Longform

Grave Undertaking

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian