Grave Undertaking

Horrors of El Salvador massacre are exhumed in award-winning local documentary

He recruited from a pool of student volunteers from ASU and Scottsdale Community College who became interested in the project and agreed to work "for a kind of ownership in the film, though everyone knows that it's such a long shot that you just put making money out of your head," he says.

He found a director in Penelope Price, a longtime independent filmmaker and founder of the film program at SCC, where she teaches production. Originally a writer with a doctorate in English literature, Price became enamored of film as a form of storytelling in the mid-1980s, cutting her cinematic teeth on a trilogy of feminist-oriented film shorts that made the rounds of the indie film festival circuit in the United States, Europe and Canada.

"Joe had the idea to make this movie and wanted to shoot it on film and collaborate with a filmmaker," recalls Price. Not long after their first meeting, Segura, Price and Malcolm Lightner, a student of both Segura and Price who became the film's director of cinematography and co-writer of the script, flew to Berkeley, California, where Bernardi lives and teaches, to discuss making the video.

Film producer Joe Segura.
Paolo Vescia
Film producer Joe Segura.
Beverly Adams of Phoenix Art Museum is familiar with politically charged Latin American art.
Paolo Vescia
Beverly Adams of Phoenix Art Museum is familiar with politically charged Latin American art.

Bernardi says she told the trio that the last thing she wanted was to make a movie about her work that exploited other people's misery. "I wasn't very sure about it. I was concerned when they wanted to use black and white for memory and color for the making of the art. I thought, "God, if this turns into The Wizard of Oz . . .' I really couldn't see how it could be made. The measure was how it was going to be when I showed it to my sister."

After assuaging Bernardi's fears, Segura began his own learn-as-you-go foray into film funding and producing, raising more money along the way through donations of cash and services. The filmmakers used SCC equipment, which helped keep the costs down.

Segura puts the film's price tag at about $60,000. But that wasn't enough to send a film crew to El Salvador and the site of the massacre, so the story of El Mozote is told mainly through Bernardi's artmaking and interviews with the artist describing her experiences at the exhumation site -- with some creative maneuvering by the filmmakers.

Shooting started in the summer of 1998, when Bernardi was filmed fabricating plates and pulling a print from them at Segura's studio; later, artist interviews woven into the film were shot in a high-ceilinged room of an old house belonging to Tricks, a restaurant in Tempe. But the crew ran into sound interference problems: A large, droning cooler in the room could not be turned off or it would freeze, Segura says.

Low-tech special effects were created by Lightner and another cameraman, Brian Thorson, in a dirt lot adjacent to the parking lot at Segura's studio, where the two re-created a working "exhumation site." Eventually, miles of footage were artfully spliced, diced and refined by Bert Cutler, a professional film editor with a list of Hollywood film credits who also teaches editing at SCC.

With the film finally finished, marketing and distribution turned into Segura's priority.

"We became experts in finding out where the film festivals were," Segura says, "and where the best ones are that relate to our voice." That chore eventually was assigned to Crista Cloutier, whose cinematic experience up to that point had been the writing of a screenplay in France while working on a master's degree at ASU in religious studies.

Cloutier started working at Segura Publishing as a part-time sales representative. She later became associate producer for Encanto Films, a spin-off film company that Segura envisions will produce other art-related films.

"As I was on the plane going to the 1999 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, which had accepted the film, I was reading a book about what to do at film festivals because I had never been to one," Cloutier admits.

Segura and company have learned the hard way about "postproduction costs." Segura estimates it will cost another $22,000 to make a Spanish language version of the film for distribution in Latin America and to convert the video to film so that it can be entered in many more film festivals that accept only a film print.

They also want to lengthen the film to an hour, a move that could greatly improve the chance it will be picked up by distribution companies and television channels like PBS and HBO.

They hope to add footage from Price's recent trip to El Salvador. She and Luís Bohorquez, a cinematographer and Pasa Un Angel's postproduction advisor, spent a week there, shooting, on both film and video, on-camera interviews with survivor Rufina Amaya Marquez and members of the Argentine forensic team, as well as footage of exhumations that are ongoing. Price and Bohorquez also filmed people -- many of whom survived massacres in the surrounding villages -- keeping daily vigil over the progress of the exhumation.

In typical indie fashion, the crew didn't have any official funds for the trip and ended up putting the tab on their personal credit cards.

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