Interview with Daniel Solis
translated by Julia Lesage
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 15-18
Interview with Daniel Solis
This interview with a representative of Radio Venceremos, Daniel Solis, describes film and videomaking inside the Salvadoran revolution. Daniel Solis is a video editor. See JUMP CUT, No. 28, for an interview with Lucio Lieras, cameraman on DECISION TO WIN.
Solis: Radio Venceremos began audio-visual production with compañeros from the film collective, Zero á la Izquierda (Zero to the Left), which had made various short subjects and the feature-length, DECISION TO WIN. Last spring we saw the need to produce film and television within the Radio Venceremos system. Soon we expect to be able to put on TV programs. Also, up to that point Radio Venceremos had provided a lot of cinematic material for others but had not taken on all the film work integrally, in the sense of being able to edit and distribute.
We had done collaborative projects here with people like Teté Vasconcellos and Diego de la Texera, getting them material to edit, but had not done an integral audio-visual production ourselves. So our first complete production and distribution of a film was with LETTER FROM MORAZAN, a movie about a military campaign in the department of Morazan from June to August, 1982. The importance of this experience can be seen in various aspects. First, we reached a good level of technical accomplishment, especially in our learning to operate and use cheap equipment. DECISION TO WIN and also the short films that Zero á la Izquierda made were filmed in 16mm. LETTER FROM MORAZAN was shot in Super 8 and Betamax, both for economic reasons and for easy movement, for example, in ambushes and in actual fighting. Later all this material was copied to and edited on 3/4" videotape. The editing was done in Mexico because, of course, Morazan did not have any kind of facilities for editing.
The great advantage we discovered in using video is that the people who have been filmed can see the production directly. Before when we filmed in 16mm, the film was sent, let's say, to be developed and edited in Mexico. There'd be a delay of two to four months. At best the people would see the completely finished film maybe five or six months later. Now the way we are working allows much better and more direct participation of the people themselves. The people among whom the combatants live can comment on what has been filmed.
For example, we had a great experience in Anamoroz in the province of La Union in November, 1982. It's a town that has no movie theatre; some people go to movies every two, three, or four years in the district capital. Well, at the same time the FMLN came, these people got introduced to film, but to activist film. The FMLN had taken that town after a series of combats, during which they had filmed in Betamax. Each night in the town they'd show the tape from that day. The people would comment on seeing themselves and their friends, as with, "Oh, there you are." One fine scene showed soldiers in a tank surrendering after the guerrillas threw a grenade. Those prisoners were in town the night the compañeros were showing their color videotape.
And so everybody in town began to comment on it and talk about what had happened. People said, "This looks good," or "I don't think that was done so well," or "I don't think you should have filmed it that way. You should have filmed from another point of view, another perspective, another angle." Many of the people were not that technical, but they commented a lot along those kinds of lines.
Our richest experience in LETTER FROM MORAZAN came in having a lot of people participate, not just a group of three or five filmmakers who would come to the area on a certain day and maybe stay a month, but then leave to edit their movie outside the country. Now we have two camera people who stay permanently in the zone; only I leave the country. They shoot the material, talk about it with the people, and for technical reasons send it out of the country for editing. We edit in 3/4" video and then transfer to 16mm film for distribution abroad. In El Salvador we don't have the capacity to distribute 16mm film, we transfer to 1/2" videotape, which we can show even in the enemy's own zones, that is, in the capital.
After LETTER FROM MORAZAN our crew began to film a whole lot of material, too much, because we didn't have the capacity to edit everything that came back to us. Also, that filming served a little like school. For example, the compañeros began to realize how many different kinds of things they could do. Some tapes would serve our people as a kind of military training school — like teaching how to make explosives. Or, they could film a seminar about a political development, or people talking about their life in testimonials. And the crew could do all those things within the zone itself. Generally this material does not get much editing, just eliminating extraneous or badly filmed material. This kind of video material circulates now on Betamax a lot in the interior, and people use and talk about it a lot.
