Grave Undertaking

Argentine artist Claudia Bernardi remembers a tiny tee shirt unearthed from the exhumation site she was working at in El Salvador in 1992 -- a spot that harbored the remains of 143 slaughtered children.

A small, intact rib cage was hiding inside the shirt. It was so tiny that it didn't seem human to her. It looked like the missing wing of an angel, she says.

She kept a diary during her work as the official artist on the exhumation team, and the discovery prompted her to call the diary Pasa Un Angel, which in Spanish means "An Angel Passes."

Now, Pasa Un Angel has inspired a 30-minute, award-winning documentary video by Valley filmmakers.

Both Bernardi's art and her experiences helping to exhume the shattered, sometimes charred skeletal remains of innocent men, women and children massacred by government forces in a small pueblo in rural El Salvador during that country's bloody 12-year civil war are the focus of Pasa Un Angel: The Art of Claudia Bernardi.

The independent documentary received critical acclaim in May at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was awarded a Golden Spire for Best Art Film. San Francisco's prestigious 42-year-old filmic free-for-all -- a proven testing ground for international indie films -- is one of the oldest in the world, drawing the same glitterati that flock annually to Venice, Cannes, Edinburgh and Locarno.

The video was produced by Joe Segura, an ASU art professor and owner of Segura Publishing Company in Tempe, where much of Bernardi's art has been produced in the past few years. Segura, who is known nationally as a master printmaker and publisher, has operated the publishing company for 20 years, building a reputation in the art world for printing and publishing the work of many high-profile artists noted for prickly political or social content, including Andres Serrano and Carrie Mae Weems.

Segura was inspired to make the short after reading the diary Bernardi kept while she helped the team of forensic scientists, working in El Salvador at the behest of the United Nations Truth Commission.

Directed by independent filmmaker Penelope Price, the homegrown documentary has the classic do-it-yourself, shoestring-budget background of most indie films.

But the film goes beyond a predictable rehashing of an artist's biography.

Pasa Un Angel is really the unembellished though surprisingly lyric epic of the December 1981 massacre at El Mozote, a small, northern Salvadoran village near the border of Honduras. The film portrays the massacre's direct, personal effect on Bernardi's art.

Much has been written about El Mozote. Among other civilian victims, more than 140 children were slain by the Atlacatl Battalion, a U.S.-armed and -trained Salvadoran army unit. The average age of the murdered children was 6.

In a broader sense, Pasa Un Angel is the story of the never-ending political turbulence and terrifying violence that mars the contemporary history of most of Latin America. Unfortunately, it's an all too common tale. This time, however, it's told from the perspective of several people who witnessed the violence firsthand, though at different times, and who have managed to survive the horror by speaking out against it in their own distinct ways.

Since the film's Scottsdale première in late April, Claudia Bernardi has gone back to El Salvador to continue exhumation work at El Mozote. She obtained permission for a film crew to join her, and Penelope Price has recently returned from a weeklong filming session. Price and Segura hope to work the additional footage into Pasa Un Angel, creating a full-length film that may someday appear on public or premium cable television.

And, if coveted international film prizes are a reliable marker, Pasa Un Angel may be the Valley's entrance ticket to a cinematic coming of age, at least in the often quirky world of indie filmmaking.

Violence, torture, political persecution, death -- most people would agree that these are not typical sources of artistic inspiration. But for Bernardi, firsthand experience with violence and death is the dark well from which she has, for many years, drawn subject matter for her art.

That experience, she will tell you matter-of-factly, began with being born and raised in a country governed by a repressive military dictatorship responsible for creating Argentina's now infamous guerra sucia or "dirty war." It was an unofficial war waged by those in power during the late 1970s against untold thousands who were euphemistically "disappeared" -- killed for purely political reasons without judge or jury.

"I come from a culture where violence was present since very early in life, and that violence was acted upon my generation," she tells the audience at an April screening of the Segura-produced film at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

"So many people that have been my friends are people who are in those graves," she adds.

The deadly oppression to which Bernardi makes reference is an integral part of her country's historical reality, according to Beverly Adams, curator of Latin American art at Phoenix Art Museum. Adams was responsible for bringing to town last year's "Cantos Paralelos," an exhibition of politically charged though skillfully veiled Argentine art from the 1960s and '70s. Some work in the exhibition was made by artists caught in the ever-tightening vise of political repression that began in earnest with a military takeover of Argentina in 1976; it was the work of these artists that, early on, profoundly influenced Claudia Bernardi's own, which unabashedly deals with violations of basic human rights.

"Argentina has a history of violence -- especially political violence -- that is daunting," notes Adams. She says that in the late '70s and early '80s, anything outside the holy trinity of the military, the ruling oligarchy and the Catholic Church was suspect and subject to attack -- college students, guerillas, trade unionists, as well as any young, politically extreme or intellectual person.

