid for with their lives."

In Nicaragua, the call to the citizenry to participate in the popular militia evokes a sense of both national and personal pride, especially among women, for over half of the Nicaraguan popular militia is women.

Genocide, usually paid for by U.S. military assistance, already exists in Central America. For poor people in El Salvador and Guatemala, massacre by government troops and government-paid paramilitary organizations is too commonplace a reality, one only alluded to and not fully described in our "news." For the exploited, public images of armed resistance to genocide empower them psychologically and socially. Such images, deriving from the work of armed revolutionary organizations whose members live among the peasantry, help poor people believe that it is not necessary or "natural" to live under an exploitative regime. Such images are part of the building of an alternative, revolutionary culture, which teaches people to understand how they can take power over their own lives.

In his key essay, "Concerning Violence," Frantz Fanon contrasts international capitalism's institutionalized violence with Third World armed struggles to seize state power.(7) What Fanon explains is how only the act of bearing arms adequately expresses the oppressed's submerged anger. At the moment of revolution, it is the principal cure for the colonized mind. How do oppressed people come to understand that large-scale social change is possible? How do they come to will it? For many Central American peasants, these are recent possibilities, ones developed by the revolutionary culture as it enters people's lives.

In the film EL SALVADOR: EL PUEBLO VENCERÁ (THE PEOPLE WILL WIN), made by Latin American filmmakers, a small boy speaks a militant eulogy over his murdered father's grave. Then he formally joins the guerrilla forces. Some U.S. viewers have interpreted this sequence as “staged” or “rhetorical.” In fact, revolutionary culture, as a way of teaching about social structures and processes of change, is the first twentieth century intellectual vehicle which many Central American workers and peasants, traditionally kept isolated and illiterate, have been exposed to. This is the source of the language the boy in the film uses. Revolutionary culture teaches people a mode of collective Social participation. It is an empowering culture. Its aim is literally empowerment. Guerrilla fighters in the zones they now control in El Salvador have created a space where people do not have to live in ignorance and constant fear; and from this point on, revolutionary consciousness grows exponentially with the people's "decision to win" (the title of the Salvadoran-made film about life in a controlled zone). As Fanon described this phenomenon,

"It is at the moment that he (sic; i.e., the "native") realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure his victory."(8)

In Nicaragua I met with a women's group that was formally addressed by Comandante Leticia Herrera. When she entered the room, I understood the force of her presence there as both a national heroine and as the embodiment of a "new woman." Another woman's example similarly affected the group. A Salvadoran participant's strident call for support caused all the women there to identify with her situation. She intuited that identification as she cried out,

"Our mothers see their children killed; our children see their mothers killed. We fight your battle."

As Margaret Randall described this kind of feminist unity in her book Sandino's Daughters, the Nicaraguan women who bear arms are revered because they fought and suffered rape and torture, including seeing their loved ones tortured, to secure the immense social gains other women now have. These women also represent a whole new model of socially, politically, and physically active womanhood that stands in dramatic contrast to the roles for women available in Latin America.(9) In colonized countries or those with a dependent capitalist economy, peasant women work brutally hard and are imprisoned spiritually by poverty, illiteracy, and machismo. Middle class women often stay isolated in the home, removed from social participation, and face ill health because of a lack of physical culture for women and girls even in the schools. The social image of women participating in the development of the Nicaraguan revolution provides a new icon of "contemporary women.” This image, often of women in arms, has a connotative impact which speaks to women in other Third World countries in a way that such an image has not yet done in the United States. The film by Victoria Schultz, WOMEN IN ARMS, offers a significant exception as it captures a sense of the exuberance Nicaraguan women feel in their new roles, integral to which is being co-partners in national defense.

