Films on Central America, page 2
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


(Dir. Glen Silber and Tete Vasconcellos, U.S. 1981. First version in 3/4" video, color. Updated version, 16mm, color, and 3/4" video, 60 min. Distribution: Icarus. Many local support groups own a print.)

The first film that many Salvadoran support groups bought prints of and used extensively was EL SALVADOR: REVOLUTION OR DEATH. Now many of these same groups are using EL SALVADOR: ANOTHER VIETNAM. Made in the essayistic, tightly organized style of a television documentary, both films provide a useful informational tool to inform viewers about repression in El Salvador and Salvadoran history.

The title ANOTHER VIETNAM indicates the film's organizing principle; it is set up on a comparison-and-contrast rhetorical model. Newsreel footage of U.S. State Department officials shows them declaring that the U.S. would not commit troops, only advisors, to Vietnam. We see Haig warning that in El Salvador, "Cuban activity has reached a peak." The analogy between Vietnam and El Salvador indicates that U.S. foreign policy consistently counters a revolution in the Third World.

The film contains a well-developed social and historical analysis. Over the last century in El Salvador, coffee and cotton oligarchs, with the cooperation of the Salvadoran government and especially the army, forced the country's landed peasantry to become a migrant labor force, living in abysmal poverty. Within the context of that historical development, the film demonstrates the failure of the Duarte regime's agrarian reform program, in which army officers took much of the newly released land. The growth of the revolutionary forces, particularly the union of all the progressive citizens' organizations in the FDR, is shown, as well as the Catholic Church's role in fighting oppression. Particularly effective is the use of the actual taped voice of Ita Ford, assassinated U.S. religious.

Because of Ita Ford's analysis; the shots of Ana Guadalupe Martinez, military commander in the FMLN, explaining the people's support for the guerrillas; and the fact that a woman co-directed this film, it has a special use in women's studies classes and would be well paired with FROM THE ASHES: NICARAGUA TODAY, directed by Helena Solberg-Ladd.

(Dir. Diego de la Texera and the Film Institute of Revolutionary El Salvador, 1980, El Salvador. l6 mm, color, 100 min. Distribution: Unifilm.) This film was reviewed in JUMP CUT, 26.

The film develops an historical analysis of Salvadoran resistance to oppression, with particular attention paid to the Communist leader of the 1932 peasant rebellion, Augusto Farabundo Martí. It depicts contemporary repression and the growth of the revolutionary forces in El Salvador.

The film has an aesthetic excellence and cinematic innovativeness which makes it ideal for documentary film courses. As I have seen it used, audiences familiar with Latin American culture respond to it most readily. Paired with EL SALVADOR: ANOTHER VIETNAM, it provides an excellent contrast of anglo and latino documentary styles, especially for students of mass communications.

In general, the film's lyricality and emotional force are its strengths. However, a problem of sexism must be dealt with. The camera slowly tilts up from a bourgeois woman's shoes to linger on her hips, clothed in tight blue jeans. To equate bourgeois decadence with openly expressed female sexuality and the female body is an old filmic convention but one that the filmmakers should have known to avoid. Furthermore, this woman does not look much different from a large portion of U.S. working-class women, since here jeans are worn by the entire range of classes. Understandably, the case could be made that in Latin America U.S.-style jeans are worn by the bourgeoisie and those who want to imitate that lifestyle, as opposed to the vast majority of the population — so in the film, this image provides an example of crosscultural code switching. However, the use of a U.S. jazz track at that point, and the way the camera moves up the woman's body indicate that "female sexuality" is the supposed pointer to bourgeois decadence.

(Dir. Frank Diamond, Holland, 1980. 16mm, color, 48 min. Distributed by Unifilm. Many local support groups own a print.) This film was reviewed in JUMP CUT, 26.

The film documents the genocidal oppression of the government forces and the paramilitary ORDEN and shows the Catholic Church's role in registering and protesting human rights violations. The film has an interview with Archbishop Oscar Romero shortly before his assassination and is especially appropriate to use with church groups.

(Dir. and Prod. Glen Silber and Tete Vasconcellos. U.S. 1981. 16mm, color, 28 min. Distributors: Icarus, Maryknoll.)

The film examines the murder of U.S. Maryknoll sisters and layworkers in El Salvador, December 1980. EL SALVADOR: ANOTHER VIETNAM repeats some of the same imagery and interviews found in this film.

