Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices (2004) Children as Soldiers in the Civil War in El Salvador

Based on a true story, Luis Mandoki’s Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices is going directly on my list of all time favourites, regardless of the genre. This Mexico/US/Puerto Rico co-production is an astonishingly beautiful movie despite the atrocities it depicts. It is simply awesome and as good as Army of Crime about which I raved last year. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List and a s such worth watching in any case.

What makes this movie so incredible is the fact that it works on many levels. It is as much the story of a childhood and a little boy, as an in-depth look at a way of life we are less than familiar with and a civil war we have almost forgotten about. Last but not least it shows the portrait of a mother (Leonor Varela) whose spirited fight and love for her children makes her one of the most memorable and dignified characters I have seen in any movie.

The war, that started in 1980 and lasted 12 years, was initially a conflict between the army and the campesinos, the land owners, over land rights. When they didn’t come to an arrangement the campesinos formed a guerilla, the FMLN, to defend their rights. The war escalated into a bloody civil war. On top of that the US felt the urge to provide the Army with weapons and heir assisstance, fearing that the guerrilleros would be supported by the USSR. The war cost 75’000 lives and over 1 Mio people fled the country. Lacking men, the Army recruited young boys who were barely 12 years old. Oscar Torres, who wrote the script, is the model for Chava, the little boy, whose story we see.

The movie starts with soldiers escorting little boys holding their hands over their heads, to an execution place. They walk in the pouring rain and we hear Chava’s voice in the off. It’s a beautifully filmed scene that immediately sets the tone for the whole movie. We will see many scenes that take place in the pouring rain and are of great beauty despite the fact that they show horrors.

Chava (Carlos Padilla) lives alone with his mother and his little brother and sister. The father has fled the country and gone to the US. Chava’s young and beautiful mother, Kella, is truly a memorable character. Tender and fierce at the same time, she defends her children and fights for their survival. These are the poorest of the poor, their houses are only shacks with cardboard roofs. Kella tries to make a living as a seamstress. Imagine living in a shack when at night there is fighting in the roads. Bullets easily enter the walls of the houses and come flying past your head, there is hardly any cover apart from mattresses that are build up against those thinnest of walls. It is hard to imagine that people not only lived in such poverty but had to endure a war like this that threatened their lives on a daily basis. Many got killed like this, in their own house.

Young Chava is a cheerful and funny little boy. Despite the war, he plays with his friends, falls in love with a little girl, fights with his mother, finds a means to earn money. Even though they have nothing, live precariously, his childhood seems almost enchanted. The tiniest things amuse him, he lives with great intensity, knows no boredom.

The main theme of the movie is the threat that the soldiers will come and get Chava and his friends. We see many scenes in which little boys are recruited by force. The procedures are quite upsetting. Some of the boys around Chava finally decide to join the guerilla in order to avoid the military. And that is what little Chava does in the end as well. The final scene of the movie brings us back to the beginning. Chava and his friends have joined the guerilla and were caught by the Army. Unless they get help, they will most probably be executed.

The actors are amazing, especially the children. They are really awesome. The movie is full of beautiful scenes that allow us to have a look at these precarious lives in poverty. They convey a melancholic beauty that is quite special. There are a few songs that are important in the movie. They had been forbidden by the army but were listened to anyway.

The movie manages to mix a lot of different tones. At times it is sad and melancholic, at times it is thoughtful almost meditative, then again it’s funny or just downright tragic. Innocent voices is a gem, a must-see.

One final word: the people from El Salvador were apparently not entirely happy about this movie because none of the actors is from El Salvador and it has been filmed in Mexico.

Intimate enemies aka L´ennemi intime (2007) or France, Algeria and the War that was no War

This was one of the hardest movies to watch for me for very personal reasons. All those who have read the About page on this blog, know why. For everyone else here´s a quick explanation. My father fought in this war for almost three years after having been drafted barely aged 18. His stories were as much part of my childhood as were his brooding silences and constant nightmares. I may say that this war is as much part of my life as it is of his. More so due to the nature of it. This is no war to be proud of – most are not but this one especially not. France didn´t even call this a war, they said it was an attempt to reestablish order. But there was a good reason to not call this a war since  Algeria was an integrate part of France, although not with the same rights. There was no real enemy to be fought since the Algerians were French, hence this movie´s title Intimate enemies, meaning the enemy within.

