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Spring 02:  Political Documentaries

Spotlight for Spring 2002:
Political Documentaries on Social Justice Issues
in Latin America

Haiti: Killing the Dream

Improper Conduct(1983)

The poet Armando Vallardes observes in this film that the Cuban revolution can best be seen from inside the jails. He is referring to the intolerance and active persecution which many non-conformists have suffered since the moral purges which began in Cuba in 1965. After years of repression, in 1980 the Cuban government opened the port of El Mariel to anyone who wanted to immigrate, including to those in jail. 125,000 people passed through that port in 3 months. Approximately 10% of the island's population were in exile after El Mariel.

Improper Conduct focuses on the stories of Cuban homosexuals and artists, many of whom have spent time in the jails and have had to go into exile. It is a history of the underside of the revolution and although told with ample use of historical footage, it is centered in the stories of the victims of the state. These are passionate and driven testimonies of men who have found themselves at odds with the prevailing moral atmosphere of a supposedly righteous struggle. Perhaps they only tell half the story, but in assessing the legacy of the revolution their voices need to be heard.

Filmmakers Nestor Almendros and Orlando Jimenez Leal are no strangers to the polemic surrounding socialist Cuba. Almendros found himself at odds with the Cuban government in 1961 over two pro-regime documentaries which were a part of a series and subsequently moved to France in disgust when the government banned them. He lived in France and the United States for much of the rest of his life and worked as cinematographer on many important feature films (including Days of Heaven and Sophie's Choice). With Improper Conduct he returns to the documentary form to get at his preocupations with the Cuba's human rights record (he followed up these concerns in his critique Nobody Listen in 1988).

This is a difficult film for someone who strongly believes in the principles and values of the Cuban revolution because it raises important questions about ends and means in government policies in broadly humanist terms and in the concrete experience of the victims of those policies. In this way, Improper Conduct brings the story back to the particular people who are impacted by social change and challenges the tired truisms with which the revolution is typically defended and attacked.

The Houses Are Full of Smoke: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua (1987)

Allan Francovich (who died 1997) was a filmmaker who made political documentaries with the intention of opening our eyes (as part of the Superpower known as the U.S.A.) as to how we implement our hegemony. He was uncompromising as a truthteller, seeking the unvarnished truth. On Company Business (1980), which dealt with how the CIA conducts its business and the business of U.S. foreign policy, was one such eye-opener which was soundly based in his genius for getting people in power to talk to his camera with candor.

The three-part series, The Houses are Full of Smoke, takes Francovich's interview-centered style one step further, in that here there is no on-screen narrator. The story is carried along by the skill with which he has convinced key players to tell the story of the genocidal wars of the early '80s in Central America from their own unique perspectives. For example, one of the principal founders of the Central American death squads, Mario Alarcon Sandoval, tells us about how politics is a question of imposing one's will on others. Men who worked for him tell how that philosophy works in practice. In this way, the documentary moves along with astonishing force.

The political discourse of the time documented in the film was chilling in its de-politicizing of the conflicts in the Central American states. The cold war rhetoric of "cancerous entities," of a completely de-personalized enemy, was disturbing enough, but the implementation of the consequent policies was truly horrifying: massacre after massacre of indigenous villagers, cold-blooded murder by assassination teams, and the use of the worst forms of torture in a calculated way to maximize a climate of paralysis through fear in the general public. In the film series, the victim and the victimizer tell their tales during a time when the wars were anything but over. No one was apologizing and the viewer has to thread his way through the minefields as best he or she can.

Allan Francovich describes the series as "a journey into the center of evil, because it's about mass murder. The people filmed are telling you what they've done while it's still going on." In making The Houses are Full of Smoke, Francovich and his cameraman, Peter Chappell, had the fortunate cooperation of a bold generation of documentary filmmakers. The interviews are pure Francovich but the supporting footage was drawn from the still-living archive of independent partisan filmmakers working with the popular organizations and with the guerrillas, as well as that taken from various news sources.

Cover-up: Beyond the Iran/Contra Affair (1988)

As a piece of investigative journalism, Cover-Up tells the story of the 1987 Iran/Contra hearings in the U.S. Congress in the context of the larger picture of the history of covert operations from the Nixon/Ford presidencies through the second Reagan term. The persons who came into focus during the hearings had a history in clandestine military work that extended back to the Vietnam era. Barbara Trent's film takes on added relevance today, not only because some of the same actors have re-appeared with the advent of the George W. Bush presidency, but because the clearly articulated agenda of "national security" priorities which were placed on the front burner during the Reagan years have re-emerged so forcefully in the current "war on terrorism."

Cover-Up is well researched and clearly presented in terms of its case that there was an elaborate and extra-legal scheme to work with Iran and to fund the Contras that was systematically covered up from the highest eschelons of power on down. What makes it relevant today is its presentation of the "national security" debate: the concern about essential values being discarded in the name of the (then) "war on communism" vs. the attitude that can set aside the rule of law in the name of our national interests. Oliver North becomes an eloquent spokesman as the good soldier who believes that the cold war redefines and reprioritizes our values. National interest is primordial.