Of particular value to women's studies classes is the example of women's strength and courage, heard in the taped voices of the murdered women and in the interviews with Maryknoll sisters admonishing us to remember not the murder of four U.S. citizens but the junta's constant torture and murder of the Salvadoran poor.

(Dir. Collective "Cero á la Izquierda," El Salvador, 1980. 16mm, color, 15 min. Distributed by offices of La Comisión de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador. Spanish only.)

In the province of Morazán, a zone controlled by the FMLN, peasants, including children, make arms and learn to handle all kinds of weapons. This cinematically simple depiction of cottage industry demonstrates ways that manufacture of weaponry and military training are of local origin and rural-based, not organized and supplied directly by either Cuba or the USSR.

(Dir. Collective “Cero á la Izquierda," El Salvador, 1980. 16 mm, black and white, 9 min. Spanish only. Distribution: Offices of the Comisión de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador.)

This film is shot from stills, TV interviews, and some live footage about unarmed young people occupying the Christian Democratic Party's headquarters and their subsequent murder. It is both a denunciation of repression and a demonstration of the will to resist.

(Dir. Collective "Cero á la Izquierda," El Salvador, 1981. 16mm, color, 90 min. Distributor: El Salvador Film and Video Projects.)

See interview in this issue with the cameraperson, Lucio Lleras.  The film contains images of sugar production, sports, education, religion, and battlefield medicine in a zone controlled by the FMLN.

(Dir. Collective "Vago," El Salvador, 1980. 16mm, color, 15 min. Spanish only. Distributor: Comisión de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador.)

Filmed in luminous colors and with subtle camera angles and cutting, this film shows a male body by the sea, the man sitting at his desk at night afraid of noises in the house, and the man very briefly at a demonstration. It is dedicated to Salvadoran teachers. Because of the militancy of the Salvadoran teachers' union, many teachers have been assassinated, several a month since the end of 1979.

The film is an example of much of 16mm independent cinema in South America, shot silently and dubbed later, and is useful for film studies classes because of its evocative style.


(Dir. Maryknoll Order, 1976. l6mm, color, 34 min. Spanish or English versions. Free loan. Distributor: Modern Talking Pictures.)

This older film is particularly useful for two reasons. First, the principal figure is Maryknoll priest Miguel D'Escoto, now Nicaragua's Secretary of State. The roots of D'Escoto's revolutionary philosophy are seen in the way he then directed a new housing project, constructed with the social development of its members in mind. D'Escoto is seen trying to convince one of the construction workers and that man's family to move into the new project. Although the rent is very low, they fear they might not be able to pay it if one of them got sick, so they refuse to move, because then to have to move out would mean an insufferable shame.

The film provides a vivid contrast to FROM THE ASHES, which focuses on the life of a similar family in 1980. The contrast in the families' living conditions, social integration, political consciousness, and degree of pessimism or optimism indicate the kinds of changes the Nicaraguan revolution has effected in ordinary people's lives.

(Dir. Helena Solberg-Ladd and the International Women's Film Project, U.S. 1981. l6mm, color, 60 min. Distributor: Document Associates.)

This film looks at contemporary Nicaragua from the perspective of one family. The parents visit two teenage daughters on the literacy campaign because of rumors that the government was teaching children to turn against their parents. The filmmakers trek into the countryside with the parents for an emotional family reunion. We see the family's interactions with their neighbors, and the mother's role in a Catholic discussion group. The film also contains a survey of Nicaraguan history and includes poetry on the sound track (poetry being a vital force in Nicaraguan cultural life). Scenes filmed within a Nicaraguan prison and at a counterrevolutionary training camp in Florida are journalistic coups, and the leading national bourgeois figures within Nicaragua are allowed to state their opposition to the FSLN, the revolutionary party (e.g., "A mixed capitalist and socialist economy will not work because the FSLN is Marxist-Leninist.") The popular mobilization for self-defense is contextualized in terms of U.S. threats against Nicaragua.

The head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William J. Bennett, denounced the film as propagandistic and not within the scope of the "humanities," and unsuccessfully tried to keep it off television. It was programmed on public television followed in the Midwest by a lengthy rightwing denunciation by Georgie Anne Geyer. (See editorial in this issue.)

In addition to its use as an organizing tool, this film is good for church groups and women's studies audiences. Its emphasis on daily life lets us see what "revolution" means to the poor and the working class — i.e., most people in Nicaragua.

