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.