In December 1982, a meeting took place with the cadre doing political work in the eastern front. The meeting lasted several days and was filmed completely. The tape then became a very dynamic element in our political work. Edited, we have about five hours of it on tape, showing the reports, the questions, and also all the people's reactions. You know, a report is not just a speech but is given in an emotional context. The tape shows how people received the reports and what was of interest to then. As this kind of video material circulates in the interior, it has its own autonomy and strength. And now we have the people's massive collaboration. It's no longer like DECISION TO WIN where the compañeros came and filmed for a certain amount of time and then left to edit. Now film and video maintain a permanent presence at the front.
Lesage: As they watch the tapes, what kinds of criticisms do people make about the material?
Solis: Watching sections of LETTER FROM MORAZAN, they talked a lot about the issue of humor. In the midst of war, the film speaks full of humor. It's not a solemn picture, but gives all the people's local expressions. Some of our compañeros said that war meant the sacrifice of human life, and they could not talk about war with any humor. Another point of view saw humor as indicating not disrespect but rather the people's way ,of talking.
Lesage: It's also a way of surviving.
Solis: Humor represents something really popular, from the people. As combatants have just come from a heavy bout of fighting, they describe it with humor. It's not like some kind of neat military communiqué that tells how many people fought, a whole column. The combatants describe the battle with images and expressions, sometimes with exaggeration. However they speak, they never have a cold or expressionless way of describing things. So we've had a lot of discussion of this. Some say, "You have to treat this more seriously," "Look, we've got to show how much sacrifice we've given for this cause." I mean, part of LETTER FROM MORAZAN may give the impression that the war is rather easy. You see the FMLN's force as an army and the Salvadoran army's soldiers' giving up. You don't see what's really so difficult for this town which is experiencing the war. That's the kind of talking we did with the townspeople.
Another kind of discussion which didn't offer criticism as much as positive feedback emphasized the question of point of view. In some scenes in the film, you have the impression that only a combatant would have been able to film them. In that sense, the camera is exactly at the same angle that a rifle would be, and even the movements of the camera indicate how you must move in combat. The film explores the cinematic problem of what it means to use a subjective point of view. In one scene, one of the combatants says to the cameraperson, "I'm going to throw a grenade," pointing towards a tank. Now that's a scene that camera people who weren't combatants would never get, because you see an extraordinary trust between fighter and filmmaker as well as the filmmaker's capacity to thrust himself into the midst of battle.
Lesage: Well, that's exactly the reason you have to teach women to make films. Because if you don't, then your films will never contain that perspective which shows how women enter into revolution. It's just like what you told me about getting the combatant's point of view. That is, if you need that point of view to be able to film a combat, you need women filming if you want to film the fact that women are entering into revolution and to describe how they enter into revolution. And if you want to know how children participate, then you have to enable children to have some voice in the process, too.
Solis: We must recognize this as a severe limitation. In the whole Radio Venceremos system there are many women, including the director of Radio Venceremos, Commandant Luisa. But we have no women filming or editing. This affects the films themselves, where you don't see the participation of women or their genuine role.
Lesage: It's more than that. It's an issue of building women's participation. In order to do that, you have to come to see things from the perspective of women's lives, so as to understand how women might conceive of their own roles. Often a woman enters into the revolutionary process through a completely different path than a man.
Solis: At the level of radio shows, we had a series of interviews and testimonies from women compañeras from different sectors — market women from San Salvador, farm women, university women — talking about how they became incorporated into the revolution, how they evolved, what kinds of conflicts they have had with their family or husband. They discussed everything related to women in the revolution, all the issues they came up against. But up to this point, that effort hasn't been translated into film production. I agree with the criticism. Obviously women are one half of the population, and to represent them is an important necessity.
To get back to our discussion of filmmaking, after we filmed LETTER FROM MORAZAN we also filmed a lot in Super 8, but the developing has to be done outside the country and Kodak has a monopoly on it. It does not offer video's advantage of having people seeing it at once and directly. We do have about an hour's worth of Super 8 film which we filmed during the battles of Usulatan, Berlin, and San Francisco Javier.
The second big production we did was a 27-minute documentary tape on the role of the Church, a tape we did in conjuncture with the Pope's visit. The role of the Church in the revolution was an important issue which we wanted to treat in depth, although the Pope's visit made us do it quicker than we would have done otherwise. In part, the tape offers a portrait of the Church's struggling alongside the people. It begins with a Mass being celebrated in a zone controlled by the FMLN in Huateca. Then, for about half the tape, there is a long flashback showing the history of the Church since the times of Monsignor Romero. Testimonies describe the evolution of the Church and its repression. Of course, anybody who speaks about the Church here also has to talk about repression.
