'Innocent Voices': Reliving El Salvador's Civil War
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The civil war in El Salvador is the subject of a new film. "Innocent Voices" views the conflict in the 1980s through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. The script was co-written by a man who had that perspective. He lived through the events dramatized on the screen. Iris Mann reports.
IRIS MANN reporting:
Screenwriter Oscar Torres still harbors vivid memories of the civil war depicted in the film, of the curfews during which soldiers would shoot anything that moved and of the bullets that ripped through the flimsy houses of civilians caught in the cross-fire between the army and the guerrillas.
(Soundbite of "Innocent Voices"; gunfire; screaming; explosion)
MANN: Oscar Torres lived through that chaos for more than five years.
Mr. OSCAR TORRES (Screenwriter, "Innocent Voices"): It changed everything we knew. It changed the fact that we could play, you know, after sundown outside. And it changed the fact that we had to do our homework laying down on the floor on our tummies because there was shooting going on on top of us, but we still had to do homework. And we had to eat, so we ate on the floor.
And the games that we invented, it was more than just to play; it was actually to survive. Like, for your innocence to stay intact, you made up games, so you can make everything outside disappear. For example, what you see in the movie where we're under the bed and, you know, the little boy starts painting his face and making like clown--I used to build, like, a little tent out of a blanket and chairs, and inside of there we used to form a circus.
MANN: And hanging over the head of every young boy was the threat of conscription. The Salvadoran army came looking for them as soon as they turned 12.
(Soundbite of "Innocent Voices"; whistle)
MANN: In one scene, government soldiers march into a school yard, and the names of those marked for military service are read aloud.
(Soundbite of "Innocent Voices")
Unidentified Man #1: Pablo Argetus(ph).
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Unidentified Man #1: Manuel Agella(ph).
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Unidentified Man #1: Antonio Gutierrez(ph).
MANN: Later in the civil war, the guerillas also conscripted children.
"Innocent Voices" was co-produced by Lawrence Bender, who's produced movies for Quentin Tarantino and Gus Van Sant. He says he wanted to do this movie because it's not just about the past.
Mr. LAWRENCE BENDER (Co-producer, "Innocent Eyes"): They recruited 12-year-olds in this war in El Salvador, and they have young kids that age in Colombia, in Africa, all over the world, all different ages. I mean, you know, sometimes they specially made special guns for them to carry them because the guns are too big for them. I mean, it's terrible. You know, here's the thing, is you can agree or disagree on any particular war. You know, you can be a dove; you can be a hawk; you can be a liberal; you can be a conservative. But I think we all, at least in this country, can agree that no matter what your stance on the war is that children should not be part of it.
MANN: The story of children in war is not the one screenwriter Oscar Torres started out to tell. His first draft was about the band that popularized a protest song outlawed by the Salvadoran government.
(Soundbite of "Casas de Carton")
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Spanish)
MANN: The process of reworking the screenplay was a painful one, says director Luis Mandoki, who's made a number of Hollywood films. He recalls that when he pressured Torres to tell him if he'd ever fired a gun, the writer froze and refused to discuss the matter.
Mr. LUIS MANDOKI (Director, "Innocent Eyes"): And we started a big argument. I ended up grabbing a chair, lashing it against the wall and leaving the room. And I said, `Keep your script if you don't want to go there.'
And when I came back half an hour later, he was sobbing. I came, I sat down, I said, `So what's happening?' And he said, `You always take me to these places,' and he said, `I just remembered that there was--we faced the final confrontation with soldiers. I was caught amidst this battle, and a guerrilla guy got shot, and I took hold of his M-16 and I pointed it at another soldier. I almost shot him.' And he started crying even more. And I said, `Well, you didn't shoot him.' And he said, `Yeah, and I feel really guilty because I almost killed another human being. I almost killed another boy.' And I said, `OK. I understand that, but you didn't.' And he said, `Yeah, but I also feel guilty because I should have because he killed a lot of my friends.'
MANN: The memories that screenwriter Oscar Torres had buried continued to emerge as he relived his past during the filming. He says he described those memories to the child actors, but director Luis Mandoki says it was surprisingly hard to get them to convey the same fear Torres experienced.
Mr. MANDOKI: I was forced to play sound effects of bullets so that they could react to them. And in the beginning, they did, but then they got used to them. So then I started using--I told my assistant director, `Just get the M-16s going outside and have some bombs exploding.' He said, `We're wasting money. It's special effects.' I said, `I don't care. We have to get this right.' And they started reacting to it, but they were never really scared because they knew that it was a movie.
MANN: But during the filming of a particularly grim sequence, one of the boys suddenly burst into tears, and Mandoki asked him if he knew why they were shooting such a scene.
Mr. MANDOKI: And one of the other kids said, `Yeah, because it's in the script.' And I said, `Well, yeah, that's one of the reasons. But your other reason is so that this doesn't happen to other kids ever again.' And when I said that, the little kid who was sobbing looked up at me and something changed in his eyes and he started calming down. And we didn't say one more word, and he just said, `I think I'm ready.'
MANN: Mandoki screened the finished film in El Salvador last December. The government denies any involvement in conscripting children and many of the atrocities depicted in the film. Some adults walked out of the screening, but Mandoki says others were grateful.
Ms. MANDOKI: A woman there said to me, `I thank you so much for this film because we have these memories, but we are told every day that it didn't happen. And so we started going crazy. And you need to accept that it happened, and so this movie is telling us that it did happen and it's making us accept it and let it go.'
MANN: But it's been hard for screenwriter Oscar Torres to let go of his memories and the guilt he feels about escaping the conflict in his homeland.
Mr. TORRES: There was a moment in the script when we had a voiceover where I wrote the scene when the little boy leaves. He used to say the--`Leaving my family broke my soul more than the war ever could.' You feel guilty about leaving, feel guilty about the fact that you're going to a haven. And I went to the United States, I came here and I was safe. And every afternoon, I would sit down and I would be wondering whether my family would still be there and will still be alive and, `Will they have something to eat tonight?' And that never leaves you. And you feel guilty about your friends and you feel guilty about being able to escape all of that while there were still eight-year-olds carrying M-16s and losing their whole families. So you feel guilty about everything. You feel guilty about the girls they raped in your town. You feel guilty about everything.
MANN: Screenwriter Oscar Torres and the other filmmakers say that when the movie was first shown in El Salvador, the audience burst into the once-forbidden song, "Casas de Carton." For NPR News, this is Iris Mann in Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of "Casas de Carton")
Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)
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