(Dir. Victoria Shultz, U.S. 1980. 16mm, color, 59 min. English or Spanish narration. Distributor: Hudson River Productions.)

This film is beautifully shot and contains many impressive interviews and images of women in the military. Its editing and narration, however, often lack in specificity. That is, the film fails to explain the speakers' backgrounds, the difference between the popular militia and the reserves, laws passed after the revolution limiting women's combat roles, the mass organizations' functioning, or the dynamics of sexism in daily life. The petite figure of Comandante Dora Maria Tellez bespeaks a strength, intellectual clarity, and confidence that are conveyed more by connotation than by an examination of her political development and current political role in the FSLN.

The very title of the film indicates that it will deal with an issue that is problematic for many U.S. women — military participation — and the film often inspires a discussion among women in which their analysis goes far beyond what is in the film. Most effectively the film should be paired with another which shows more of the context of the Nicaraguan revolution.

(Dir. Neil Reichline, U.S. 1980. 3/4" video cassette, color, 45 min. 16mm? Distributor: World Focus Films.) *

Nicaragua is seen through its music and poetry, focusing on Ernesto Cardenal, the poet and priest who is now Nicaragua's Minister of Culture.

(Dir. Kimberly Safford and Fred Barney Taylor. Prod. Kimberly Safford. U.S. 1982. l6mm, color, 42 min. Spanish sound track, but a written English synopsis and translation accompany the film so viewers can read the text before seeing the film. Distributor: Fred Barney Taylor and Kimberly Safford.)

This lyrical experimental film was originally filmed in super-8, principally in Managua during the weeks surrounding the first anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Optically printed and using a sound track drawn from popular music, interviews, and the radio, the film joyously presents the "fiesta" of the revolution. It offers an intensely visual and emotional glimpse of the folklore and culture of the Nicaraguan people and of the transformation brought about by revolution.

Produced and co-directed by a woman, it is appropriate for women and film events. It especially will appeal to Spanish-speaking audiences and teachers of experimental and super-8 film classes. It is most effectively shown with a more "explanatory" documentary such as AMERICAS IN TRANSITION or SCENES FROM THE REVOLUTION (also shot in super-8).

(Dir. Lourdes Portillo, U.S. 1979. l6mm, black and white, 23 min. Distributor: Lourdes Portillo.) *

This short dramatic narrative, filmed in an experimental surrealist style, deals with a woman who left Nicaragua to live in San Francisco. Her fiancé from Nicaragua unexpectedly shows up after being released from prison by the dictatorship. The film depicts that psychologically intense moment when they meet at a party and fight over political commitments and women's independence. It offers a valuable psychological portrait, well-acted by nonprofessionals from the latino community.

Useful for Spanish classes and women's studies classes.

(Dir. Peter Lilienthal, Germany 1980. 35mm and l6mm, color, 96 min. Distributor: Kino International.)

This is a fictional re-creation of the 1919 insurrection in Leon, where some of the heaviest fighting took place. Effectively using the genre of domestic melodrama, the narrative depicts the tensions in a revolutionary family whose son is in Somoza's array. The final sequences of collective community action taken to storm the barracks and the fleeing army's retaliation with civilian hostages are particularly memorable. The use of location shooting and contributions by the citizens of Leon just one year after the fighting make this historical fiction a vivid recapturing of the experience of the insurrection.

If organizers are going to use this film effectively politically with an audience that has an understanding of sexual politics, then program notes or a spoken introduction must denounce the way the director attaches homosexual traits to the abusive villain, an army captain, who seeks to maintain control over the young male protagonist, his communications technician, both emotionally and through military force. The old cinematic tactic of representing decadence through images of "sexual derangement" characteristically abuses women and gays.

Because of its cinematic quality and its vivid visual imagery depicting provincial daily' life in Central America, the film has a use in both film studies and foreign language classes. If one is studying the historical transformations of a genre, the use of melodrama to portray a revolutionary movement is particularly interesting here, since the tensions between individual decision and collective needs and actions effect certain changes in the generic narrative form itself.

(Dir. Maryknoll Order, U.S. 1980. 16mm, color, 28 min. Spanish or English versions. Free loan. Distributor: Modern Talking Pictures.)

Made within weeks after Somoza's fall, this film asks people — notable and ordinary – “What is Sandinismo?" Since it never moves beyond this generality, it is one of the weaker films made about the revolution.