"People who were non-Catholic, homosexuals, Jews, Protestant evangelicals -- everyone who wasn't straight and narrow and accountable in the military's view of what was correct [was a potential target]," says Adams. "Universities were shut down or monitored very carefully. Obviously, the press was put under tight constraints.

"Since there wasn't a definitive enemies list," she adds, "it was always fluid and could include anybody. These kinds of things are what create terror -- when you don't know what act is punishable, but you know that certain acts will be, you start censoring yourself."

It was because of this personal experience that Bernardi agreed to become part of an Argentine forensic team that would literally unearth the truth about the civilian massacre at El Mozote.

Evidence of that bone-chilling event had been buried since the town of 300 was destroyed in December 1981 -- covered up not only by physical rubble, but also by official repudiation and defiant naysaying on the parts of both the Salvadoran government and the Reagan Administration.

Denial that the massacre ever took place continued for years, even in the face of eyewitness accounts from Rufina Amaya Marquez, a resident of El Mozote and the lone surviving witness to the wholesale decimation of its population, including her husband and children. News reports by well-respected reporters who had traveled to El Mozote shortly after the incident were denounced as unsubstantiated, guerilla-generated propaganda.

It was in early September 1992, following the signing of peace accords ending the Salvadoran civil war between the government and guerilla-led FMLN (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front), that Bernardi first visited El Salvador as a member of the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology. The peace agreement created a "truth commission" to delve into the question of human rights violations committed by both sides during the protracted war. After negotiating bureaucratic stumbling blocks thrown up by the Salvadoran government (including conscious foot-dragging by the chief justice of the Salvadoran Supreme Court), the U.N. Truth Commission appointed the Argentine forensic team to undertake the exhumation of what was left at El Mozote.

Bernardi's sister, archaeologist Patricia Bernardi, had been a member of the team since its formation in Buenos Aires in 1984. And Claudia Bernardi says the Argentine forensic group was particularly well-equipped for its grisly task in El Salvador. The team had been specifically created to conduct exhumations related to murders committed during Argentina's "dirty war" by the right-wing Argentine military junta that came to power in 1976.

"Given the history of Argentina, the team had a lot of practice throughout the 1980s," says Bernardi, who, at her sister's urging, joined the team as its official artist. She was responsible for mapping the first randomly chosen exhumation site located in the ruins of el convento, the sacristy area of El Mozote's small church.

What the Argentine forensic team uncovered, bit by bit, at El Mozote in late 1992, was the gruesome conclusion that Salvadoran army forces had systematically massacred civilians in El Mozote. The findings were based on testimony from witnesses (including Rufina Amaya), the Argentine team's exhumation discoveries and a final forensic investigative report prepared by American experts.

El convento was "where all the children were," Bernardi says. It was an important coincidence that the site was picked as the first to be exhumed.

"If we would have found five adults, one child, three older people, it would have been a much more difficult case to prove -- that murder against civilians had occurred," Bernardi notes, "because [the army] could have said that these people [were] members of the FMLN or harbored them. But with children, they couldn't."

According to the Truth Commission report: "There is no evidence to support the contention that these victims, almost all young children, were involved in combat or were caught in the crossfire of combat forces. Rather, the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that they were the intentional victims of a mass extra-judicial execution."

Though tried and found guilty of human rights violations, those responsible for the slaughter were ultimately given amnesty.

Three years ago, Claudia Bernardi sent Joe Segura a copy of the diary she kept during the exhumation at El Mozote -- a record she says she doesn't even remember keeping at the time. Segura was intrigued by her experience and its impact on Bernardi's art. For the past six years, the soft-spoken print publisher and his studio staff have been involved with the creation of the artist's monotypes -- heavily pigmented, richly colored one-of-a-kind prints Bernardi refers to as "frescoes on paper."

Almost immediately, Segura approached Bernardi with the idea of making a film, which he wanted to put on video, a less costly and easier medium to work in. With $7,000 in seed money from an ASU faculty grant, he began to assemble a working crew, get exhumation site photos reproduced and buy film and materials.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Levy believes that the locally produced documentary portends an important step forward in the development of the Valley's slowly emerging independent-film community.

Although he's guardedly optimistic about prospects for a lively and active local film scene in the Valley, Levy is an enthusiastic, hands-on booster of independent film here. Two years ago, he launched the Scottsdale Independent Film Fest at Scottsdale Center for the Arts and plans to start the Scottsdale Film Society in conjunction with the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, which will sponsor an annual contest for the best Arizona-made feature beginning in 2001. It was Levy who presented the first Valley screening of Pasa Un Angel in Scottsdale.

As Levy points out, the Valley may well be the sixth most populous place in the nation, but "it's the only major metropolitan center that doesn't have a real international film festival. I think we're moving in the right direction, but we'll see," Levy says. "I have high hopes, but I have more realistic expectations. Film communities are not born, but created. The foundations are there."

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Kathleen Vanesian