This created an extremely complex situation as this movie attempts to illustrate.

After the war had been won from a military point of view it was lost from a political point of view. De Gaulle decided to let Algeria go. What a waste of lives. In future years it was silenced. One was not to speak about it which weighed heavily on the returning soldiers. No one to turn to, no one to listen. As a psychiatrist once told me, it was the general tragedy for men returning from a war before Vietnam, that they had no one to turn to. Not even psychologists or psychiatrists. Post-traumatic stress was just not cured at the time. Ok, this is not totally correct, it was treated but only insofar as the soldier was meant to go back to fight (one of the major themes of Behind the Lines aka Regeneration) but those for whom the fighting was over were meant to knuckle down and shut it.

Considering that an apparently (haven´t seen it yet) very outspoken movie like The Battle of Algiers aka La Battaglia di Algeri (1966) was banned in France until 1971 we can imagine what it was like for soldiers having participated in a war that a) was no war b) wasn´t to be spoken about and c) didn´t officially happen… And absolutely no one to thank them when they came home.

The whole complexity of the situation is shown in Intimate enemies. Algerians who had already fought during WWII sided with the FLN, the Liberation movement to fight France. Others fought on the side of the French. During the war many changed sides both ways. (The highly acclaimed Days of Glory tells the story of four Algerians who fought during WWII).

One very horrible trait of this war was the intelligence´s use of torture. Funny enough, many of those soldiers who tortured were by far the most traumatized upon returning to France. Since my father was just a simple private he did not have to do it but apparently his brother, some years older and a lieutenant was part of the intelligence unit. I never liked the guy so I never bothered talking to him. Just heard he´s been under medication since the late 80ies on account of serious problems with his conscience.

Does this serve him right? There is an interesting scene in the movie where lieutenant Terrien talks to the intelligence Sgt. and is being told that he will come around and understand these methods.

However not only the French used torture, the Algerians did as well. And terrorism. And cruelty. I remember my father telling me of a march through the desert when they started to see something in the distance and thought it was a Fata Morgana that looked like  dancing crosses. Upon their coming closer to that place they discovered that it was a whole convent of nuns having been tortured, killed and nailed on wooden crosses. There would be other things I could add here but this is not the place to do so.

The main theme of the movie is a somewhat Platoon-like juxtaposition of a very humane, just and friendly lieutenant and some hardened old-time officers and soldiers. Lt. Terrien fights cruelty whenever he can. He refuses to torture or execute. When someone explains that torture has been ordered he says that you shouldn´t follow an order when it is morally unacceptable. What is usually not much spoken about either is the use of napalm during that war. Terrien questions the use of napalm, and unmasks the contradiction of this non-war by quoting the officials who state that napalm is only to be used during a war. “This is no war”, says Sgt Dougnac, ” and we don´t use napalm.”

All in all: a war with a very ugly face.

Now back to the movie. It is  well done and absolutely worth watching. It will definitely broaden the horizon of any war movie aficionado used to mainly watch movies of WWI, WWII and Vietnam. On a scale from 1 to 5 I would easily give it a 4.5.

One of its most outstanding achievements is to show neither side as being worse than the other. And it wants to make us understand that often diplomacy could save us from going to war.

All the Algerians wanted was the same rights as the French. And their independence of course. Is that too much to ask for?

The war ended in 1962 but only in 1999 the French government officially admitted that it had taken place. 2 000 000 mostly young French soldiers had to participate in this war.  I´m sorry for all of them and for their Algerian counter parts. I had the opportunity to see what it does to soldiers.

My father returned to France in 1959. To this day his nightmares haven´t stopped.

What is the worst thing you dream about I asked him once: “All those dead men”, he says “They all come back and haunt me.”