Return to El Salvador is an intimate documentary that tells—mainly through candid interview—the story of the individuals and communities effected by El Salvador’s brutal civil war that ended nearly two decades ago. While a little heavy-handed on narration (which isn’t to say Martin Sheen’s usual talented presentation of context isn’t well-executed, but that there is too much explaining/describing as we see things on the screen) the film is beautifully shot and a commitment and compassion shines through in every scene.
The film picks through the complicated layers of geo-politics, resistance, and torn communities to piece together an important (and overlooked in the West) story from America’s so-called “back yard.” Art Threat had a chance to chat with director Jamie Moffett during the usual juggling act that occurs after an indy doc is completed and its makers seek out an audience.
Art Threat: What gave you the idea or inspired you to make Return to El Salvador (RTE)?
Jamie Moffett: Honestly, it was a big accident. I was in final prep for my first feature, The Ordinary Radicals when I invited my former professor Betsy Morgan to advise on the release of film. She used her time as director of a PBS documentary, El Salvador: Portraits of a Revolution as an example to advise me on the directorial process. I started asking her questions on the film and the content. I did more research. I came up with answers that lead me to more questions, and 18 months, and $100,000 later, here we are.
The film really delves into the relationship between the personal and the political. Can you speak to this theme?
One key example as to where the personal and political meet is with the story of murdered anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera. His story is a poignant example of the effects of the global consumer economy on the individual. His fight to save his homeland, and keep his water safe to drink cost him and others their lives at the hands of forces thousands of miles away. International corporate structures can destabilize regions in ways as powerful as earthquakes or hurricanes.
What are your connections to Latin America, and how did the film process change your relationship to El Salvador and the region in general?
18 months ago I couldn’t have placed El Salvador with any accuracy on a map. But in tireless research, and being infinitely curious, the content of the film not only granted me insight in to the Salvadoran heritage, but also into my own. In reading John F. Kennedy’s book, A Nation of Immigrants, I learned how the American forebearers of my Irish heritage were treated as less than equal, and referred to as “those dirty Irish taking our jobs.” In 1844, an Irish Catholic church in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia was burned down due to Anti-Irish/Anti-Immigrant sentiment. To watch on TV and read in the news the same insults hurled at my ancestors now used one hundred and fifty years later, I have trouble understanding how easily we forget our own history.
Your documentary is indeed a historical document, one that reminds me of Howard Zinn’s work – any links or connections?
Certainly. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky are two of many authors I’ve studied in the production of this work. Return to El Salvador as a historical document captures the history of a people being erased from American schoolbooks. The Texas Schoolboard of Education voted to remove Catholic martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero from the history books. Without understanding the story of Monsignor Romero, it’s more difficult to understand the interplay between U.S. and Salvadoran politics and policies.
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
In hindsight, self-producing a feature film narrated by Martin Sheen in the worst economy since the Great Depression was a challenge I almost didn’t overcome. I can confidently say that without support from hundreds of people also committed to this story and its subjects this film wouldn’t have happened.
On the subject of support, how can people see it?
The film will be in select theatres in select cities through North and Central America. The DVD is available on Amazon right now, and we’re working on grassroots screenings with Cinema Politica for 2011.
Anything you’d like to add?
I know more than ever before that history is not written in stone. It can be altered or removed by people with ulterior motives. In traditions similar to oral traditions before us it’s critical that we continually remember and re-remember our stories, not only for ourselves but for those who have yet to hear them.