The second half of the film describes Christian community work in Morazan, a war zone, and we see a certain progression in that the first Masses have only combatants and the last is a fiesta of the whole town. Then a little group of musicians play "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" before the Mass, a priest gives a sermon, and all the people go to communion. That was filmed when the FMLN took Corinto. The movie ends with a procession which is fascinating in that it combines traditional elements, such as a statue of the Virgin, with other elements from the people's church, such as a song which says,
"Christ, you identified with the people, the poor. People, you don't have to identify with the oppressor class. It devours the poor. Identify with the poor themselves, lowly and humble."
It's not exactly the same as the peasant Mass sung in Nicaragua. It's a people's Mass sung in the times of Monsignor Romero here in El Salvador and was derived from the Nicaraguan peasant Mass but adapted to our circumstances. What really gives a lasting impression in the film is this combination of very old, traditional elements, such as the cult of the Virgin, with these elements that reflect the Church's coming to political awareness, which has really played an important role in El Salvador today.
In terms of our new projects, we plan to do a film on the prisoners we've captured from the Salvadoran army. In 1981 through March 1982, we've taken over 500 prisoners from the Salvadoran army who surrendered after a battle. After each battle they're giving up easier and easier. Before, they were really afraid to do so because they'd been told the FMLN would kill and torture them. But now there have been massive liberations of these prisoners. That is, they don't stay very long in our zones, a few days or at most a few weeks and then they're handed over to the Red Cross. Since these soldiers now know that nothing will happen to them, they surrender easily.
It's important to do a film with these war prisoners because they talk about the FMLN from another point of view. Usually they make a comparison to the dictator's army. They see here that the FMLN officials eat the same tortillas as the soldiers and that there's no brutality towards the soldiers. Here the guerrilla army discusses the goal of every battle so that every FMLN combatant knows why s/he is fighting.
In the Salvadoran army, it's exactly the opposite. The officers have their own special mess and other privileges. Often they rob money from the enlisted men's mess for their own food and medicine. And the government's officers hit the soldiers. Above all, the Salvadoran soldiers can never argue about or discuss about where they are going. They are just sent to a certain zone and told about it just a few hours before they go there. That's it — period.
We think it's very important to depict the war from the Salvadoran soldier's point of view. These prisoners are usually just ordinary people who were drafted and required to fight or joined for economic reasons or accepted the ideology of the enemy. Often these soldiers have a whole value system which is exactly the same as that of the rest of the Salvadoran people — they want equality and a more just life. This is a kind of film we want to get distributed in and around the zones of the enemy. The most fundamental thing is that the soldiers themselves see this film. We don't think distribution will be easy. But because we've had this experience with the tape we made so quickly about the Church, we know we could show it around San Salvador with a network of video recorders. We did that already both before and during the Pope's visit. Optimally we can do the same with a tape about the Salvadoran army.
Already this new tape has an important character in it, Colonel Castillo, Vice-Minister of Defense whom we captured in June 1981. He relates his own testimony about his capture, and we also have footage from the very day of his capture. Just on the level of the imagery itself, you can see the colonel change. At first he visibly expressed a lot of fear and was convinced the FMLN would torture him. A few months later the same colonel is now very calm, smiling and speaking very easily. This project will have a lot of impact. We already know from our work in the radio that members of the army listen to Radio Venceremos a lot. In fact, Radio Venceremos does a lot of work to try to reach soldiers.
Our other project is to do a film about international solidarity. Up to this point the whole process of filmmaking in El Salvador has been to make films used out of the country. Even if people from inside look at and comment on this material, what does it matter because it's meant for foreign consumption, and foreigners will see it first? Now we want to do the opposite, inform the peasants that the struggle in El Salvador is not an isolated struggle and that the people's war has won broad, worldwide sympathy. We want to depict all the forms of solidarity that exist in their richness and diversity, not just demonstrations, parades and speeches, but music, paintings, murals, hunger strikes — all the kinds of things going on. And the film will not show just one type of person, like Mexicans who are very similar to the Salvadorans, but Japanese, Algerians, Mozambicans — people from every country. It's important to show that the FMLN and our whole people's struggle have gained an international support, so as to be able to understand this beyond our own subjective perspective. Not only are we happy that all these other people are mobilizing for us, but we see it objectively as the most powerful hindrance to North American intervention. That is, if such a strong solidarity movement didn't exist, clearly the administration would have sent many more military advisors and would have been able to intervene more directly militarily. U.S. military intervention would have been executed with a lot more force. We consider this a powerful, objective element in our struggle. We want the people inside El Salvador to realize the significance of what this element is. Such a film will let people see that ours is not an isolated struggle, and it will allow them to evaluate more precisely the forces we can depend upon. There is a military factor operating inside the country, but there's another factor, the people's support, and that factor extends internationally.
We also want to start building up a whole structure of distribution inside El Salvador. Up to this point we haven't seen any possibility for distributing 16mm film because of the weight of the equipment and of making copies.
Lesage: Are there people who have video recorders at home? Or are these machines in churches or schools — where are they?
Solis: First, there's Betamax video equipment on the front in the combat zone. Let's say, a platoon in Morazan would have some video equipment ,and the videomakers accompany a military action which is going to seize a town. In organizing such actions, people are saying we have to provide arms, food, and medicine, and also now video equipment. Obviously it's not always materially possible. But politically we're convinced that to take a town does not mean just to take it militarily. It has to be thought of in terms of our whole encounter with the people there. When the FMLN comes, they have to come with everything; even a priest will come with us and say Mass there. Sometimes we come with movies, sometimes with photo exhibits. Really, we'll bring any kind of material which would facilitate communication with the townspeople. I think that film and video are the very best instrument, obviously better than a photo exhibit or a magazine or newspaper. Sometimes video is even better than a meeting. A meeting in combination with it is certainly a lot better.
In the capital or the other zones occupied by the enemy, Radio Venceremos has a certain limited infrastructure. We are exerting a systematic effort now to develop that infrastructure. Our first really positive experience was around the Pope's visit. Because of the conditions in San Salvador, we didn't have large meetings but many showings at people's houses with five to fifteen people. We copied this material on a lot of different cassettes. What's really humorous is that Salvadoran television got some of our tapes and used some of our visual material, of course with other commentary. This represents a positive break in the whole circle of misinformation, at least on the level of imagery if not on the level of sound. People in San Salvador could see on the dictator's television system images of the Church in the zone of Morazan. Although the sound track said those priests were communists and atheists ... the images showed a kind of resistance.
I do not know how many copies of the tape about the Pope's visit circulated because people make their own copy. The tapes are edited outside of the country and then brought into San Salvador in limited quantity through the controlled zones. Later other people copy them. I do not know whether there are twenty or thirty copies in San Salvador. All I know is that the tape got around a whole lot. Certainly the infrastructure in San Salvador of video recorders is not huge. Of course, at the front itself we are making copies of these tapes.
In a zone that is not yet a liberated zone, we often have a kind of political control. These zones are at the periphery of the liberated zone. In Morazan the FMLN forces have both political and military control. But in many towns near there the enemy can return when they want; it will cost it a lot, but they can return. In those towns, however, there is a permanent, political presence of the FMLN. For example, if the FMLN takes a zone, people just keep going on with their marketing and people from other towns come in as well to do their marketing. This happened in Corinto, which has an important market for the whole zone. The FMLN had occupied Corinto for about two months, and people from all the other towns, even from towns controlled by the Salvadoran army, would be going there to market. There they could see these films and tapes and could talk to people from the FMLN. They went to cultural functions organized by the FMLN. This is really important. We have generated a widespread zone that cannot be called liberated, because we don't have military control, but where systematic work is being done with the people. And in this area, film and video play an ever more important role.
Lesage: How many people are teaching film and video production there right now? That is, how many people are sufficiently adept so as to be able to teach the others?
Solis: Well, of people who have all the skills, just two have a lot of experience. One, Gustavo, learned by making films. He never went to any film school, but he was always interested in filming. First he did a lot of photography, then filmmaking. He did that for about three years and now he's a fine, efficient cameraperson. Another compañero, called the Marvel, studied filmmaking abroad (we don't have any film schools in our country) and had good training before he started making political films. Now maybe seven or nine people, I don't know how many, help out.