Our U.S. military-industrial complex has consistently supported the institutionalized violence which is structurally inherent in colonialism. We have engaged our military forces in Central America innumerable times over the last century to shore up U.S. economic and political domination of that area. To do that we have created alliances with the oppressive national bourgeoisie of each country, such as the coffee oligarchy of El Salvador or the Somoza family in Nicaragua. Central American history always tells the same story: how the U.S. government manipulates other countries' national politics and cooperates militarily with genocidal governments. At this point in our own history, many U.S. citizens mistrust political leaders' pronouncements, aware of how politicians present a line to the mass media, and they feel a sentiment of isolationism as they are unwilling to send U.S. youth abroad to die in an unjust cause. Nevertheless, U.S. viewers who look at images of Latin American peasants in arms and see in them the same iconic significance as images of U.S. soldiers bearing arms or images, tiredly reiterated, of a supposed "communist military threat" should learn to distinguish between people's common reaction to such images here and the common interpretation of those images in the Third World. Fanon presents this distinction as follows:

“Castro, sitting in military uniform in the United Nations Organization, does not scandalize the underdeveloped countries. What Castro demonstrates is the consciousness he has of the continuing existence of the rule of violence … Strengthened by the unconditional support of the socialist countries, the colonized peoples fling themselves with whatever arms they have against the impregnable citadel of colonialism … The violence of the native is only hopeless if we compare it in the abstract to the military machine of the oppressor. On the other hand, if we situate that violence in the dynamics of the international situation, we see at once that it constitutes a terrible menace for the oppressor … Capitalism realizes that its military strategy has everything to lose by the outbreak of nationalist wars.”(10)

I am asking for a cross-cultural understanding of what bearing arms means in people's lives. It is a crucial issue for both political organizers and people working in contemporary media to deal with. Commercial media and U.S. and European governments manipulate precisely these images and distort them flagrantly to denigrate feminism, gays, and the left. Too often lying headlines scream at us: Supposed "feminists" attempted to kill President Ford. "Rioting" prisoners in Attica were assumed to have "brutally slaughtered" guards. "Palestinian" becomes paired with the word "terrorist." Social gains for workers in Libya become erased under the labels attached to Omar Kadafi. The all-inclusive epithet "terrorism" applies to what the media depicts as the acts of crazy, often disenfranchised individuals or isolated groups, whose behavior then takes up disproportionate media space. In this way, newspapers and television inhibit viewers from looking beyond those images of "disorder" and "insanity" (presumably emanating from a socially irresponsible left) to learn what bearing arms might mean for an oppressed people when armed struggle is a key element in the national movement organized to achieve their liberation.

Television images of the military have a different relation to the public in a country like Nicaragua, where national defense depends on the large popular militia. Citizens learn to bear arms, as they did in North Vietnam. When the people do the soldiering, many ordinary citizens see what is going on militarily, enough to understand the farce of U.S. media pronouncements about Cuban or Soviet control of their armed forces. If we interpret media images of bearing arms as "militarist," we react justifiably against our government's huge economic investment in building a nuclear arsenal and intervening in other countries' affairs. But this is also a culture-bound reaction on our part. In the case of films dealing with Third World revolutionary movements, viewers must learn to go beyond their initial reaction to look at images of military participation in a more complex way, so as to more accurately interpret the social realities these images are intended to convey.

Organizing around issues of U.S. imperialism should be a way of uniting anglo and latino cultures within the United States. The burden of extending oneself to understand the other culture falls on the white left.(11) The need to understand Latin American culture on its own terms often gets bypassed, even within anti-imperialist organizing — and that has to be acknowledged as a form of racism. To make or use films which speak to audiences only in "mainstream" ways is to deny the existence and validity of a Latin American voice right here in our own culture. For non-latinos to do anti-imperialist work around El Salvador but not to promote an understanding of the cultural structures and forms of expression of Latin American life is a contradiction that must be surpassed.

At the same time, militant cinema coming from Central America must be criticized for its sexism — both overt and implied. The visual media emerging from the revolutionary forces seem to lag behind the actual participation of women in those revolutions. In both Nicaragua and El Salvador, women hold key positions in the structure of the revolutionary command. Sometimes in the films listed here, female or gay sexuality is used as an icon for "bourgeois decadence." Other times, the political role of women is just left out, as in ZONA INTERTIDAL. This film is dedicated to assassinated teachers but uses only male actors, which is inappropriate since three-fourths of the very militant Salvadoran teachers' union are women.

These films are being used for political support work in the U.S. and Europe. Here the relatively advanced development of the women's and gay movements makes it crucial that the visual media used for Latin American support work deal with issues of sexual politics sensitively, both in terms of the themes treated and cinematic style. Otherwise the filmmakers will lose the constituency they wish to recruit. But that is only part of the issue.