(Dir. Jan Kees de Rooy and Collective "Tercer Cine,” Nicaragua, 1981. 16mm, color, 57 min. English subtitles. Distributor: Icarus.)

This film made by a European filmmaking collective based in Managua was destined for support work abroad. It gives a picture of the reconstruction process after the revolution. It delineates the organization and previous background of the male members of a small fanning cooperative in the north; it shows a young boy teaching literacy to a farm family. We see the Nicaraguan army hunting down Somozan terrorists who maraud across the Honduran border and then those terrorists in jail, where they are interviewed by the filmmakers. The film is most effective in depicting the mechanisms of and the people's commitment to collective action — in the popular militias, work collectives, and the governmental State Council. The film does not present in any detailed way the active participation of women in Nicaraguan society today.

The visual imagery is beautiful, and many of the sequences have a strong emotional impact, such as those depicting the boy's teaching the farmers literacy or the people's response to the murder of a literacy teacher by counterrevolutionaries. Music by Nicaraguan groups such as Carlos Mejía Godoy and Pancansan give a flavor of the popular arts.

(Dir. Jackie Reiter and Wolf Tirado, Collective "Tercer Cine," Nicaragua, 1981. 16mm, color, 50 min. Distributor: Icarus.) *

A widely used film with church groups, this documentary explores Christians' roles — as Christians — in defense and social reconstruction in revolutionary Nicaragua. It interviews progressive ministers, nuns, and priests who have been active in both social work and the armed struggle. It addresses the relation between the people's revolutionary ideology and their religious commitment. Included are interviews with priests who hold key government positions. Much emphasis is placed on the hierarchy and men's analyses, so that the role of religion in women's daily lives and their new revolutionary consciousness about religion is not gone into in depth.


(Dir. John Chapman, U.S. 1981. Originally shot in super-8. 16mm, color, 30 min. Distribution: Unifilm.)

This film, shot during the revolution from June 1979 through the first one hundred days of reconstruction, represents a triumph of the use of super-8 for reportage. Among the images is Dora Maria Tellez, seen in WOMEN IN ARMS, standing in front of a tank in combat gear explaining, "We don't have the concept of a boss man here. Each revolution will be seeing more and more women participating." Also included in the film is a comprehensive survey of Nicaraguan history.

Since many of the more recent films on Nicaragua do not illustrate the suffering and cost of the revolution, an earlier film like this that depicts the fighting — and also offers a good political analysis — is good to show alongside a film on reconstruction. In film studies and mass communications classes, the film is a must to demonstrate the uses of super-8 for documentary filmmaking.

(Dir. Frank Diamond, Netherlands, 1978. l6mm. color, 41 min. Spanish or English versions. Distributor: Unifilm.)

This film provided one of the first vehicles for doing support work for Nicaragua's revolutionary forces. Although dated, it still offers an excellent analysis of the background to the war — the economic, social, and political abuses of the Somoza regime. September 1978 marked the point at which the Nicaraguan people in five cities massively revolted and supported the guerrillas of the FSLN.

(Dir. Antonio Yglesias and Victor Vega, Collective "Istmofilm," Costa Rica, 1978. l6mm, color, 75 min. Spanish with English subtitles. Distributor: Unifilm.)

Made with the cooperation of the FSLN during the war, this film depicts in detail the life in a guerrilla revolutionary camp in the mountains. It includes scenes of training, eating, and going to mass, with a discussion about Catholicism and revolution led by Fr. Ernesto Cardenal. A very effective presentation is given on Nicaraguan history, in the form of a slide show.

Because of its subtle manipulation of sound and image and its long, searching look at routines of camp life, this film provides one of the most cinematically interesting documentary portraits of the revolution — one that gains more interest as we become aware that the guerrilla camp is a way of life for many South American militants. The film concludes with battle sequences, and a repetition of the images of those participants who died during the making of the film.

FREE HOMELAND OR DEATH is of value for both Latin American Studies and film studies audiences. Its pacing and focus place it outside tie realm of what I call the television documentary style. Aesthetically and in its connotative range, it speaks most powerfully to viewers acquainted with Latin American culture or to those interested in alternative forms for documentary film.


1. In his book, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), Erik Barnouw details how U.S. television networks actively collaborated with the government to present a sanitized view of what was happening in Vietnam. Many films about Vietnam were available from abroad, but the U.S. networks bought only fragments of footage from such films, a policy continued today with films made by Latin Americans.