We incorporate as helpers people who don't work regularly as camera or sound person but who are active in combat or are members of Radio Venceremos. They begin as helpers, and little by little they come to understand how their whole role works and then function in a more effective way. For example, in the zone of Guazapa there was a compañero who'd been filming in Super 8. He'd just filmed his sister's wedding before that, or something like that, and had never had any training. Well, his first rolls which he sent us from Guazapa were impossible to edit because no shot lasted more than a second and the camera was always waving around. That footage made you dizzy. But now this compañero is producing better material.
What we do with these people and others working in television is to establish a permanent line of communication. They give us their perspective on the editing, and the people doing the editing tell what they think about the quality of the footage from a technical point of view and about the type of filming done. And now when I look back at the materials we got over a year ago, I can see a strong improvement in what we're getting now. For example, the last footage I was able to see was in Super 8 and showed the seizing of the town of Berlin. It was really high quality.
Lesage: How do you maintain your equipment? Who can repair Super 8 cameras? Do you have people who can keep up video equipment?
Solis: Up to this point we've bought really cheap, used equipment when we could find it. And when it gave us too many problems, we'd just throw it out. We just cannot repair more than small problems. With cameras, primarily we have problems like blows or dropping them. If you're filming in an ambush and are knocked about, you might drop the camera. That'd be the end of it. The other big problem we have is mold from the humidity; when mold gets inside the lens, we cannot repair it, so we just have to leave the camera behind.
Lesage: How do you get Super 8 film? Does everybody who comes back from abroad, especially from the United States, bring film?
Solis: We often present our films in the United States, Mexico and other countries, and through those showings or on the basis of other contracts with film people, we're building up our film and tape supply. Neither Super 8 nor video is as expensive as l6m film. However, our compañeros are always filming at the slowest Betamax speed, which saves tape but does not give the best image quality. We're saying to them, "Listen, you should film at least with the middle range speed." What's considered the normal speed uses up more cassettes. But even for us the cost of a videocassette isn't that high, and up to this point we've been able to keep sending a sufficient quantity to our crew. Obviously, this kind of work depends upon solidarity from other countries, because in El Salvador in no way could we buy this material. We must buy everything abroad including the cameras.
Lesage: How do people react to your work who live in areas where they haven't seen a lot of film and people who live in the capital who see a lot of TV and film? Do these people have different reactions?
Solis: It's a little difficult to generalize, but one difference perhaps can be seen on the level of rhythm. People who go to a lot of movies and see a lot of TV (our people see gringo productions or maybe Mexican ones) are accustomed to a very rapid rhythm; that is, they see sequences where in two minutes the whole narrative situation completely changes. To make it very schematic, people in the capital would say of our films, "Those movies really are slow."
You'll see the preparation for an ambush and the time it takes for the trucks to arrive, little by little. The people waiting for the ambush say, "Oh, here come the trucks. We'll get started soon." Thus, in LETTER FROM MORAZAN, an ambush lasts approximately five minutes in film time.
People accustomed to TV think that in five minutes the whole world changes; it just can't be that slow. Rural people are more accustomed to this slower rhythm, and I think it gives them greater pleasure. In some way you might say it is a little more authentic. That is, we describe the preparation and the movements more. Even better, we show the psychological state. Action isn't continual throughout the entire film. If you want to sum up what the film has in terms of action, you could make a ten-minute film — that is, if you just wanted to have only action. As a filmmaker I may just be projecting our own ideas. But I do think we are in touch with some aspect of reality here. Maybe rural people have a certain way of seeing, one that demands another kind of or greater authenticity at the level of discourse or speaking.
As a general principle, we work very little with voice off. Of course, we can't avoid it, but whatever possible we try to let the people themselves speak. DECISION TO WIN has not even one second of voice off. It uses pure testimony from the people. In a LETTER FROM MORAZAN, we did not need to explain whole military strategy, but we had some need for commentary. So we did it in the form of a letter. The advantage was that a letter could describe situations we couldn't film, such as things that happened at night. Later we realized that this narrative strategy of a letter let us use and valorize people's everyday vocabulary, that which they'd speak to describe their own combat and their own life. In the tape we made about the Church, we also needed some commentary — since we were using a flashback and since we needed some kind of global explanation. We didn't have a film archive or interviews that could achieve such a narrative function.
