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Voces Inocentes (2004) tells the story of a young boy, Chava, growing up in El Salvador during the civil war. Though as he gets closer to 12, he will have to go into the military. Throughout the film, he tries to hold on to his childhood but the pressure to join the military or the FMLN continues to grow.
The Post Civil War Era
The civil war ended with the 1992 Peace Accords and left a devastated country. 1.5% of the population were killed and the UN 1993 Truth Commission confirmed that US aid played a major role in the deaths of civilians. Unfortunately, even with this peace deal, there were still major problems in the country. Though the government claimed they were working on alleviating poverty and inequality, land distribution was still so unequal that in 1995 over 1,000 peasants decided to squat on land. Grassroots activism became a more viable option for average Salvadorans. By 1994, landless peasants formed the Democratic Peasant Alliance to protest the continued holdings of over 245 hectares across the country.
The government ignored their demands so the FMLN’s popularity grew and they turned to violence. Throughout the 90s, the far-right party, ARENA, unfortunately, remained dominant. They won the 1994 election with candidate Armando Calderon Sol. Calderon increased the police training which got intense US training and he liberalized the economy. In 1999, ARENA won again with President Francisco Flores who wanted to align himself even more with the US.
He sent troops to Iraq in 2003 and El Salvador was the last Latin American nation to have troops left in Iraq. He also changed El Salvador’s currency from the colon to the US dollar. In 2004, ARENA won yet again with the first Palestinian-Salvadoran, Antonio Saca was elected. He escalated Flores’ anti-gang initiative the “Firm Hand” with the “Super Firm Hand.” While this period saw increased neoliberalism and authoritarianism, El Salvador saw cities grow exponentially. Before the war, 60% of the population was rural and at the end of the war, 25% were rural. Though one of the most interesting parts of El Salvador’s new economy is the rise of guerrilla tourism. In the department of Morazan, many former guerrillas and their supporters have formed the Prodetur, an agency that allows visitors to camp out with former guerrillas and get guided tours of battle sites and massacre sites. Prodetur has received aid from international organizations and doesn’t take corporate loans. All the money from the business goes to the local region. The most prominent tour guide is Jose Serafin Gomez. He joined the guerrillas in 1981 at age 10 and had his first combat experience at age 11. This organization has helped him and many other soldiers from both sides of the battlefield reintegrate into society.
Childhood & Adulthood
The film is a compelling story about the effects of growing up too fast. The way it accomplishes this is through constant juxtaposition and escalation. Chava’s important childhood moments are constantly being interrupted by the violence around him. For instance, when Chava has his first kiss, he is immediately interrupted when he sees military personnel attack, grope, and take away two women. Chava is constantly being confronted with violent escalations of normal things he’s already doing. A simple kiss is disturbed by women being assaulted. Throughout the film, his mother and grandmother are trying to figure out ways to shield him from this and give him a childhood. They even lie on his 12th birthday and say that he is 11. His other friends are not as lucky. When one of his friends comes back after being recruited by the military, he can no longer join them in play and acts as though he is an adult. He looks at his friends’ play patterns as silly and unnecessary. Like most guerrillas today, the film presents no ill will to those that joined the military. Chava sees how broken his friends have become by the end of the film. At the end of the day, the film serves as a plea to understand the importance of prolonging childhood. Chava and his friends don’t need to grow up just yet. They need to be kids.
Comparisons to Salvador
Voces Inocentes is a very different look at war than my previous film, Salvador. One of these differences is the film’s focus on the US. In Salvador, the entire movie practically revolves around the motivations and nuances in the US approach in El Salvador. Chava only interacts with US soldiers one time when they play nice and give the kids gum. In the following scene, an old woman comes up to him and tells him never to accept anything from Americans because they are the ones causing destruction in this country. For Chava, there is no nuance to the American approach. Everywhere they are inundated with bullets which are fueled by faceless American money. This movie is not about explaining or examining the American way. It’s about understanding the victims. Also unlike Salvador, there are no historical events depicted in the film. The movie is not a timeline to explain the events and motivations for the civil war. Again, it is a portrait of the day-to-day effects of constant violence. There is no us and them mentality between the Salvadoran people. The film is sympathetic to the violence that all citizens are subject to no matter if they are public figures or not. Voces Inocentes remains a much more equal and democratic film than Salvador.