I met Louis Mandoki (the director of When a Man Loves a Woman) last night. I didn’t actually know I was going to meet him, I just knew that my mom had a pass for a screening of a movie downtown. I had no idea what the movie was about or what to expect. I think it was almost better that way.
The movie Innocent Voices is a true story about the life of a 11 year old boy in El Salvador. His struggle for survival in a country racked by civil war (backed but the US, of course), growing as a child with explosions, bullets and death as an integral part of daily life.
In El Salvador in the 1980s, the government’s armed forces are already recruiting twelve year olds, rousting them out of their classes at the local middle school. If he is lucky, Chava has just one year of innocence left, one year before he, too, will be conscripted to fight the government’s battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN. Chava’s life becomes a game of survival, not only from the bullets of the escalating war, but also from the dispiriting effects of daily violence. As he hustles to find work to help his single mother pay the bills, and experiences the pangs of first love for a beautiful classmate, Chava’s tiny home village becomes both playground and battlefield.
The movie itself left an incredible impression on me and all of those who where there to see it. But what left an indelible mark was meeting afterwards with the director as well as the screenwriter Oscar Orlando Torres – the man who put his own experience as a child on paper and then on film.
What was fascinating was the manner in which making this movie was a means for Oscar to start to reconcile everything that had happened in his life. One of the barrage of questions was “How did you and how do you deal with this?” He told us that from the beginning he had blocked everything out. That when he came to the US he focused on his studies and on work as a means of survival. Making the movie changed all that as it challenged him to recall and in many ways re-live his experience as a child. The the director told us that he had to fight with Oscar many times to get the truth out – and by Oscar’s reaction, right there in front of us last night, it was obvious that the emotions are ever present and that he is still coping. He said that when he can watch the movie without crying, he will know he is on his way to coming to grips with his life.
It was also interesting to hear the reactions of his country El Salvador. The movie was a resounding success when it was released there in December. Everybody went to see the movie – they even had a special screening at 7am the day of release for the soldiers and officials of the country. As they were questioned on their way out their only response was “no comment”. The government’s official stance on the movie is that it is fictional – that those things never happened. I can only imagine how Oscar felt after having lived through it once – and then again while making the movie. After all, this was not just his story, but the story of tens of thousands of boys across El Salvador…
…and in many other countries.
Just a quick Google search on child soldiers reveals the enormity of this problem.
Worldwide, more than half a million children under-18 have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed groups in more than 85 countries. At any one time, more than 300,000 of these children are actively fighting as soldiers with government armed forces or armed political groups.
Often recruited or abducted to join armies, many of these children – some younger than 10 years old – have witnessed or taken part in acts of unbelievable violence, often against their own families or communities. Such children are exposed to the worst dangers and the most horrible suffering, both psychological and physical. What is more, they are easily manipulated and encouraged to commit grievous acts, which they are often unable to comprehend. Many girl soldiers are expected to provide sexual services as well as to fight.
You can listen to actual child testimonials on BBC’s Children of Conflict website.
The United Nations website has a lot of information on what they think needs to be done to fight against this problem.
This movie is a good start towards educating the public – but a lot more needs to be done. Educate yourselves – be aware of what is happening in the world around you. Go see the movie – and talk to others about it. There are very few things more disturbing than an image of a 13 year old with an automatic weapon being sent out to kill his own people… and to know that this continues to happen throughout the world is an outrage!