A film by Luis Mandoki
Innocent Voices (Voces Inocentes), a new film by Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle, When a Man Loves a Woman) opens this week. It tells the story of the Salvadorian Civil War (1978 – 1984) as seen through the eyes of a child. This year Innocent Voices, along with Hotel Rwanda, shared the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America (PGA) for their outstanding contribution to social justice through cinema.
Innocent Voices won the Glass Bear Award from the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year as well as a Silver Ariel in Mexico (Ariels are Mexico’s main film industry award.), and Best Film from the Seattle Film Festival.
Chava, played by Carlos Padilla
The feet of soldiers march through rain in the jungles of <?El Salvador. It is 1981 and the peasant farmers and Salvadorian Army are fighting over land rights. The farmers have now organized into a guerilla force and civil war has begun.
Cuscatazingo is the small town where 11-year old Oscar lives and it lies between the guerilla stronghold and the regular army that is guided by US military advisors. He is known affectionately as Chava (Carlos Padilla). Chava lives with his mother, Kella, (Leonor Varela), a dress-maker, his older sister and younger brother on the outskirts of the town. Their house is barely more than a shack made of tin and wood, but it is home to the little family at the beginning of the war when the father deserted them for the United States. Chava is now the man of the house.
Kella, Chava’s mother, played by Leonor Varela
With increasing frequency the guerillas and soldiers engage in battle at night, regardless of the people who live all around. The homes are damaged by gunfire and mortar and many of the town’s people are killed.
Chava and his sister go to school in the town and one day soldiers come to conscript boys into the regular army who are from 12 – 14 years old. None of the boys wants to turn twelve. Chava runs to the parish priest to tell him what has happened. The padre is shocked by the actions of the soldiers who also kidnap local women and struggles to protect the people. He aids the guerillas and is eventually taken away by the military.
One night, Chava’s uncle (Jose Maria Yazpik) sneaks home for a visit. He urges Kella to let Chava come with him to join the guerillas because the soldiers will conscript him otherwise. Kella refuses. Meanwhile, life for the children goes on even with the curfew and the continual threat of gunfire. Chava plays with his school mates and even has a girl friend. He makes friends with a bus driver (Jesus Ocha) who hires him to collect fares. The soldiers come looking for boys more frequently, and the youngsters hide out by laying flat on the roofs so they will not be seen. Things become so bad after one battle that Kella decides to move back to the village where her mother (Ofelia Medina) lives, thinking it will be safer.
As the warfare becomes more intense and as more young boys are stolen from their homes to become soldiers, Chava makes a decision to join the guerillas. What happens then, and how Chava and his family survive, gives an astonishing and poignant look into the traumatic effect of war on children and the recruitment of child soldiers that continues to this day throughout the world.
A Child’s Perspective
In 1989 actor Raul Julia played the role of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the enduring film by Hollywood priest, Father Bub Kieser. In Romero we see the story of the Salvadorian civil war through the process of human and spiritual awareness that the Archbishop experiences. When Archbishop Romero finally takes the side of the people, the US-backed military had him killed. 75,000 people died during the civil war in El Salvador, more than 8,000 are still missing and one million people were exiled.
Innocent Voices is a film about another Oscar but the same war. Innocent Voices, however, changes the perspective of the audience. All of a sudden we can stoop down to the level of a child and experience what it meant to try to survive when instability, violence and the threat of being kidnapped by your government and forced into becoming a soldier-killer became normal. When Chava turns twelve, his mother only puts eleven candles on the cake. Chava is devastated because he realizes that even in his own family he cannot grow up because it is not safe. Twelve is the age when the military comes to take boys away. It is a decisive moment in the film.
Innocent Voices is the true story of actor-screenwriter Oscar Torres who now lives and works in Los Angeles. Director and co-producer screenwriter Luis Mandoki brings it to the screen with the kind of intimate cinematography that makes us feel part of Chava’s experience, up close and personal. While Carlos Padilla is appealing and authentic as the scrappy Chava, I think the film belongs to Leonor Varella who plays his mother, Kella. Hollywood rarely gives us strong women who are able to fulfill their true nature on film, but here Varella excels as mother, provider, nurturer, protector. Varella’s performance is Oscar worthy and the heart of Innocent Voices.
Children and War
Amnesty International’s Artists for Amnesty www.amnestyusa.org/artistsforamnesty.com) sponsored the Hollywoodpress screening for Innocent Voices on December 13. When questioned about how he reconciles the irony that the very country supporting the civil war in <El Salvador is the one that welcomed him, writer Oscar Torres said that it is a complex and difficult issue, but one that he resolves by thinking in terms of gratitude. Six years after the events in the film, his entire family was reunited in the United States.
The plight of child soldiers (under the age of 18) continues in the world today, with more than 300,000 currently fighting in 40 countries. Innocent Voices tells but one story
When I spoke with director Luis Mandoki after the screening, he said that the message of hope that he offers people of faith in Innocent Voices is that “evenin the worst of circumstances we always have a choice. And even when all seems dark, we have to remember that there is light if we but open our eyes to see.
Innocent Voices, like Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener, and Lord of War, is a brilliantly intense film with the strength to engage audiences. Its story must evoke a humane response from our very souls by the story it tells.