In general, we are responding to the need to let the people speak, not to load up the verbal narration nor to make one more militant film filled with speeches by leaders. We do not want to orient our films only around interviews with the military leaders. Obviously, we are not forbidding the commandantes to speak in our films, but it's important to describe this revolutionary process as the process of a whole people.
Lesage: For that reason, do you interview as many women as you do men?
Solis: No, not till this point. For example, DECISION TO WIN shows very few women. In the tape about the Church, we hear women's testimonies, but mostly about the repression. Well, of course, that's also the Church's problem; there aren't priests who are women.
Lesage: But your problem is in not imagining that you could use women's voices to offer the militant analysis. Filmmakers have to question how they choose what to film. At this point, if you don't have women filmmakers, the male filmmakers must keep thinking about their own limitations and compensate for them.
Solis: Yes, but in LETTER TO MORAZAN, Comandante Ana Guadalupe Martinez gives information about the situation as a whole. That film has very few interviews — one with her, one with another compañero, and one with the prisoners of war. Of course, there aren't women among the prisoners of war since the enemy army doesn't have any women soldiers.
Lesage: When ordinary people speak in front of the camera in these interviews, how is their manner of speaking different from the way leaders speak?
Solis: When a leader speaks, it is speech which is really pretty well constructed or preconceived. Leaders know what they are going to say and that it's going to take so many minutes — that they are going to cover x number of points in y number of minutes. I could say, "Look, you've got three minutes in which to describe the internal situation in this region." Then they'd go ahead and do that.
When people from the community speak, you have to respect the way they tell their story. By our standards, before they arrive at the most interesting point, the point we want to hear about, first they might describe the whole context, including their own life or something that has just gone on in the town. Then they might get around to the point we were interviewing them on.
Actually these people have no fear of the camera, which is something positive. This happens because they see the filmmakers as part of the FMLN — that is, as just like themselves — taking the same risks, dressed in the same way, eating the same food, and getting around by foot. It's not like when a film team comes in from CBS in a jeep with all of its equipment. Those people are a lot more impressive than we are — our crew certainly is not that big and we don't have much equipment. The first thing that CBS asks when they get to a town is for someone who speaks English; later they might have to do an interview in Spanish if no one speaks English. Well, it's just not like that with us. We're doing interviews having taken the position of the combatants ourselves and speaking the same as the people. We not only speak the same language but also know all the people's experiences. Interviews are a lot easier to do, and some of them even achieve a comic effect.
For example, during an ambush, the cameraperson was so happy when the soldiers began to give up that he began to scream and shout. At the same time that he's filming, you hear his voice screaming, "Long live the people's revolutionary army." When the soldiers come, he begins to ask them questions in a very emotional way. To a young man who doesn't have a uniform, the cameraman shouts up, "Son of a bitch, what are you doing up there in that tank?" Well, that clearly is not a CBS interview style, but that of a filmmaker who's a combatant. Again, when interviewing a captured soldier, he says, "Listen, keep your hands up. You just gave up, so you've got to keep your hands up."
These interviews reveal human concerns. The same cameraman was doing an interview the day Colonel Castillo was captured along with another soldier. While interviewing the colonel, suddenly the filmmaker turned to this other soldier and said, "Listen, what do you think about what one of your top chiefs is saying here." It was a cinematic way of breaking down a hierarchy within interviews. We always keep trying to elicit a soldier's point of view. The soldier said, "Well, Colonel Castillo is telling you he is not in agreement with the army because he wants to save his life." Colonel Castillo then justified himself in a really aggressive way against the soldier. A whole dialogue began between these two, the soldier and the colonel. That was really interesting because certainly, it was the first time the soldier had had the opportunity to speak directly from his own perspective to an officer. Before, officers would always yell at him or hit him. Salvadoran officers never take their soldiers' opinions into account.
We are militants and people from these communities. Before we got involved in filmmaking, we were involved in different kinds of political work. All this really helps us establish a relation of trust. That's of very great importance. When we come to terms with the fact that it's important to train women to make movies, then that will mean that we get a more significant participation of women in these films and that we represent them better; then the kind of interviews we do would be different, too.