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THE NEW YORK THEATRE WIRE sm

Brandon Judell

Innocent Voices Resound on Some Not So Innocent Times

Time: 1980s. Locale: El Salvador

Innocent Voices is the true story of screenwriter Oscar Torres, who at age eleven lived in a small, impoverished El Salvodorian village with his mother and two siblings. Their home a makeshift, bullet-ridden shack. Yes, indigence aside, life was fun except when the army and the guerilla bands were gunning up the neighborhood. Additionally, there was the forced recruitment of boys into the militia when they reached the age of twelve. By the way, this army was trained and financed by the CIA.

Luis Mandoki, best known for his direction of When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), Gaby: A True Story (1987), and Angel Eyes (2001) with Jennifer Lopez, has devised a startling entertainment that both stirs and educates about such a childhood. The film ends potently with a note stating that over 300,000 children around the world are currently forced into being soldiers.

The relevance of this tale can easily be realized after reading a January 2005 Newsweek article by Michael Hirsh and John Barry on proposed U.S. strategies in Iraq: "[T]he Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administrationís battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported Ďnationalistí forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers" (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6802629/site/newsweek/).

The following chat took place in the offices of City Collegeís film department.

BJ: I'm not familiar with your very early work, but folks who enjoyed your Hollywood productions, would insist Innocent Voices is a whole change of pace for you. A whole new political bent for you. Is it actually?

LM: Itís always been part of me, especially in my documentaries in the beginning. The problem is that on one hand, I had the great opportunity that Hollywood opened the doors for me. When in Mexico, it was practically impossible to finance films. Gaby, for example, was a movie that I originally started doing in Spanish, but I couldnít finance it. I had to translate it into English to be able to make it.

So I was able to make all these movies there, but at the same time, Hollywood tends to pigeonhole you and make you want to do the same kind of movie over and over. So when I found this script, it was like coming back to a part of me that hadnít had a possibility of expression.

BJ: You found the script, but how?

LM: I found the script at a time where I was frustrated with the kind of scripts I was getting. And so, I got a call and an offer to do an ATT&T commercial, which was not what I was looking for. But I took it on. It was in Spanish, and I was casting. You see hundreds of people on a commercial. There was a guy who I just spent time talking with. I felt a connection with him so I cast him. At the end of the shooting, he came to me and said, "Sir, can I give you this script?" And that was Voces inocentes. And so because I felt that connection with him, I took that script with me and read it, and I couldnít put it down. Thatís how it started.

BJ: So thatís a good way to do it! I always laughed at people who throw around their screenplays like that on chance meetings. Here it actually worked.

Moving on, I just saw Lord of War. This film ends with a note criticizing America and other world powers. Your film, in a similar way, alludes to how America was complicit in what happened in El Salvador. Do you think this type of filmmaking is occurring because the world is turning anti-Bush, and consequently filmmakers feel freer to criticize America?

LM: Well, for me, this is not a criticism of America. It is a criticism of a kind of American policy, which is thinking that we can go intervene in countries. You know with the war in Iraq, Oliver North, who was very active in Central America, he said we should be doing in Iraq what we did in Salvador. He was talking about the death squads. So if this is a movie thatís going to call attention to the fact that we made decisions when we go in to other countries that affect the lives of children in the world . . . And I mean by that, that they kill them . . . I think that we as Americans should start thinking about what our government is doing, and we have to do something to stop this.

When we screened the film in El Salvador, which was the first country we released the film in, one of the people in the audience came to me at the end. I said, "What do you think?" He said, "What do I think? I'm thinking about what about our children in Iraq?" And I loved what he said because he said, "Our children in Iraq." Thatís not the way we think. We just think about the children who are here. And whatever happens to the children in Iraq, in Sudan, and in Vietnam, who cares? We donít even know about it.

As I was making this film, I was watching the bombings over Baghdad on the news. And you see the green lights over the city, the bombings, and it almost looks nice. They never show you the human cost of what weíre doing. They donít show you what happens in the classrooms. In the houses. They were children on the beds [during the bombings] like in this movie. We donít think about it. And the government doesnít want us to think about it. So this movie I hope raises our consciousness in terms of what happens when we make these kinds of decisions.

In the end, to me, to think about children in the world is not anti-American. I believe that as Americans, we stand for freedom and democracy, and for the right to choose.

BJ: When I say America, I mean the American government.

LM: So yes, in that sense, Innocent Voices is a very anti-Bush movie.

BJ: But donít you believe certain films happen at a certain time for a reason? That they are molded by whatís happening around them. Letís say if you look at 15 releases from 1939, donít they represent that era? In the future, if people watched Innocent Voices and 14 other films from 2005, wouldnít they come away with a certain Zeitgeist?

LM: You know, I hope so. I hope there are more movies that talk about this. They should because itís an issue that is not in the front news these days, the fact that thereís more than 300,00 children fighting as soldiers in our conflicts around he world. Itís something that I didnít know about before I got involved in this script, and it is something that most people donít know about. If it were your child or my child, we would care.

BJ: I was just reading George McGovernís book on how to wipe out world hunger the other day, The Third Freedom. He was stating, if I remember correctly, that world hunger could be wiped out on three to five billion dollars a year, yet weíve spent over 300 billion in Iraq already. From your film and with talking to you now, I get a sense that you feel matters can improve. Do you really believe that or do expect these atrocities will reoccur continually as long as mankind exists?

LM: You know, I think that . . .You cannot think about changing the world in one brushstroke, but I know that a movie can change a few lives. And those few lives can change a few more lives, so I do have hope that we can do a little bit.

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2005

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