Grave Undertaking

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

A new El Salvadoran government has reopened the investigation of human rights violations at El Mozote and nearby villages, inviting the Argentine forensic team back to continue its somber assignment, says Penelope Price, who returned to Phoenix two weeks ago from her sobering visit.

"The concept [behind the army operation]," explains Price, "was you get rid of the water and the fish will die, so they decided to massacre this whole area."

The making of Claudia Bernardi’s monotype, Pasa Un Angel, is the focus of the documentary.
courtesy of Segura Publishing Company
The making of Claudia Bernardi’s monotype, Pasa Un Angel, is the focus of the documentary.
Villagers have taken a great interest in the exhumations at El Mozote. Here, Claudia Bernardi (left) and her sister, archaeologist Patricia Bernardi, dig at a mass grave site.
courtesy of Penelope Price
Villagers have taken a great interest in the exhumations at El Mozote. Here, Claudia Bernardi (left) and her sister, archaeologist Patricia Bernardi, dig at a mass grave site.

Renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle, Price and Bohorquez met up with Bernardi and the team at El Mozote by driving on what is called "The Black Highway." When they could go no farther by automobile, the duo backpacked into mountains near the Honduran border, laden with camera equipment. From there, they hiked into dense, steamy jungle that was once a guerilla stronghold.

"The landscape is gorgeous," notes Price. "There's a magnetic quality to that area. The colors are so rich; the clouds roll in every day and it rains every afternoon. You just feel like you're in enchanted jungle."

It took some doing -- Price had to go door-to-door to locate her -- but the film crew finally met and interviewed Rufina Amaya Marquez. Rufina was 38 years old when the army overran her village. Though she's considered famous throughout El Salvador, Rufina still finds it very painful to talk about what occurred in her village, says Price.

"It was the closest thing to a modern pilgrimage I've experienced," Price says, likening her trip to a cross between Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now.

Though the "darkness is still there, in the memory of the violence, the burnt hillsides, the bomb shell balanced on a stump which the kids use for a drum, the graves," she wrote in a diary she kept of the trip, she and Bohorquez had arrived at a very different time.

"The difference is that the darkness had already occurred," she says. "We were coming at a time of rebirth and beauty."

Price also interviewed Pedro Chicas Romero, whom she refers to as José Chicas. Chicas is the contact man for the forensic team and is himself a survivor of a massacre that wiped out the neighboring village of La Joya. He knows where graves are hidden, Price points out, because he was one of the people who sneaked back into his village at night to bury the dead, including his wife, children and other relatives.

Chicas is also the person who in October 1990 filed the initial criminal complaint against the Atlacatl Battalion; that complaint triggered investigations into the murders committed in El Mozote and surrounding villages.

"Every single person you talked to had a story and had lost somebody," says Price.

Still, she says, the massacre is only a part of what has happened in El Mozote and neighboring communities, which are slowly rebuilding themselves as residents move back. "One of the things we concentrated on was not only filming the Argentine forensic team and their work, but also we did a lot of shooting of the community as it's rebuilding." Price says.

The recent footage includes shots of a shrine erected at El Mozote containing the bones of many who were killed. The shrine is crowned by a metal cutout of a family and ringed by flowers, lovingly tended by a boy who had fled to Honduras right before the massacre but has returned to the village.

"Filming a documentary like this involves a lot of issues you have to be careful of," Price notes. "We didn't want to be intrusive. This is a very delicate situation; we didn't want to ask people to stand in a certain place. We didn't want to manipulate -- we wanted to be respectful.

"We discovered if we set up the camera, "they would come,' like in Field of Dreams. People would come out of the jungle like little wood elves. When we would tell them we were making a film about El Mozote and what happened there, they wanted to help because that was a symbol for them.

"Ultimately," says Price, "the story really is about tragedy, but it's even more about strength of character and the beauty of these people coming back and facing what they have to face."

The 30-minute version of Pasa Un Angel "is a good, competent film," says film critic Emmanuel Levy. "Its greatest asset is that it features a very graceful personality who talks like a poet. We have an interesting story where we really cannot clearly distinguish between her work as an artist and her work as a political activist -- she combines the two.

"Levy, the senior film critic for Variety, is a two-time past president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a professor of film and sociology at ASU West.

Winning a major award at the San Francisco festival, Levy notes, is a prestigious accomplishment. "But it goes beyond that," he says. "The significance is artistic, sociological and even political. Politically, there is tribute to a very problematic and shameful incident in history."

The fact that Pasa Un Angel was directed by a faculty member from SCC and produced by a Tempe print publisher on the faculty at ASU bodes well in this critic's book.

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