The backward glance, disturbing though it may be, is well worth the time spent. The idea of a "national security doctrine" was a scandal in 1987. Today it is being accepted as a necessary sacrifice, at least in the discussions in the mainstream media in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.

Pictures From A Revolution (1991)

Pictures From A Revolution - photo by Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas is a still photographer who sometimes resorts to film to tell the story. She was caught up in the events leading to the 1979 fall of Somoza and published a series of photographs in book form (Nicaragua), many of which became emblematic of the popular roots of the revolution. Ten years after the triumph of the revolution she revisited the subjects of these photographs with a film crew in tow, searching for the meanings of the moments which she had recorded with her still camera during the intense days before the taking of Managua. She began by asking who were these people who were pictured in a moment of sacrifice, what had become of them.

In the film, she listens carefully and she lets her subjects speak directly to the camera. They often have sad stories and in remembering the mood of the revolution there is a strong element of disillusion as well as a sense of betrayal. Meiselas then goes to Miami to speak with some of the National Guard whom she had photographed in defeat. Again, she listens and reports.

Susan Meiselas finds room in the documentary form to reflect on complex events. "You photograph a march of people charging forward and on the one hand you have to try and be in front of them and on the other hand you can't stay there very long because you have no idea which way they are going to go."

It is remarkable that she found so many of her subjects from ten years before. Her film portraits of them have an amazing depth, complete with their snapshots in the background. The film is also the story of her own search for meaning, of "what's buried beneath that will rise again...but maybe never again with the same clarity." It is a very personal film; the movie camera is always a step behind the photographer. Film is a medium of personal narrative in her hands, a way for the photographer who is very much in the story, to reflect on her subject.

Haiti: Killing the Dream (1992)

Haiti: Killing the Dream

The title of this film comes from a discussion with a Haitian art critic who takes a skeptical look at the idea of popular rule and asks how a people can pull itself up by the bootstraps through literacy programs and popular organizing. In Haiti, it seems, the counterpoint to oppression is more than a question of overturning the military legacy of the Duvalier dictatorship; it is embodied in a privileged aristocracy who very much want to kill that dream. Power cannot be meaningfully shared with a people who are uneducated, whose poverty has deprived them of the most basic experiences of self-determination.

Haiti: Killing the Dream is the story of the reaction to the success of the Lavalase movement and the election of the priest Aristide to the presidency in December 1990. It tells the story of the popular movement which had emerged from the ashes of the dictatorship in terms of the military coup which sought its destruction. The images of Aristide and of the fleeing refugees which open the film are repeated in the conclusion and the film offers a future which very much depends on the "dreams" of the Haitian people and their ability to keep those dreams alive. The bloody coup of September 30th, 1991 which sent Aristide into exile is the point around which the film revolves. The aftermath of this - the intense internal repression, the fleeing refugees at Guantanamo Bay, the swelling exile community of Haitians (estimated at 1 million in 1992), the economic embargo - sparked an unprecedented outcry from the international human rights community.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Drawing on a wide array of archival documentary footage to portray the Lavalase movement (with its roots in liberation theology and resistance to the death squad dictatorship of the Duvaliers), the film finds special strength in going beyond a narrative history of that movement and attempting instead to capture the greater debate which the movement provoked, both in Haitian society and on the international stage.

Alioto Vive! (1998)

'Justice' in Guatemala

Alioto Vive! tells the story of Alioto Lopez, a Guatemalan law student killed in November 1994 by a riot-control unit. It also tells the story of those who had the courage to pursue his case in the Guatemalan courts. Family, fellow law students and human rights legal experts sought to bring to justice the intellectual authors of the assassination as well as those who carried out the orders. It was not the first case to put "dirty war" policies and tactics on trial but it was the first case to achieve a conviction, albeit one which was compromised on appeal. A three judge panel found the former Minister of the Interior, his Vice-Minister and the former Chief of the National Police guilty of having issued orders to shoot at the students, a decision which coupled with the brutality of those who carried it out, led to Alioto Lopez's death.

Alioto Vive! is told through interviews with the family and friends of Alioto Lopez and the international legal community which had become involved in the case. The filmmakers, Maria Firmino and Jim Morrison (the author of this spotlight), had generous access to video archives which documented the riots which led to Alioto's death and the public outpouring of grief at his funeral.

Alioto was already a symbol of the struggle against impunity by the time the filmmakers began filming in 1996. Graffiti was still on the walls and everyone recognized his name. Alioto Vive! pictures a moment of transition at the end of the 30-year-old civil war in Guatemala when the determination and discipline which characterized social action during the war years was joined by an exuberance and willingness to redefine what might be politically possible. High-level military officers have been in the courts but the level of threat and intimidation has always led to delays, changes of venue and indecision. Nonetheless, one of the judges on the Alioto case, Yassmin Barrios, was a member of the 3-judge panel which in mid-2001 convicted senior military officers in the assassination of Guatemala's Archbishop Gerardi. As of the writing of this article, the Alioto case itself is still in the Guatemalan courts and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Alioto Lopez Vive

This spotlight was written by Jim Morrison, documentary filmmaker and a devoted ALPHAVILLE VIDEO customer.

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