2. For another description of these films, see Dennis West, "Revolution in Central America: A Survey of Recent Documentaries," Cineaste, 12:1 (1982).

3. See the whole issue of Radical History Review on “Presenting the Past: History and the Public,” No. 25 (Oct. 1981). The U.S. television series on the Holocaust caused a furor in West Germany as it was seen by an extremely large number of viewers there. For information on the series' popularity and the controversy, see Jeffrey Herf, "The HOLOCAUST Reception in West Germany," New German Critique, No. 19 (1979-80).

4. For a detailed description of how the format of daily television news is itself ideological, see William Gibson, "Network News: Elements of a Theory," Social Text, 3 (Fall 1980).

5. CIA tactics of manipulating the media in Latin America to destabilize governments in Chile, Jamaica and Nicaragua have been documented and analyzed by Fred Landis, "CIA Media Operations in Chile, Jamaica, and Nicaragua," Covert Action Information Bulletin, No. 16 (December 1981), also published in Science for the People (Winter 1981-82). Landis is being sued for exposing the CIA's connection with the assassination of Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffet (see his book, Death in Washington, co-authored with Donald Freed, Lawrence Hill and Co., 1981). He and his family are being harassed by the government, former CIA officials, and people making anonymous death threats.

6. Liisa North, Bitter Grounds: Roots of Revolt in El Salvador, Perspectives on Underdevelopment Series, Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1981, p. 90. This is one of the best short texts to use in a course with these films or to sell at a literature table.

See also the long article by Robert Armstrong, "El Salvador: Beyond Elections, NACLA Report on the Americas, 16:2 (March-April 1982).

7. Frantz Fanon, "Concerning Violence," The Wretched of the Earth, Trans. Constance Farrington, New York: Grove Press, 1968.

8. Ibid., p. 43.

9. Margaret Randall, Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle, Ed. Lynda Yanz, Toronto: New Star Books, 1981.

10. Fanon, pp. 78-79.

11. For understanding the social role of the artist in Latin America, see the classic The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist by Jean Franco (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970).

12. A vivid fictional portrait of sexual politics in Cuba was presented by director Sara Gomez in her feature-length fictional film, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER (distributed by Unifilm). For a discussion of the importance of that film within feminist and left art, see my essay, "Dialectical, Revolutionary, Feminist," JUMP CUT, No. 19 (December 1978).


Americas in Transition, 401 W. Broadway, NYC 10012. 212/226-2465.

California Newsreel, 630 Natoma, San Francisco, CA 94103. 415/621-6196.

La Comision de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador, 3411 W. Diversey, Chicago, IL 60647. 312/384-7863.

Document Associates, Inc., 211 E. 43rd St., NYC 10017. 212/682-0730.

El Salvador Film and Video Projects, 799 Broadway, Room 235, NYC 10003.

Hudson River Productions, P0 Box 515, Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417.

Icarus Films, 200 Park Ave. So., NYC 10016. 212/674-3375.

International Women's Film Project, 3518 35th St. NW, Washington, DC 20017. 202/996-0260.

Kino International, 250 N. 57th St., Room 314, NYC 10019. 212/586-8720.

Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters, Maryknoll, NY 10545.

Modern Talking Picture Service, 5000 Park St. No., St. Petersburg, FL 33709.

Lourdes Portillo, 989 Esmeralda, San Francisco, CA 94110.

Fred Barney Taylor and Kimberly Safford, 126 Chalmers St., NYC 10007. 212/227-1343.

Third World Newsreel, 160 Fifth Ave., Room 911, NYC 10010. 212/243-2310.

Unifilm, 419 Park Ave. So., NYC 10016. 212/689-9890.

World Focus Films, 2125 Ruffel St., Berkeley, CA 94705. 415/848-8126.

Free films and slide shows, along with speakers, are often available from local Nicaragua and El Salvador support groups. To get in contact with the group in your area, you can write the national headquarters of the following groups:

National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People, 1718 20th St. NW, 2nd Floor, Washington, DC 20009. 202/223-2328.

CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), PO Box 12056, Washington, DC 20005. 202/887-5019.

Comu-Nica (212/243-2678) has a number of Spanish language documentary films produced by INCINE, the Film Institute of Nicaragua. These films are described in a free bulletin from Nicaragua Communicates, P.O. Box 612, Cathedral Station, NYC 10025.