The women's and gay movements in these countries have made a contribution to left culture as a whole in delineating how issues of sexual politics interact with all other political issues. If women's participation in the revolution is not dealt with in detail by militant Latin American filmmakers, implicit cinematic sexism once again erases women from history and relegates us to visual icons, static representative images — as mother, girl, decadent, or even armed militant. Feminists have developed a profound cultural analysis, part of which explains how the visual media manipulate, and depend on, the image of women. Feminists also understand how history has been written and filmed either to include, or more likely to exclude, women's specific experience of a given place and time. Over and over again, Third World feminists tell us that their struggle cannot be considered apart from struggles against imperialism, from their own national liberation struggles, from communist revolution.(12) The militant filmmakers from Latin America, mostly male, who want their films to elicit international support, must listen to these revolutionary feminist voices from within their own struggles and include them more fully in the films.

Audiovisual material does not stand by itself as a teaching device but takes its place within a larger program for educating and motivating viewers. The person or group presenting a film should determine what values it puts forth and what is needed to supplement it or surround it with to give a more complete understanding of revolutionary situations and the United States’ response to them. Frankly discussing a film's limitations before showing it can serve to diffuse routine criticism and let the audience's attention dwell on the strengths the film possesses. Organizers of film showings will want to think about how to introduce Latin American-made films to make them more accessible to anglo audiences, perhaps by talking about unique aspects of Latin culture. Similarly, a Latin American audience in the U.S. may be more accustomed to a highly motivated and emotionally charged presentation, and the U.S. or European-made documentaries may seem dry or emotionally sterile. What to surround the film presentation with — speakers, songs, poetry readings — becomes an organizational and pedagogic decision that shapes how the film will be received. Furthermore, since both the solidarity movement in the United States and the revolutions in El Salvador and Nicaragua are developing within the context of an ongoing and hopefully ever more interactive process, we will need different educational tools and to develop different strategies for this solidarity work as the Central American revolution advances. These films and my discussion of them may be historically located at the very beginning of our work.


Note: In writing this resource guide, I have limited myself to films available in the United States and have seen all the ones discussed except those indicated with an * which were included upon the recommendation of teachers and organizers who use them frequently. I have tried to give a general orientation to the film's content, style, and potential audience. It is an open-ended list. In particular, JUMP CUT would like to have as many in-depth reviews of these films as possible. We reviewed some of these films in our last issue and gave a general background on El Salvador and a bibliography there. Please write us about other material that you have seen or used successfully — particularly slide shows and videotapes. We would also like more in depth studies of the news, both here and abroad.


(Dir. Obie Benz, U.S. 1982. 16mm, color, 29 mm. Distributor: Americas in Transition.) *

This rapidly paced and tightly edited film, shot in a traditional educational film style, demonstrates that the U.S. government has not limited its covert action in South America to attacking just one country, nor does it happen just in a Republican regime. The film explains patterns of intervention and coverups perpetrated by the United States over the last century. It uses visual material such as shots from newsreels of Marines invading Santo Domingo, the Bay of Pigs, Nixon's Goodwill Tour (where he was pelted with stones and eggs), CIA testimony before Congress, and ex-Ambassador Murat Williams speaking about El Salvador. The film opens to comment on the media representation of South America, as typified by shots of Carmen Miranda.

The film's limitations are in its use of an authoritative voice-over narration and its dubious choice of authorities. What are we to make of a "nice-guy" ex-CIA chief? The film indicates either that our government made well-meaning mistakes, or that if U.S. citizens only knew what was going on, they would demand that our government's policies change. The film does not explain how a socialist revolution is just.

In the film's national television presentation on PBS, as was done with FROM THE ASHES but to a worse degree, the stations surrounded the film showing with testimony from conservative authorities, who warned that the film was a propagandistic exercise full of factual errors.

The film provides a comprehensive overview. Its brevity makes it especially useful. Suggested audiences would be the general public, those who wish an introduction to U.S. foreign policy, or high schools.

(Dir. Newsreel, U.S. 1971. 16 mm, black and white, 30 min. English or Spanish versions. Distributors: Third World Newsreel, California Newsreel.) *

This is one of the few radical films in distribution here about Guatemala. In it a plantation woman tells how U.S. corporations control her country. Although somewhat outdated, this older film is useful both for its analysis of imperialism and for its depiction of the narrator's life, which makes it appropriate for a women's studies audience.

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