Theatrical feature (docudrama) – 16mm – colour – 82 min. – 1988
Background to Eva: Guerrillera
In 1980 I had recently begun working with the International Committee of Montreal’s YMCA when an urgent call came for organizations to send delegates to attend the funerals of the murdered leaders of the national liberation front of El Salvador, the “Frente Democrático Revolucionario” (FDR). We on the committee knew little about the struggle in El Salvador; Nicaragua had recently won its liberation and all eyes were focused there. Now there was a call to take notice of what was happening to Nicaragua’s neighbor, El Salvador. Taking advantage of a press conference announcing a joint program of struggle, and indifferent to the stunned press, the Death Squad kidnapped the principle leaders of the various factions of the FDR and murdered them. A funeral was planned at the Cathedral in San Salvador. However, the Front feared that the army would shoot upon those attending: eight months before they had shot upon the crowds attending the funeral of Archbishop Romero, the people’s hero – gunned down as he conducted mass. If foreign delegates could attend, the FDR representative urged, the army would be reluctant to fire their weapons.
I and another woman were chosen by our YMCA committee and join the other Canadian delegates – ministers, priests, and a Quebec government minister. Happily, the funeral passed without incident. But our group – the only international delegation to have attended, we soon discovered – now found ourselves given a second role: announcing to the world that four American nuns had disappeared on their way from the airport to the capital the night before. I had approached two of these nuns at the airport, thinking they were also delegates attending the funeral. “No,” they had told me, “we won’t attend the funeral. We are too afraid to go.” The nuns’ raped and mutilated bodies were discovered in a shallow grave the next day. The war in El Salvador had become very real for me.
Upon my return, I came to know the woman who represented the FDR in Montreal. Having stood with the attendees at the funeral admitted me to her confidence. I continued to work with the YMCA committee. It took some time for me to recall that I was a filmmaker and that the way I could respond to the situation in El Salvador was through film. I began to do research. The project became Eva: Guerrillera. Its heroine is a composite character – the stories told me by the FMLN delegate intertwined with the stories of the many women liberation fighters I began to meet.
Casting for the English/French-speaking parts (I shot two versions of the film) was difficult – in particular the role of Louise, the journalist who interviews the guerrillera. Canadian actors that I approached were reluctant to shoot in a war zone. I was pleased to find Angela Róa for the role of Eva, the lead character. Angela was an aspiring singer with no acting experience and no knowledge of English, but she made up for any lack with the industriousness with which she approached learning her role.
In the context of my work
The style of Eva: Guerrillera (1987) weaves fiction and docudrama. It follows the stories of two women – a Salvadorian woman guerrilla fighter and a Canadian journalist. The film was my first in depth experience on a ‘conventionally political’ theme. As usual, my approach was through characters.
Though Eva is about warfare, it is not a ‘war film.’ It investigates the personal in warfare – what it feels like to shoot someone and to realize that person is dead, or to juggle liberation politics and relations with family, lovers and friends. Eva joined the revolution in El Salvador as a university student. Warfare is all she has known for a decade now. But only one shot needs to be fired in the film. It is the shocked expression on the face of Eva who fired the gun, that is the story of the film.
For the various Spanish-speaking roles, I worked with Nicaraguan theatre actors. Nicaragua stands in for El Salvador for most of the film’s sequences. Street scenes, however, with slogan-covered walls were shot in contemporary San Salvador. In particular, I worked with members of the theatre company run by Alan Bolt in Matagalpa, north of the Managua – actors who were engaged in acting for political purpose and who used an overstated, agit-prop style of acting. I practiced with them using a video camera so that they could size themselves up against the realist style film acting they were familiar with as viewer. Some of them had been guerrilla fighters themselves. Some had been in liberation movements elsewhere and had fled their countries of origin. They advised me on the details of guerrilla life, on arrests and imprisonment. They spoke in a variety of accents, but that was of no concern to me; their engagement with the material was important.
As typical of my work, my search here was not for conventional realism but rather for a ‘realism effect’ that comes from a stimulated imagination. For this I combined authenticity and evocation. For example, the scene of the guerrillera’s imprisonment was shot in a real, but now abandoned, Nicaraguan jail. Weeds had overgrown the walls, but an evocative eeriness still emanated from cells where tortures had once taken place. In this simulated space, the camera crosses paths with guards in accurately replicated uniforms. One actor-guard later told me he had been a prisoner in that very place. Music in the film includes songs of the liberation movement, and a poem sung by Angela, written by a guerrillero tragically killed by his comrades who mistakenly thought him a traitor.
In this film, I am again interested in issues of identity – in probing identity, whether it be the labels given by society and the institution of psychiatry as in Not Crazy Like You Think, or the label of “Guerrillera” one assumes, as does Eva, when she joins the struggle in El Salvador.